TDdaily is previewing each NFL division, one by one, leading up to Week 1. An asterisk after a team’s projected record means we’ve projected them to win a tiebreaker, and “Sunday Ticket Scale” rates each team on a 0-10 scale, from unwatchable to roller coaster excitement, designed to help you shape your Sunday afternoon viewing choices. Today, we’re breaking down the NFC West.
For the better part of a decade, the NFC West has widely been regarded as the weakest division in football, even getting renamed the “NFC Worst” by some, if not most, football fans.
When viewed as one collective entity, the skeptics are absolutely right—the division is indeed the worst in football. The last time that at least two NFC West teams finished with a winning record in the same season was 2003 (most divisions don’t go consecutive seasons without at least some competition near the top), and we’re not even two years removed from seeing the Seahawks win the division with a measly 7-9 record.
When the NFC West is viewed individually, however, there’s no shortage of intriguing storylines. The division features one Super Bowl-worthy ball club, and three other teams under pressure to improve, each of whom has the potential to emerge this year as an upstart dark-horse.
The division starts and ends with the San Francisco 49ers, who are led by team-first-everything coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh instantly showcased his coaching genius in his first season in the NFL. He inherited a roster that was virtually the same as the previous year—when San Francisco finished 6-10— and led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and to the NFC Championship game, where they were just an overtime field goal away from the Super Bowl.
The Niners’ strength last season was on defense. San Francisco had one of, if not the best defense in the League last year, and all 11 starters from that unit are back. Quarterback Alex Smith rid himself of some critics with gutsy playoff performances against the New Orleans Saints and the New York Giants, but those same critics still aren’t convinced last year was for real. With one of the toughest schedules in all of football, the 49ers will be put through the gauntlet this season.
The Arizona Cardinals, who finished ’11 at a decent 8-8 last, are in a state of flux, especially at the quarterback position. Coach Ken Whisenhunt still hasn’t decided whether Kevin Kolb or John Skelton will start Week 1. The instability at QB was Arizona’s achilles heel last year, and Cardinals fans are already cringing at the possibility of another QB-by-committee season. But, all things considered, going 8-8 in ’11 wasn’t horrible. Trying to repeat those results, though, will be tough, especially with the rest of the division improving and continuing to gel.
The jury’s still out on the Seattle Seahawks, too. After signing Matt Flynn this summer, Coach Pete Carroll flipped the script and named rookie Russell Wilson the starter in a late-preseason move. Wilson’s near-flawless performance against Kansas City in Week 3 of the pre-season—in which he led Seattle’s offense to 30 points against a very good Chiefs defense, including producing points on six consecutive drives—warrants Carroll’s decision, but there’s always question marks surrounding a rookie quarterback. An upper-echelon defense and a reliable workhorse in Marshawn Lynch will presumably make Wilson’s transition easier, but no one is clairvoyant enough to actually predict how things will play out. Not in this division, at least.
In St. Louis, the Rams are trying to start a new culture with Jeff Fisher captaining the ship. Sam Bradford is now entering his third season and is playing under the microscope of one of the most scrutinized contracts in NFL history. One horrible year? OK, it happens. But another 2-14 season? That won’t fly in St. Louis.
Now, with that backdrop out of the way, let’s dig into each NFC West team individually…
San Francisco 49ers — Projected Record: 12-4, 1st place in division
Last Year: Last season was a monumental step forward for the 49ers. They disposed of the rigid ways of Mike Singletary in favor of the football-savant methods of Jim Harbaugh. Singletary was a great motivator and a good practice coach, but he lacked the proper knowledge of football’s complex nuances—particularly on offense—and wasn’t great at managing his players’ psyche. He put Alex Smith through the wringer and back, only to see him struggle.
Enter Harbaugh, whose arrival was, in hindsight, nothing short of divine intervention. A former NFL QB, Harbaugh and Greg Roman (his offensive coordinator at Stanford) tailored the offense to emphasize Smith’s strengths and minimize the former No. 1 pick’s weaknesses.
With an already stellar defense in place, the results were telling: a 13-3 season and a berth in the NFC Championship game. The defense was led by former Houston Texans coordinator Vic Fangio, who quietly could be the best defensive coordinator in the NFL.
Now, San Francisco’s overachieving season is a thing of the past, and the next step is to maintain a winning culture. With arguably the hardest schedule in the NFL, San Fran will have to earn everything it gets this season.
Key Additions: WR Mario Manningham, WR Randy Moss, WR AJ Jenkins, RB Brandon Jacobs, CB Perrish Cox
Key Losses: CB Shawntae Spencer, WR Josh Morgan, G Chilo Rachal, G Adam Snyder, S Madieu Williams
Strength: Defense. This one is obvious. The 49ers defense was not only one of the best units in the NFL last season, but it was a model of consistency rivaled by few units in history.
San Francisco’s D became the first in League history to not allow a rushing TD through the first 14 games of a season, and only allowed only three rushing TDs the entire year, the fewest since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in ’78. Fangio’s boys led the League in virtually every defensive rushing category. They also forced an NFL-best 38 turnovers.Perhaps what is most promising for ’12 is that the 49ers return all 11 starters.
San Francisco boasts the League’s best linebacking core. ILB Patrick Willis might be the best linebacker in the game, NaVorro Bowman uses perfect angles and ferocious speed to eat up the flats, and rookie phenom Aldon Smith is back for his sophomore campaign. Smith had 14 sacks in ’11, and reports are that he will supplant Parys Haralson as one of the team’s starting outside linebackers.
Weakness: Offensive Line. The 49ers don’t have any dangerously-alarming weaknesses on their roster—after all, they were 13-3 a season ago—but a lot is riding on their offensive line. While San Fran’s success is largely predicated on its defense, if the offense doesn’t put some points on the board—or at least keep the defense off the field for a bit—any Super Bowl aspirations will go to waste.
The left side of the O-Line is very solid. Joe Staley is a Pro-Bowl caliber tackle, Mike Iupati is a 300-pound mauler and Jonathan Goodwin is an above-average center with good leadership skills and a Super Bowl pedigree. On the right side of the line, though, there is cause for concern. Former Rutgers product Anthony Davis has underperformed in his first two seasons, and the right guard spot is still wide open.
This should be a concern for the 49ers, especially since, after signing Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, they are apparently planning on having Alex Smith throw the ball more this year. Smith gets flustered under pressure, which will only happen more often with a weak line. The 49ers are also a run-oriented team, which means they need blocking up front to open up holes for Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Brandon Jacobs.
X-Factor: David Akers and Andy Lee. You could argue that special teams was the most important cog in San Francisco’s spectacular ’11 run. Without pro-bowl caliber play from kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee (and even long snapper Brian Jennings, a Pro-Bowler as well) the 49ers would probably not have made the Playoffs. Akers led the NFL in both field goals made (44) and attempted (52), and Lee posted an NFL-best 50.9 punt average With the ultra-conservative, never-force-anything Smith under center, a coach who places a heavy burden on field position making the calls, and an offense that has its fair share of three-and-outs, the 49ers’ special teams will have to be stellar once again if the team wants to stay in contention.
Sunday Ticket Status: 9. Based solely on the defense, the 49ers command a high “watchability” rating. Alex Smith has some new weapons on the outside, too, including the still-exciting Moss and Super Bowl hero Manningham. This year, San Francisco will play a very tough schedule. Its defense will be pitted against elite quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Should be a solid test each and every week.
Bottom Line: Smith will probably throw more than five interceptions this year, and the defense probably won’t force 38 turnovers again, but with a full season under Smith’s belt to settle in and further grasp the offensive scheme, and with the team returning all 11 defensive starters, San Francisco has a legitimate chance to lose only four games this season. The 49ers can realistically sweep their division, and, if they play to their potential, they should be able to go 6-4 against the rest of the League, even with one of the NFL’s tougher schedules.
St. Louis Rams — Projected Record: 7-9, 2nd place in division
Last Year: The Rams took a turn for the worse in ’11, going 2-14 after finishing the previous season 7-9. They fired head coach Steve Spagnuolo the day after the season ended, but the Rams’ struggles were hardly all his fault. Sam Bradford had an injury-laden season, hurting his finger in Week 1 against the Eagles and then his ankle in mid-October against Green Bay. He re-injured the ankle later in the season, and sat out the last three games of the year.
One positive for the Rams was the play of running back Steven Jackson. “The Beast” rushed for over 1,000 yards for the seventh straight season. This is particularly impressive when you consider that Jackson was St. Louis’ only weapon, and opposing teams came into every game against the Rams with the goal of limiting his yards.
Key Additions: CB Cortland Finnegan, DT Kendall Langford, C Scott Wells, DE William Hayes, WR Steve Smith, OLB Rocky McIntosh, DT, OLB Mario Haggan
Key Losses: WR Brandon Lloyd, CB Ron Bartell, DE James Hall, DT Justin Bannan, DT Fred Robbins
Strength: Defensive Line. Chris Long, who recorded 13 sacks last season, is a Pro-Bowl caliber lineman, and the Rams locking him up to a four-year extension makes him the anchor of a promising defensive line. St. Louis has high hopes for first-round pick Michael Brockers, and Robert Quinn should improve in his second season. Also, William Hayes’ run-stopping ability is a nice compliment to Quinn and Long’s savage-like pass rushing.
Weakness: Linebackers. Outside of James Laurinaitis, the Rams are thin at linebacker. St. Louis’ run defense gave up an abysmal 152 ypg last season, good for second-worst in the NFL. The Rams brought in Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan to strengthen the unit, but if the ground abuse continues, the Rams will have a tough time winning games.
X-Factor: Sam Bradford. A large part of the success of the “X-Factor” will rest on the shoulders of the offensive line, but if Sam Bradford has protection, it’s time for him to show us what he’s got. Bradford threw only six interceptions in 10 games last season, but his 6.1 ypa was tied for the third-worst mark in the NFL. He showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie season, and if the Rams want to begin their resurgence under new head coach Jeff Fisher, it’s time for him to play up to his lofty contract.
Sunday Ticket Status: 6. If they can protect Bradford, the Rams have enough firepower on offense to sustain a level of excitement, especially playing on turf. And if they take strides faster than most people think, the level of hype and intrigue surrounding the team will only increase.
Bottom Line: Fisher has revived the locker room and brought optimism back to St. Louis. If they can protect Bradford and improve their run defense, the Rams, who play in a weak division and are facing a fairly easy schedule this year, have enough weapons on offense to win some games. The instability at quarterback in Arizona and the rookie learning curve for Russell Wilson in Seattle should give the Rams a chance to make some noise.
Seattle Seahawks — Projected Record: 6-10, 3rd place in division
Last Year: Seattle finished 7-9 for the second consecutive year. In ’10, that record was good enough to win the NFC West. Last season that was no longer the case. Simply put, Tavaris Jackson just didn’t get the job done, and the ineptitude at QB led to Seattle being outscored by nearly eight points per game for the first half of the year. The offense was only putting up 15 points per game during that span. Even a team with a great defense would have trouble winning games if it’s offense was that ineffective.
However, Seattle was much better in the second half of the year. Revitalized by sound defense and a solid run game, the Seahawks went 5-3 from Week 10 onward, outscoring opponents by almost nine points per game. Only four teams in the NFL posted a higher differential over the final eight games of the year.
This year, Jackson is out, Russell Wilson is in, the defense has improved to a near-elite level, and optimism is flowing in The Emerald City.
Key Additions: QB Russell Wilson, QB Matt Flynn, DT Jason Jones, TE Kellen Winslow, Deuce Lutui, ILB Barrett Ruud, WR Braylon Edwards
Key Losses: ILB David Hawthorne, TE John Carlson, G Robert Gallery, QB Charlie Whitehurst, RB Justin Forsett, DE Anthony Hargrove, QB Tarvaris Jackson
Strength: Defensive Line. DTs Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch, and DE Chris Clemons were already a solid bunch, but the additions of former Titans DE/DT Jason Jones and rookie Bruce Irvin will make Seattle’s D-Line one of the best in the NFL. Clemons recorded 11 sacks last season, good for No. 11 in the League. Seattle is also stacked at WR with Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin, but the D-Line is a bit more impressive.
Weakness: Offensive Stability. The Seahawks gave up 50 sacks in ’11, fourth-most in the NFL. Wilson is a mobile QB and Carroll will try to move the pocket outside for him, but the sack numbers need to drop in ’12. Highly-touted tackle Russell Okung can’t seem to stay healthy, and tackle James Carpenter is still recovering from an ACL injury. This could end up being the team’s Achilles heel.
X-Factor: Marshawn Lynch. Lynch had a very strong finish in ’11, recording six 100-yard games in the team’s final nine games. He will need to not only replicate, but improve, on those numbers if the Seahawks plan on contending for the Playoffs this year.
Sunday Ticket Status: 6. Depending on how Russell Wilson performs early on, this rating will either increase or decrease very quickly. Wilson has an exciting flair to his game to compliment his gunslinger mindset, and is a ton of fun to watch. Throw in arguably the best crowd in football (word to the 12th Man), a great defense and the always-animated Pete Carroll, and you should have a good show.
Bottom Line: It’s very rare for a rookie quarterback to lead his team to a winning season and I just can’t see how Seattle will win more than six games with Wilson under center. The Seahawks have a great defense, but offensive struggles should set their ceiling there.
Arizona Cardinals — Projected Record: 5-11, 4th place in division
Last Year: Last season, the Cardinals followed a Week 1 victory against Carolina with six straight losses. After Ken Whisenhunt benched Kevin Kolb in favor of John Skelton, however, the tables turned, as Arizona won seven of its last nine games. Despite the hot finish, it was still a disappointing season for Cardinal fans. With the roster they have in place and with the division they compete in, a 1-7 start is simply unacceptable.
Key Additions: CB William Gay, G Adam Snyder, WR Michael Floyd
Key Losses: CB Richard Marshall, G Deuce Lutui, S Sean Considine
Strength: Wide Receivers. It’s a shame the Cardinals haven’t found stability at QB since Kurt Warner retired because they have a very strong receiving core. Larry Fitzgerald is still a top-3 receiver, and is a future Hall-of-Famer who commands a double team at all times. Early Doucet has good speed and is a solid possession receiver. And draftee Michael Floyd can come in and contribute right away. Also, tight ends Rob Housler and Todd Heap both have great size and good hands. If Arizona can get some rhythm at QB, the offense could turn some heads.
Weakness: Stability at QB. The jury is still out on both Kolb and Skelton as NFL signal callers, but if the Cardinals don’t make a decision soon and get some results, it may be time to uproot the whole thing and start over. Both guys have shown flashes of a strong arm and astute decision making, but neither of them have been able to consistently play at a high level.
X-Factor: Calais Campbell. Campbell is one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. He had 72 tackles and eight sacks last season, including two forced fumbles. Excluding Fitzgerald, Campbell, along with fellow defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, are probably Arizona’s most talented players. The Cardinals need Campbell to continue his strong play in ’12.
Sunday Ticket Status: 4. Unless you’re a Cardinals fan, or enjoy watching Larry Fitzgerald get open on double teams only to not receive the ball, then you probably won’t have much of a desire to watch the Cardinals.
Bottom Line: The Cardinals have a good enough defense to keep them in games, but unless the offense delivers, they won’t find much success in ’12. If Kolb or Skelton figures it out, Arizona could win as many as eight games. If not, they’ll probably settle in the five-to-six range. I’m leaning towards the latter.