Who will win the Wild West? (NFC West Preview)

The NFC West has been the division of the basement dwellers for the last while as last year the winning team had a losing record. It was not always this way as both the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers have both been some of the best teams in the NFL. The 49ers were the team of the late 80s and 90s when they had a coach who brought the West Coast offence into the limelight named Bill Walsh. With Walsh at the helm and Joe Montana and Steve Young under centre the 49ers won five Super Bowls. Lately San Francisco has been less than impressive as they have not been able to gain traction. The St. Louis Rams had a briefer strong period as they were known as the Greatest Show on Turf during the end of the 1990s when they won their first Super Bowl in 1999. Meanwhile the Arizona Cardinals had an even briefer period earning a Super Bowl bid in 2008. The Seahawks were the class of the division last year but won with a losing record. Even though the division is one of the worst in the NFL there is something to be said about having a battle within the division between every team. This year the NFC West teams will be looking to finally get into the winning column and make a real run at the playoffs. This is a possibility as the West has made a lot of changes to get the upper hand.

Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals are only three years from their Super Bowl appearance but have been falling down as of late. Kurt Warner led the Cardinals to their Super Bowl in 2008 but came up just short of a win. When Warner retired it left the Cardinals without a QB as they did not plan for the eventual departure of their #1 QB. Since Warner the Cardinals have had trouble finding a true #1 starter and this was the case in 2010. The 2010 Cardinals offence was led by Derek Anderson as well as others as they tried to get back to the top. Their offence was led by their superstar wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald who carried the team on his back. Along with Fitzgerald the Cardinals also used their RB Tim Hightower to try to keep up with the rest of the division. The Defence was their downfall as they had one of the worst defences in the league and although offence is taking over a good defence will still win you a title. Their run defence was the biggest issue as they were ranked 30th out of the 32 team last year. They ended the season in last place in the NFC West with a 5-11 record and even though every team in the NFC West had a losing record the 5-11 mark was the worst of the bunch. This year the Cardinals think they have found their new #1 QB and hope that he will be able to lead them into the playoffs again.

This year the biggest move the Cardinals made was a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for QB Kevin Kolb. Kolb has been one of the best backup QBs in the NFL for the past few years and because of this the Cardinals made a big sacrifice. The Cards traded their star Cornerback Dominick Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 2nd round pick. This gave the Cardinals a true starting QB that will give their Pro Bowl WR, Larry Fitzgerald, someone to throw to him. The offence will return to a throw first offence with the arrival of Kolb. They will also move to a more West Coast running game with Beanie Wells and LaRon Stephens-Howling most likely splitting the duties. On defence the Cards will need to improve the run defence but have not taken much action to improve this aspect of their defence. On the other end the Cards have made some moves in order to improve their pass defence but it might be offset by the loss of Rodgers-Cromartie. To replace the loss of Rodgers-Cromartie the Cards took highly touted LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson with their first round draft pick. They also signed 7th year CB Richard Marshall from the Carolina Panthers as another way to fill the void. The Cards may be going through a bit of a rebuilding process but they have made some significant strides to improve their offence. With Kolb as the true #1 QB with nobody breathing down his neck for the first time in his career he is still a question mark. If Kolb can perform like he should the Cardinals offence will give them a good chance for the wild NFC West.

St. Louis Rams

The St. Louis Rams have also had a Kurt Warner complex but it has lasted much longer than the Arizona Cardinals. When Kurt Warner took over in 1999 the St. Louis Rams went on to win the Super Bowl and became known as the Greatest Show on Turf. Since the Super Bowl win the Rams continued their success until 2005 when their offence coordinator turned head coach Mike Martz stopped coaching. From then on the Rams have been basement dwellers as they have not been able to find an identity. In 2010 the Rams finally started to bring in a team that could begin to compete as they drafted QB Sam Bradford with the first pick overall. Bradford did well in his first year winning the rookie of the year award and giving Rams fans hope for the future. The Rams had a close battle with the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 as they faced off against the Seahawks in the last game of the season in order to see who would win the NFC West. Seattle won the game forcing the Rams to second place with a 7-9 record. As a result of the losing record the only way to get into the playoffs was to win the division and with the loss the Rams were on the outside looking in once again. This year the Rams hope to make a bigger leap forward in order to win the NFC West.

This year the Rams made some changes at the top as offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur left the team to become the head coach with the Cleveland Browns. In his place will be former Denver Broncos head coach and New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Meanwhile he will be working with one of the best young QBs in the league in Sam Bradford but will need to improve their passing game. The Rams do not have a very dominating receiving corps but the signing of Mike Sims-Walker will give Bradford a true weapon in the passing game. With the hopefully improved passing game the offence will have their dependable RB Steven Jackson who is more than able to take over a game. On defence the Rams will need to improve and they have been able to make some slow improvements over the years. Led by defensive end Chris Long and linebacker James Laurinaitis the Rams defence has been getting better. This year they hope to continue the success of a solid defence in order to give the offence time to adjust to McDaniels’ new schemes. With the additions of defensive tackle Justin Bannan and Ben Leber the defence has added some pieces that will sure up a defence that went from one of the worst defences to one of the best last year. The Rams will be lucky to be in a bad division where they will be allowed to make some mistakes and still win the division. The Rams have a good chance of challenging for the division this year and they will be looking to take full advantage of the opportunity.

San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers have been one of the legends of the past with players like Joe Montana, Steve Young, Ronnie Lott, and Jerry Rice. With these players the niners won 5 Super Bowls in the 80s and early 90s. The rest of the 90s were a successful period but the niners could not win another championship. After this period the 49ers were not able to match their past performances and were relegated to the bottom of the league. In 2010 the niners were led by Mike Singletary who had a hard-nosed approach to coaching that some did not like. Alex Smith was under centre again but yet again failed to impress causing a QB controversy throughout the season between Smith and his backup QB Troy Smith. Neither QB was able to do enough to convince Singletary that they were good enough to have the starting job. Meanwhile the defence continued to be just not good enough as the age of their defence began to show. On both sides of the ball the 49ers were not good enough and that continued the suffering of the niners fans as they finished the year in 3rd place in the division with a 6-10 record. This year the niners have made some changes that they and the fans hope will begin to show promise.

The 49ers started the offseason with the hiring of a new coach after firing Mike Singletary during the season. They went out and got the most in demand coach in the NFL during the offseason as Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, whose brother coached the Baltimore Ravens, decided to move to the NFL with San Francisco. Harbaugh is the biggest news and the comparisons have already started, even though they are unfair, as another legendary coach came from Stanford to bring the 49ers to the Super Bowl, that man was John Walsh. Harbaugh was very sought after as he was credited for the turnaround of the Stanford program and the tutelage of projected #1 draft pick Andew Luck, QB. He comes to a team that needs a lot of rebuilding as there are many holes to fill. The biggest was the QB position that ended up not changing at all when the 49ers signed Alex Smith to a 1-year deal in the hopes that Harbaugh could work his magic. As a backup/future plan the 49ers selected Colin Kaepernick, QB in the second round as the future QB of the franchise while they try to win with Alex Smith. They have added some firepower with the signing of Braylon Edwards, WR. On defence the niners addressed their needs in terms of age as they drafted Aldon Smith, DE out of Missouri. They will also have their defensive leader Patrick Willis, LB back to try to anchor a defence that may have some struggles again. The 49ers have began to make changes but they may not be enough to make it to the playoffs. Alex Smith has already proved that he is not suited to run a team and unless Harbaugh is the “QB whisperer” this will not change. The 49ers are at the very start of a building phase that could see them improve in the future but not this year.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks were reenergized last year with the arrival of USC coach Pete Carroll and his never-ending positivity. Along with his positivity came the never-ending use of the waiver wire as Carroll made the most roster moves by any coach in the NFL last year. With this the Seahawks were able to put together just enough to make the playoffs. They did not do anything spectacular but due to a bad division they were able to string together a 7-9 record that included a last week win that gave them the division championship over the St. Louis Rams. They did this by stringing together some good games where they dominated in no aspect but were able to pull out the win. They were helped greatly at the end of the season by Marshawn Lynch, RB who was a signing last year that gave the team a running game. Meanwhile Matt Hasselbeck led the passing game that included the rookie Golden Tate and veteran Brandon Stokley. Defensively the Seahawks were a mash of parts together that included some of the older veterans in the league and rookies. The Seahawks only identity last year was that they did not give up very easily. Entering the playoffs Seattle was expected to be a first round bye essentially as they were the only team ever to make the playoffs with a losing record. They surprised everyone in the wild card when they beat the defending champion new Orleans Saints. The next game was a different story as they ran into the Chicago Bears and lost ending their season. This year the Seahawks hope to continue their success with a new cast of players under Pete Carroll.

The biggest move for the Seahawks this offseason was the decision by Matt Hasselbeck to not return to his only team. This left the Seahawks without a QB and they attempted to fix this with the acquisition of Vikings QB Tavaris Jackson. To assist Jackson in the passing game the Seahawks picked up his best receiver in Sidney Rice and veteran tight end Zach Miller. Jackson will have all of the weapons he needs in the offence but he has yet to show he is good enough to be a starting WB in the NFL. His biggest issue with the Vikings was his lack of accuracy and this may only get worse when he is running around. Jackson will be doing a lot of running as the Seahawks line will start two rookies and three other linemen that did not play a full season last year. This may be the biggest issue as the line is the starting point for every offence and if the line is not good enough to protect Jackson the Seahawks will have problems. The linemen will also have an adverse affect on the running game that the Seahawks will need to lean on with Marshawn Lynch. Lynch will look to continue a comeback after signing with the Seahawks last year and earning one of the best runs in NFL playoffs history. On defence the Seahawks did not do much but will hope that their 1st round draft pick in 2010, Aaron Curry, will be able to step up and become a leader. They will also have former CFL cornerback Brandon Browner who had 51 tackles and 5 INTs last year as a member of the Calgary Stampeders. The defence will continue to be a work in progress so expect some more roster moves by Carroll in 2011. The Seahawks would like to continue their success but with many teams making some moves that will make them better the Seahawks may not have what it takes to win the NFC West again in 2011.

Prediction:

1. St. Louis Rams (9-7)

2. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)

3. Seattle Seahawks (6-10)

4. San Francisco 49ers (5-11)

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