The NFL season, if you can believe this, begins four weeks from Thursday. We are 30 days away from official kickoff, with the Kansas City Chiefs traveling to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Four weeks is really soon. Four weeks is so soon, in fact, that if we're going to do twice-weekly previews of every division -- and we are! -- we have to start today. That's awfully close.
Thus, every Tuesday and Friday until kickoff, I'll be previewing the whole NFL, division-by-division. Obviously, much will change between now and the first week of the season, so just assume that I've taken all those future events under consideration in each of these previews. Let's go with that.
I've drawn on all sorts of resources in these previews, but like anyone who writes about football and wants to get it right, I've relied heavily on Football Outsiders and their Football Outsiders Annual, which you should purchase if you really want to know what's going on
We begin with the NFC West.
4. San Francisco 49ers (Projected Record: 1-15)
Here's a fun trivia question: Which coach has the longest contract in the NFL? Which coach is guaranteed to still be getting paid by his current team in the year 2023? It's not Bill Belichick. It's not Pete Carroll. It's 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. The Falcons obviously did something amazing last year, and Shanahan was right in the middle of it, but still: This is a guy who faltered with the Browns 30 months ago. Oh, and a guy who -- as you might have heard -- led an offense that just lost a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl.
That he got that contract -- as did new general manager John Lynch, who has never run a football team before and has spent the past nine years hanging out with Chris Rose -- speaks to how hot of a commodity Shanahan was after having that season with the Falcons, but also how truly desperate the Niners are to start over after a nightmare three seasons since parting with Crazy Pants Harbaugh. You can understand why San Francisco would be looking for stability after having two consecutive coaches (Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly) go belly-up after only one season. But then again: You're the team that hired those guys. Now you've got it figured it out?
The best thing Lynch and Shanahan have going for themselves is time. It's going to take two years to clear out all the flotsam and figure out what they're even going to do with this team, let alone start building something that lasts. The 49ers brass claim they'll have patience, that they know this is going to take a while, that they're OK with basically doing the NFL equivalent of the Philadelphia 76ers' "Process." (Remember: They're legitimately starting Brian Hoyer.) That sort of mindset tends not to last long in the NFL, no matter what people say. The 49ers are going to be bad. The question is whether they're bad for one, two, three or even more years. But there's no question about it: This year is going to be bad bad bad bad.
3. Los Angeles Rams (Projected Record: 6-10)
If you squint, you can talk yourself into the Rams. They've got an exciting young new coach, Sean McVay -- who is as old as Shia LaBeouf, Robert Pattinson, Amber Heard and Lindsay Lohan. They've got a promising defense that deserved much better than what they were given last year and they have Todd Gurley, who might be having David Johnson's career had he been drafted by anyone other than the Rams. Heck, you might even be able, if you hit yourself in the head with something blunt and heavy, to make a claim that Jared Goff can't possibly be worse than he was last year, and any forward movement from the quarterback position -- anything that isn't "as bad as any quarterback you can remember this side of Max Hall" -- is just gravy. If Goff is just a little below average, that's a huge move.
But even if you buy into McVay and his much grayer defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, even if you think Stan Kroenke is suddenly going to get this organization's act in gear, even if you believe Gurley can be great, this is still a team that is a year away from having all its proverbial ducks in a row. And the problem with the growing pains this year is that what you really need most, as a young coach, is to have a stable quarterback situation. It is very possible that the Rams make improvements everywhere but Goff is still terrible, which means not only is this season ruined, but next year -- with another young quarterback, presumably -- is too. Turns out that messing up the No. 1 overall pick by choosing the wrong quarterback is, indeed, a franchise killer.
Even if Goff is terrible, though, this year can't be much worse than last year. It's difficult to remember a team that has ever had a worse first season in a new city. If the Rams had been purposely trying to anger their new home -- something they had a lot of experience doing with their old home -- they couldn't have done it better than they did last year. It's going to take a while for the Rams to recover from their horrific debut in Los Angeles. Maybe it'll happen by the time they move into their new stadium. Whenever that turns out to be.
2. Arizona Cardinals (Projected Record: 10-6)
The Cardinals are at the end of history. After this year, they are going to need a new quarterback (Carson Palmer is almost certain to retire at season's end), a new face of the franchise (Larry Fitzgerald was tempted not to come back this year) and, quite possibly, a new coach (Bruce Arians' health problems have been an issue for two years now). This team was built to win last year, to have the team's upward swing every season since Arians took over culminate in a Super Bowl. Instead, special teams and boneheaded mistakes doomed the team in close games, and a season that just never quite got going ended in a 7-8-1 record.
So the band is all back together, only a year older. This year, they'll be relying more on David Johnson -- who became the superstar last year the Cardinals have thought he would be for a while -- but this is still a team that requires Carson Palmer to be upright and alert to have any sort of chance. Arians likes Drew Stanton, but he has proven to be adequate at best when forced to fill in for Palmer. And after Stanton, there is Blaine Gabbert. If Palmer gets hurt, this thing is over. And Palmer is 37 years old.
If Palmer can get the ball to Johnson enough and stay on his feet, this could still be a playoff team: The special teams unit can't be nearly as bad as it was last year, and the Cards are due to win some of those close games they lost last year. But if Palmer goes down before October, or just plays like Playoff Palmer, Arizona will be back where it was before Arians got here: without a quarterback, without any structure, without a chance. And Palmer, and Fitzgerald, and Arians, they'll all be gone, having ushered out the best era in Cardinals history … that still never was quite enough.
1. Seattle Seahawks (Projected Record: 13-3)
The Seahawks very well might go 6-0 in the NFC West this year, which is a nice little cushion to have. It also helps that the offensive line can't possibly have as little talent as it did last year: It's actually quite shocking to see a team so deficient at such a key spot make the playoffs. They're not appreciably better, but seriously, they can't be worse, right?
The Seahawks look primed to win the NFC West again less because of what they've fixed and more because of what they still have. This is still Russell Wilson, and the Legion of Boom, and Pete Carroll, smart, proud competitors who know their time remaining with each other is limited and looking to make the absolute most of it. A strong argument could be made that the Seahawks should have won more than just one Super Bowl with this generation-defining amount of talent. Obviously, they could have beaten the Patriots a few years ago, but they also could have pushed themselves a little further last year. No team benefits more from home-field advantage. The Seahawks need to play every game like it's a playoff game, because it could be the difference between getting run around in Atlanta or crushing Matt Ryan under the iron boot of The 12s.
The Seahawks might have trouble keeping their group together, but there's still reason to believe they might own this division for a few more years. The 49ers are light years away; the Rams may have a quarterback situation they'll never get out from under; the Cardinals are likely starting over after this year. Even with the Seahawks getting older, they're still far ahead of the rest of the NFC West. They've won three out of the past four division titles. There's little reason to think they won't win three of the next four as well. At least.
Friday: The AFC South
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