The NFC West has been the Sun Belt Conference of the NFL for nearly a decade. The Niners’ 13-3 finish last year had as much to do with their weakling divisional opponents as the team’s improvement under charismatic first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Seahawks and Cardinals, without a decent quarterback between them, hovered at or around .500 thanks to tight defense, some overtime wins and two games each against the Rams, who might not have been able to win six games in the SEC.
The Niners weren’t fooled by their gaudy record in 2011. They took major strides to upgrade a receiving corps that wasn’t up to postseason snuff. The Seahawks addressed their quarterback problem by acquiring two of them; the Cardinals addressed theirs by crossing their fingers. The Rams appointed Jeff Fisher as their latest czar, but Fisher must complete the surveying before he starts an earnest rebuilding. This is the Niners’ division to lose, but NFC West teams are notoriously good at losing things.
San Francisco 49ers
Tweet-sized Preview: Goodbye, talented-but-unpredictable WRs! Hello, Randy Moss! Hey, wait a minute …
Biggest Change from 2011: Moss and Mario Manningham lead a skill-position influx that also includes first-round pick A.J. Jenkins at receiver and running backs Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James. With Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree among the returnees, there may not be enough footballs to go around, especially since Moss will want all of them. Despite the changes, Kyle Williams is still returning punts. Kyle Williams is still returning punts?!
Overblown Story: The Alex Smith-Cam Newton offseason “controversy.” Smith name-dropped Newton in a July interview, using Newton as an example of a quarterback who throws for 300 yards but doesn’t win games. Smith later backtracked, saying he “got carried away.” Smith has clearly graduated from Jim Harbaugh’s Quarterback and Media Relations Academy: speak loudly, throw sparingly and let the defense carry the big stick.
Undersold Story: Harbaugh now claims to have “five guys who are No. 1 receivers.” Moss was out of football last year and has some notorious attitudes about blocking, running decoy routes and common courtesy toward caterers. Manningham was a No. 3 receiver last season. Jenkins has only been a No. 1 receiver at Illinois. The Niners’ receiving corps is better than it was in the NFC Championship Game, but it is not on par with the best receiving corps in the conference, and the mix of personalities could get volatile. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman claims that whoever is officially listed as the starting wide receiver “accounts for nothing.” Tell that to the guys who aren’t listed as the starting wide receivers.
Telling Stat: The Niners had a bigger field-position advantage than any team of the last decade. The average Niners drive started at the 33.4-yard line, the best field position in the NFL. Opponents started at the 24.0-yard line, the worst field position in the NFL. The tilted field position, caused by lots of takeaways and a great return game, tilted many games in their favor.
Breakout Player: There is such a logjam at the skill positions that it is hard to determine who will do what, but two rookies stood out in camp. Jenkins’ speed is obvious, and he improved steadily after a rough start. James showed explosiveness as a kick returner and all-purpose back before Harbaugh shut him down, both to nurse a minor injury and hide him from opponents. Both players can provide the big-play potential the Niners’ offense lacked for most of last season.
Bottom Line: Their punishing defensive front seven will keep them at the top of the easily topped NFC West, but the improved Seahawks and a rough schedule (Giants, at Packers, at Patriots, at Saints) will cause significant record deflation. PREDICTION: 9-7.
Tweet-sized Preview: New QBs + New Uniforms + Pete Carroll’s Defense + RussellMania - The T.O. Show = around .500, again.
Biggest Change from 2011: Rookie Russell Wilson beat Matt Flynn for the starting job with some crisp passing, timely scrambling and the kind of “fiery little guy” personality that often yields short-term results. A defense loaded with up-and-comers like defensive backs Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor is now a year older and wiser. The attempt to resurrect/rehabilitate Terrell Owens failed, but Braylon Edwards is still around to play the role of enigmatic, disappointing veteran receiver.
Overblown Story: Wilson is exactly the kind of pesky player who thrives in rumpus-room preseason conditions and wins over both coaches and fans. Once opponents start game-planning for him, they will discover a 5-foot-11 (maybe) rollout passer with a so-so arm. Flynn will be waiting in the wings when the Seahawks realize just how much Wilson’s athletic limitations will limit their offense.
Undersold Story: The Seahawks have one of the two or three best secondaries in the NFL. Safety Earl Thomas is a Pro Bowler, cornerbacks Sherman and Brandon Browner are big, physical and can run with most receivers, and Chancellor is an old-fashioned bone crusher at strong safety. All but Browner are younger than 24. The Jets and a few other teams may have better secondaries now, but wait until 2013.
Telling Stat: The Seahawks were outscored 168-119 in the first halves of games but outscored opponents 202-147 in the second halves. It is hard to tell exactly why the Seahawks were so flat in the first half and great in the second. Maybe Pete Carroll should start the game with his halftime speech.
Breakout Player: Doug Baldwin, wide receiver. Baldwin caught 51 passes as a rookie but was hurt for much of training camp and dropped out of the media conversation (but not the team’s plans) when Owens and Braylon Edwards arrived. Baldwin is a natural slot receiver whose game fits both Wilson’s and Flynn’s short-passing style. He will be the receiver the Seahawks rely upon when they need a receiver they can rely upon.
Bottom Line: The Seahawks will have a Super Bowl-caliber defense in place by next year. Their most dangerous opponents aren’t the Niners or Cardinals but their own impatience and indecision at wide receiver and quarterback. The NFC West cannot be won by a near-.500 team anymore, and the Seahawks must resist the temptation to try. Prediction: 7-9.
St. Louis Rams
Tweet-sized Preview: Good news: Rams starters are healthy again! Bad news: They are still Rams starters!
Biggest Change from 2011: Jeff Fisher is the franchise’s first “empire-builder” head coach since Dick Vermeil. Unfortunately, chief lieutenant Gregg Williams had to fall on his sword because of the New Orleans bounty scandal, leaving the Rams with a committee of defensive coordinators. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan significantly improves the Rams’ weakest unit, but there are plenty of other “weakest unit” nominees that were not adequately addressed in the offseason.
Overblown Story: Fisher invited Vermeil-era Rams superstars like Torry Holt and Aeneas Williams to spend several days in team meetings and practices. The old guard offered advice and inspiration, and their presence was an encouraging sign that the Rams are not threatened by comparisons to the past. But unless Holt and Williams build a time machine, retrieve their 2002 selves and suit up, they won’t make much of an impact this year.
Undersold Story: The Rams suffered a nearly historic spate of injuries last season: quarterback Sam Bradford, tackle Rodger Saffold, the top three cornerbacks, most of the receiving corps. The Rams weren’t much more than a 7-9 team before the injuries, but the team that was losing 27-0 by the end of last season was little more than Steven Jackson, Chris Long and whoever was on the waiver wire.
Telling Stat: The Rams forced opposing quarterbacks out of the pocket on a league-high 18 percent of pass plays. Translation: Defensive end Chris Long was impossible to block, but quarterbacks could escape by rolling away from him. The emergence of Robert Quinn at the end of last season gives Long someone to flush quarterbacks toward.
Breakout Player: Rookie kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein has been one of the heroes of Rams camp, which says a little about Zuerlein and a lot about the state of the Rams. Zuerlein booted several 50-plus-yard field goals in scrimmages and has been drilling the ball through the end zone on kickoffs. The only problem for the Rams will be getting into field-goal range.
Bottom Line: Fisher has a handful of building blocks but no rebar or mortar. The Rams have a whole football operation to overhaul, and that will take more than one year. PREDICTION: 5-11.
Tweet-sized Preview: The Cardinals plan to ride the momentum from last year’s 7-2 finish into a playoff berth this year. Seriously. That’s the plan.
Biggest Change from 2011: Not much. Ken Whisenhunt returns, as does the Kevin Kolb-John Skelton quarterback controversy and coordinator Ray Horton’s blitz-happy defense. Larry Fitzgerald remains the face of the franchise, as well as the arms, legs, hands and kidneys, though rookie Michael Floyd promises to be the second option the passing game has lacked since Anquan Boldin left.
Overblown Story: Kevin Kolb, defender of Kevin Kolb’s manhood. Raiders lineman Tommy Kelly accused Kolb of being “scared” in the pocket; Kolb, who hunted wild boars armed with only a knife in his teenage years, bristled at the remarks. Kolb is no coward, but he is certainly “differently courageous” under a pass rush, and all the tough talk in the world will not help if he keeps doing the exact same thing (rolling to his right and chucking the ball away) every time the pocket gets a little messy.
Undersold Story: Patrick Peterson has the potential to be a perennial All-Pro cornerback. Peterson was thrown into the fire as a rookie, covering No. 1 receivers on 63 percent of the passes thrown in his direction; only Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey and Ike Taylor drew tougher assignments. Peterson committed too many pass-interference penalties but improved as the season wore on, and he also made an impact as a return man. A shutdown cornerback can do a lot to keep a team with an ugly quarterback situation competitive. Just ask the Jets.
Telling Stat: The Cardinals were 4-0 in overtime games last year. That 7-2 hot streak to end the season was built on overtime wins against teams like the Rams and Browns.
Breakout Player: Rob Housler, tight end. Housler battled hamstring injuries and post-lockout rookie confusion last year, limiting him to just 12 receptions. He is an exceptional size-speed prospect at his position. Todd Heap has also had a fine camp, but Housler is a more natural fit in Whisenhunt’s vertical offense.
Bottom Line: A “sadtroversy” is a quarterback controversy so sad that you cannot believe a team got itself in such a predicament. The Cardinals’ sadtroversy casts a shroud over the promising developments on defense and in the receiving corps. Other teams could survive with Kolb or Skelton and a ground-n-pound offense, but Whisenhunt wants to spread the field and air it out, and that just isn’t going to work. PREDICTION: 5-11.
All statistics provided by Football Outsiders.