Just three seasons ago, all four NFC West teams finished below .500. The Seahawks beat the Rams for a dubious division title with a 7-9 record thanks to having the least-worst tiebreakers. The NFC West was not just the weakest division in the NFL, but the weakest division in North American team sports.
Now, it's the toughest division in the NFL and one of the most competitive in all of sports. Franchise architects like John Schneider, Trent Baalke and Les Snead worked hand-in-glove with motivator-strategist coaches Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher to build forward-thinking organizations with talented rosters and innovative schemes. The Seahawks and 49ers represent the NFL's cutting edge, and the Rams are rebuilding after a half-decade of mismanagement. The Cardinals … have adorable red birdies on their helmets.
Seahawks-versus-Niners will be the rivalry of the 2013 season, but the Rams will stay in the conversation, and every NFC West matchup -- even the ones involving the Cardinals -- is likely to have impact on the Super Bowl race.
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San Francisco 49ers
In a tweet: Paws in the dirt, jive turkey gobblin'… wait a minute. Jim Harbaugh doesn't make any sense!
What's New: Colin Kaepernick has so dominated the NFL storylines of the past 10 months that it is easy to forget that he has started only 10 games, playoffs and Super Bowl included. This time last year, he was a little-known backup. Kaepernick must throw to a completely revamped receiving corps that gained Anquan Boldin and several rookies but lost Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, injured Michael Crabtree and failed prospect A.J. Jenkins.
What's Old: Frank Gore turned 30 in May, but it feels like he has been around since the Million Dollar Backfield. Gore appeared to be on his way out of the NFL in 2010 but is one of the players who were rejuvenated by Harbaugh's arrival. Justin Smith will soon be 34 and is no longer aging reverse: He slipped in 2012 after getting better every year for about a decade. Patrick Willis leads a linebacker corps that remains the best in the NFL.
Football Outsiders Stat: In the playoffs, the 49ers averaged more yards per play with Kaepernick under center (9.1) than in the shotgun (7.4) or pistol (7.5). The Niners offense is more diverse than the NFL's other option-scented schemes, and coordinator Greg Roman can baffle defenders from a conventional formation as easily as from Pistol Queens. And by the way, those are insane yards-per-play averages against playoff competition from ANY formation.
Best-Case Scenario: A full offseason and training camp as a starter work wonders for Kaepernick, who already knows a thing or two about wonder works. The defense holds its ground, the old-'n'-young receiving corps proves adequate, and the Niners get out of the division without grinding too hard against the Seahawks. Playoff opponents will be more ready for Kaepernick's pistols and options this year than last, but Kaepernick will be ready to counterstrike with better pocket decision making.
Worst-Case Scenario: Kaepernick could easily have the Cam Newton 2012 season. He is not as polished a passer as his accomplishments suggest, and it would only take a few strip-sacks or bad decisions to cause real problems in a brutal division. Novice receivers could make matters worse, and there has been a lot of transition on the defensive line and in the secondary. In the NFC West, a handful of slipups could pave the road to .500.
Bottom Line: If the 49ers were nothing more than a young phenom, some offensive gimmicks and a mouthy coach, they would be prime candidates for a major post-Super Bowl slump. But the 49ers are much more. They have a strong scouting department, so there is reason to believe that this year's rookie class is ready to make immediate contributions. Coordinators Roman and Vic Fangio are innovators whose schemes represent the state of the NFL art. The Niners are strong in the trenches and still have room to grow. They entered the Super Bowl as a young team getting better, and there are plenty of reasons to believe they got better in the offseason, despite some veteran departures. The 49ers variance level remains high -- they lost 26-3 and 42-14 games last year -- but if the downside is eight wins, it means the upside is a Super Bowl run that would make Bill Walsh proud.
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In a tweet: Seattle hasn't been this trendy since Soundgarden released "Badmotorfinger."
What's New: For years, the Seahawks were middleweights searching for ways to grow into a contender. Suddenly, they find themselves contenders in search of the missing piece to a Super Bowl puzzle. Missing pieces are never where you expect them, and top acquisitions Percy Harvin (labrum) and Cliff Avril (hamstring) will miss time at the start of the season. Bruce Irvin, last year's top draft pick, will also miss the start of the season due to suspension. A productive draft brought key reserves at several positions, including running back Christine Michael and fullback Spencer Ware, but the Seahawks lacked a first-round pick because of the Harvin trade.
What's Old: Not much. John Schneider became the Seahawks' general manager in 2010, and the team's roster history essentially starts then. Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Russell Okung and Golden Tate joined the team in that draft class, while Marshawn Lynch arrived via trade. Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, K.J. Wright and a host of bench players came aboard in 2011. Last year brought Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Irvin, J.R. Sweezy, and more reserves. This core is growing up together, and the Seahawks are focused on keeping them together.
Football Outsiders Stat: Wilson had just seven passes tipped or batted at the line last season. Fellow rookie Brandon Weeden led the league with 24; fellow shorty and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees had 14. Height really can be a problem for short quarterbacks (field vision in a crowded pocket can be an issue), but it's not like Wilson went to bed 6-foot-4 one night and woke up 5-foot-11. He knows when and how to get the ball past the outstretched arms of pass rushers.
Best-Case Scenario: The Seahawks were the best team in the NFL, by far, from Week 14 of last season until the last 25 seconds of the playoff loss to the Falcons. If they pick up where they left off in mid-December, they will be the 1985 Bears.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Seahawks will be without Irvin for four games, Avril may be slowed for several weeks and Chris Clemons (knee) narrowly avoided the PUP list. Pete Carroll's defense depends on its mix-and-match pass rushers, but most of the mix will be missing to start the season. The receiving corps is nothing special, the schedule is brutal and Wilson remains a 5-foot-11 sophomore, even if he is the greatest 5-foot-11 sophomore in NFL history. As the offseason of Harvin, Irvin and Avril indicate, nothing is guaranteed.
Bottom Line: The Seahawks caught a scheduling break when the NFL lined up the entire AFC South in Weeks 3 through 6. The Jaguars and Titans in Seattle should be easy wins, but more importantly, these tiebreaker-irrelevant games will give the defensive line time to get healthy/reinstated and allow any Wilson encore jitters to dissipate. The Seahawks face most of the NFC South, the Vikings and the Giants after Nov. 3, and those games will decide the conference Wild Card situation. There is a chance that the Seahawks will go bonkers and obliterate the field this year, but there's a better chance that they will be more like the team they were last September to November, clawing for late wins against NFC rivals. (Stop grumbling, Packers fans.) The Seahawks could be great, and they definitely won't be ordinary, but they are still in the midst of a growth spurt, not at the peak. A crazy December might have set expectations too high, too soon.
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St. Louis Rams
In a tweet: Bernie Kosar made the preseason wisecracks, but no one else is laughing.
What's New: After the Greatest Show on Turf years, the Rams decided to do without dynamic receivers for a few years. That has finally changed. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin made Geno Smith look like a Heisman candidate at West Virginia; just imagine what they can do for Sam Bradford. Tight end Jared Cook fills an organizational need that practically dates back to Billy Truax. Jake Long provides a sudden upgrade at left tackle. Daryl Richardson and Zac Stacy are the new running backs, as Steven Jackson finally earned a reprieve and a trip to Atlanta.
What's Old: Jeff Fisher's methodical empire building program is taking a familiar shape. He builds defenses from the line and corners inward, and the Rams have an outstanding young front four led by Chris Long and Robert Quinn, and two quality (if mercurial) cornerbacks in Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan. Fisher's Titans got good before they got exciting or buzzy, and these Rams are doing the same.
Football Outsiders Stat: Cook caught 42 passes for the Titans last year. No Rams tight end has caught 42 passes since Troy Drayton in 1995. Cook caught 49 passes in 2011. No Rams tight end has caught that many balls since Pete Holohan in 1990. It was one thing for Ernie Conwell to have a limited role when Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk were staging stadium flyovers, but the Rams have been going without a viable short-middle target for too many years since then.
Best-Case Scenario: If the 49ers or Seahawks stumble just a bit, the Rams are good enough to pounce. The defense has the potential to be excellent, and the new receiving corps will spread defenses thin.
Worst-Case Scenario: The rookies and second-year skill position players (Richardson, receivers Chris Givens and Brian Quick) prove to still be a year away from fulfilling expectations. The Rams remain stuck in spoiler mode.
Bottom Line: The Rams went 4-1-1 in the NFL's toughest division last year. They also beat the Redskins. On the flip side, they lost to the Jets and suffered an ugly blowout at the hands of the Patriots. They are clearly a work in progress, but they are also overlooked and misunderstood. Sam Bradford had a productive year last year, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards without a tight end, with no veteran receiver besides oft-injured Danny Amendola, and facing a schedule filled with the NFL's best defenses. The defense hammered out 51 sacks, but a sub .500 record in a small media market kept the spotlight away. The Rams would win double-digit games in the AFC South or West. In the NFC West, they are biding their time and waiting for someone else to make a mistake.
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In a tweet: It won't be a great Cardinals season, but it will be a great example of a Cardinals season.
What's New: Bruce Arians brings 35 years of positional coaching and coordinator experience to his first true NFL head coaching gig. He also brings a vertical one-back offense that helped the Steelers reach a pair of Super Bowls. Carson Palmer, once a Pro Bowler, is now the NFL equivalent of a mid-rotation innings eater in baseball; that said, last year's Cardinals quarterbacks accumulated the equivalent of a 7.34 ERA in 16 starts. Rashard Mendenhall was an Arians favorite in Pittsburgh; like Palmer, the downside of his career is an upgrade for the Cardinals. Right tackle Eric Winston brings one more longtime starter trying to remain productive past his peak. The draft class was stacked, though first-rounder Jonathan Cooper will spend the season on injured reserve.
What's Old: Larry Fitzgerald caught just 71 of the 156 passes sprayed in his general direction last year. Fitzgerald remains the focal point of the Cardinals offense and a powerful presence within the organization; he will welcome Palmer's rickety competence. Karlos Dansby (back from a tour with the Dolphins) and Darnell Dockett join Fitzgerald as holdovers from a glorious era when Kurt Warner led a Cardinals team that took the Steelers to the Super Bowl wall.
Football Outsiders Stat: Six men have earned their first NFL head coaching job after their 60th birthday since the NFL-AFL merger, and none of them ever finished a season with a record better than 6-10. Not to sound ageist, but head coaching aptitude usually manifests itself before a person enters his seventh decade. Arians has an amazing background -- who would thought a Bear Bryant assistant could be a rookie head coach in 2013? -- but 35 years as a trusty lieutenant just makes someone an even trustier lieutenant, not an admiral.
Best-Case Scenario: Palmer could have a Warner-lite resurgence with Fitzgerald and Mendenhall's help. The Cardinals defense is loaded with talent. The 49ers and Seahawks have a tight lid on the division, but the Cardinals could supplant the Rams as the .500-caliber party poopers.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Cardinals offensive line is still pretty terrible, and Palmer has not gotten any younger or fleeter. One injury, and the Cardinals are back to a rotating cast of Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley types. Ray Horton, the innovator behind an excellent 2011 defense, is now in Cleveland, and replacement Todd Bowles spent last year watching the Eagles defense tune him out. Throw in the brutal division, and the Cardinals could replace the Chiefs as the team with too much talent that finishes 2-14.
Bottom Line: The Cardinals have spent the last 60 years missing opportunities, and they may have missed a huge one when they let Horton go instead of promoting him in the offseason. Instead of a homegrown defensive mastermind, the Cardinals handed the keys to Arians and Bowles, an interim coach and an interim coordinator in 2012. It was a perplexing move, but it was par for the Cardinals course. Palmer, Mendenhall and Dansby may stand in the way of a needed rebuilding effort around Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson and the youngsters, and the team's disinterest in drafting any quarterback but Lindley in the past two seasons is just mind-boggling. The Cardinals are in a holding pattern. Lots of teams end up in them, but the Cardinals made it look like a holding pattern was their actual goal.
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