Schedule may spoil NFC West progress

Josh Doan
July 22, 2011

Simply put, the NFC West was awful last season, with all four teams in the division finishing below .500. Even with the 7-9 division champion Seahawks’ run in the playoffs, many people were calling for the NFL to review the seeding system for the league. But that’s not to say the division has no hope. As the NFL (finally) flips the page to 2011-12, there is loads of potential coming into the season for all four teams in the division.

However, don’t expect an immediate turnaround, in the standings at least; the NFC West finished the 2010 season with a 13-27 record against the rest of the league. When you throw in the fact that the division is paired with the tough NFC East and AFC North, you could have a recipe for disaster. Even if the division returns to respectability, though, no team in the NFC West has won a Super Bowl since 2000. That streak seems highly unlikely to end this year.

Even a division with no over .500 teams has a favorite, and this year, that team looks like the St. Louis Rams. After improving from 1-15 to 7-9 last year, the Rams are looking to continue their improvement. Justin Stine, lead writer of Fansided‘s Ramblin’ Fan Rams blog, thinks there are good reasons for high hopes in the Mound City.

“Heading into the 2010-2011 season, the Rams were coming off a 1-15 campaign and looking to rookie quarterback Sam Bradford to lead the organization back to relevance,” Stine said. “Bradford and company delivered in a big way, as they improved their win total by six games on their way to a 7-9 finish, just missing out on a playoff berth with a season-ending loss at rival Seattle.

Stine thinks there’s more to be optimistic about than just last year’s success, too.

“The Rams were nearly the best of the West in 2010,?and the team looks to be in the best position of any team moving forward,” he said. “St. Louis features the best quarterback in the division in Bradford, and while everyone else in the West is either moving backwards or standing still, the six-win improvement?in 2010?shows the Rams are the team to beat this?season and for the next several years. If the organization continues to fill the holes around Bradford, the Rams could own the West for the foreseeable future.”

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Despite the positives, Stine recognizes there are still barriers to the Rams’ continued success in 2011-12.

“The team is moving ahead on the right track, but the first half of the team’s 2011-12 schedule could prevent them from taking that next step to being a playoff team,” Stine said. “An excruciating gauntlet that begins in Week 1 with the Eagles and continues with games against the Giants, Ravens, Redskins, Packers, Cowboys and Saints could determine how far this version of the?Rams is able to go, but if they make it to the second half near .500 they could be primed to make a run at an?NFC West title.”

But, although St. Louis’ future is certainly promising, Stine recognizes that the division as a whole still has a lot of work to do to get back to respectability.

“The NFC West has been at or near the bottom of the league for several years, and 2011 doesn’t look like it will be much different,” he said. “All of the teams are in some form of transition, whether it be due to a new coach or trying to find a new quarterback.”

Further west, the San Francisco 49ers are a common sleeper pick, as they have been on a consistent basis over the past several season. Every year, though, the team has failed to live up to expectations. That being said, the Niners are still full of promise and this could be the year do something with it.

David Fucillo, lead writer of SB Nation‘s Niners Nation, said the Niners’ best offseason move was off the field, where they changed head coaches and shook up much of the rest of their staff.

“You could argue the biggest step forward was firing Mike Singletary and hiring Jim Harbaugh,” Fucillo said. “The 49ers have had some quality talent on both sides of the ball the last couple years, but somehow they’ve managed to underachieve each season. Eventually you have to decide whether it’s the talent, the coaching, or both. For now, the 49ers will get a chance to figure out what factor the coaching played into the debacle that was 2010.”

Fucillo realizes that having a new coach may have its drawbacks, though, especially in 2011.

“The biggest obstacle they face in 2011 is the shortened time due to the NFL lockout,” he said. “The team is bringing in an almost entirely new coaching staff that has little time to work with the players … They haven’t spent a day with the coaching staff since the one day in late April. If the 49ers are going to find success in 2011, they’ll need to overcome this significant handicap.”

Looking back at the NFC West in 2010-11, the Seattle Seahawks playoff victory over the defending champion New Orleans Saints was particularly notable, but Field Gulls‘ Danny Kelly believes that the victory might not have been as out-of-nowhere as it seemed to many NFL fans.

“The Seahawks, though struggling mightily at times, took steps to develop a winning culture here in Seattle,” Kelly said. “They made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, but in the process won a loser-goes-home game against the Rams in Week 17 and won an electrifying game against the defending world champs in the playoffs. This type of experience is invaluable to a young team and they’ll look to build on that success. The Seahawks re-captured the NFC West title, and began to develop some young players, namely Earl Thomas and Russell Okung, their two first round draft picks from 2010.”

To get back to the playoffs, however, Kelly believes Seahawks will need to do some work.

“They still have a very young and inexperienced roster,” he said. “They will have a very difficult schedule in 2011 and could take some bumps along the way. They will need to do a better job at getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing turnovers on defense if they hope to repeat as NFC West champions.”

Fortunately it seems as though much of these needs were addressed through the draft, additions that could supplement what’s quickly becoming a solid roster.

All things considered, Kelly thinks the NFC West is making progress, and it may not be the league’s punching bag for long.

“I believe that the NFC West as a whole is getting better,” he said. “Unfortunately for each team though, they will be facing the AFC North, which means match ups against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, two very good, tough teams. The division, lately anyway, has struggled outside of their division but could surprise a few teams in 2011.”

The biggest question mark to that respectability may come in Arizona, though. Oh, does 2008 seem like such a long time ago. The recent NFC-champion Cardinals are still in the post-Kurt Warner hangover. The team has struggled to find any consistency at quarterback and this struggle was reflected in a subpar 5-11 year in 2010. Jess Root, lead writer at Revenge of the Birds said the last season was a miserable one for Cardinals’ fans, as they not only didn’t win but didn’t improve.

“To be honest, there were no real steps forward taken in any phase of the game in 2010,” Root said. “The offense struggled, the defense was not effective overall (even though in spurts they were great at creating turnovers), and while they had good special teams play in the return game from LaRod Stephens-Howling and Jay Feely, Ben Graham was not as effective as a year ago in punting.”

Thanks to some notable rookies incoming via the draft, however, there is at least a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for Arizona. Just as well, Root feels that the NFC West is going in the right direction, but progress may take a while.

“The teams will all be stronger, but I don’t think it will show much in their records,” he said. “They will play the AFC North and NFC East. Ideally, the Rams will be better, the Cards really couldn’t be any worse, the same could be said about SF and depending on the Seattle QB, they likely took a small step back.”

Overall, if the NFC West proves one thing, it is that having a franchise quarterback makes all the difference. It seems that Sam Bradford himself is the primary difference in a division that seems to be entirely retooling.

Even though the year does look dismal to many, thanks largely in part to their brutal schedule, each team has a chance to make an impact this year. The Rams are favoured to win the division, the Seahawks have the best home field advantage in the NFL (maybe in all of sports), the 49ers have a fresh, intelligent coach in Jim Harbaugh and the Cardinals are a decent quarterback away from being relevant. Keep in mind that although all the teams in the division struggled in 2010, they all struggled together and only two games separated first and last. One of these teams will have a home game in the playoffs no matter how bad they are, and when you get to the playoffs, everyone has a chance.

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The Author:

Josh Doan