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2008 Preview: NFC West

August 21, 2008

In sharp contrast to the NFC East, one of the most competitive divisions in football, the NFC West threatens to again be one of the dullest.

Unlike the AFC East where the predictable dominance of one team (New England) is enlivened by the team in question being a very watchable offensive juggernaut, sitting through a whole NFC West season only for the Seahawks to win the division at a canter (before being knocked out at Divisional Weekend) is a bit like watching paint dry. Whilst the rest of the division shows good flashes and is certainly not short of big names with star power, this is still likely to be the weakest division in the weaker conference.

Arizona Cardinals

Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in division

It’s always sad to see a team with potential being shafted by a poor front office and inept ownership [see also Chicago / Oakland / Detroit]. The Cardinals have seemingly spent their offseason trying to go from having two great receivers to having one, trying not to think about the possibility of Matt Leinart failing to live up to his paycheck, penny-pinching by refusing to bolster a defense which is patchy at best, and failing to sign a capable backup to over-the-hill RB Edgerrin James. It’s hard to see what’s going well for Arizona this year.

WR Larry Fitzgerald’s contract may well have been written on gold-leaf and lined with diamonds, but it’s a heavy weight for the rest of the team. Fitzgerald was a top-5 receiver in 2007, which is remarkable given the lack of a first rate QB, and its understandable that the team would bend over for a receiver who personally contributed as many yards as the entire rushing attack last year. If he was in New England, Fitzgerald may well have taken less money in order to stay on a winning team, but given that there’s about as much chance of Gary Glitter winning the X-Factor as there is of Arizona playing in January, he decided to rob the proverbial bank.

His (somewhat) understandable reluctance to take less than market value has on the other hand crippled the side in cap terms, and in doing so made it virtually certain that fellow elite WR Anquan Boldin would depart. Defenses who worried about the Cards’ 1-2 punch at receiver will be a lot happier now that Early Doucet looks like being the #2 guy.

All that needs to be said about Arizona’s running game is that even though it was fourth from bottom last year, the Cards’ only offseason move was to release their #2 tailback. Either someone has given Edgerrin James some new bionic knees (and ankles, shoulders, arms…) or the team has decided that they might as well stop even trying to rush the ball.

Matt Leinart is – financially – the team’s future at QB and the assumption was that, after last year’s tag team routine between him and veteran Kurt Warner, some consistency would return in 08. Coach Whisenhunt must know that the Cardinals aren’t winning anything this year, and hopefully he’ll use the time to find out if Leinart is the real thing, and if so shape him as a leader. Either way, Arizona’s middle ranking offense is probably going nowhere but down in ‘08, when defensive coordinators start rushing two and putting nine men in coverage on Larry Fitzgerald.

The defense is probably the better unit, though in league terms still resides in the middle of the pack. What limited talent is available – i.e. Karlos Dansby and the secondary – will be statistically flattered by soft-ish games against divisional rivals, but matchups against Dallas and New England (and even second tier teams like Buffalo) will likely not be a lot of fun for Arizonians.

Leinart holds the key for Arizona. Elite quarterbacks in the NFL are generally able to make mediocre receivers look good (Jabar Gaffney/David Patten/et al in New England) and give their team a foundation to build around. Until and unless Leinart is able to provide a lead for a seemingly rudderless team – and the Bidwells are prepared to spend money to put better players around him – that fancy new stadium will continue to be a place where visiting teams come for an easy win.

San Francisco 49ers

Prediction: 4-12, 4th in division

It’s a familiar NFC West story in SF, where a handful of elite players will struggle to make up for the rest of the roster. Patrick Willis is on his way to being possibly the most dominant MLB in the game, and RB Frank Gore must spend his nights wondering how good he could be if he wasn’t on the offense which scored least points and gained least yards in the entire league last year.

Willis is a primeval force, and if his remarkable rookie year is anything to go by his potential could be almost limitless. The 49ers 3-4 scheme not withstanding, Coach Mike Nolan would do well to mimic Chicago’s man-free schemes and allow Willis to cause havoc the way Brian Urlacher does running free for the Bears. On D the supporting cast is improving year on year, and whilst Nate Clements may be the most overpaid cornerback of all time, journeyman CB Walt Harris has proved a pleasant (Pro Bowl level) surprise, OLB Manny Lawson is a quality player when healthy, and S Michael Lewis is becoming a bit of a tackle machine in his own right. Beyond this group, however, talent is thin on the ground, and the defence needs to improve its big play and takeaway ability if the 49ers are going to win many games against a tough schedule.

Frank Gore

Frank Gore

Mostly, that’s because the offence isn’t going to win any for them. The 49ers offensive line is one of the worst in football, and it’s only the presence of Gore which stops the running game from setting new low league records. Given that the team’s preseason has been dominated by a QB battle which seemed to be a race to the bottom between not two but three fairly crap quarterbacks, chances are OC Mike Martz’ flamboyant offensive style may not be able to stretch its wings. The possibilities generated by Gore and physical freak TE Vernon Davis must seem endless to Martz, but finding a passable signal caller and keeping him on his feet is probably a big enough challenge right now.

 

 

It’s hard to think of what the 49ers could do to improve their prospects, and chances are 2008 is a bit of a write off. If Nolan and the front office are prepared to swallow team pride and rebuild around Davis, Willis and Gore, they might find a useful model in southern California, where San Diego – another 3-4 team with stars at TE and RB – is reaping the benefits of a long term approach.

Seattle Seahawks

Prediction: 10-6, 1st in division

It’s not the worst phrase in football (that would be either “dog-fighting”, “MRSA” or “Tavaris Jackson throws deep”) but it must be close – the Seahawks are a very boring football team.

It’s a mystery why they’re so tedious: Matt Hasselbeck is a fine (if risk averse) QB, Coach Mike “Big Show” Holmgren is a longtime winner in the NFL, and DE Patrick Kerney and MLB Lofa Tatupu regularly turn opposing linemen into puddles of quivering goo. Watching Seattle remains, however, a prospect which raises no excitement whatsoever amongst the casual football fan, and I suspect among more than a few Seattle fans.

The shockingly rapid demise of formerly-record-setting-now-very-rich-but-useless running back Shaun Alexander has been well documented, and a chart showing how his performance dropoff coincided with the signing of a mammoth new contract is probably pinned up in every NFL front office. This sad story came to a close in the offseason, which saw the bewildering spectacle of Alexander – league MVP two years ago – finally being cut.

Hasselbeck showed last year he’s capable of shouldering more of the load, and is a perennial Pro Bowler despite only ever seeming to have practice-squad cast-offs to throw to. The ‘Hawks have again failed to add a better than average passcatcher to their offense, and it may well be that the absence of a receiving playmaker accounts for their tediousness – it’s hard to get excited about another 7 yard slant to Nate Burleson. The Seahawks fetish for long offensive drives followed by a field goal is probably second only to Atlanta’s in recent years.

Patrick Kerney

Patrick Kerney

Defensively the team’s consistency is more of a benefit, and (Kerney and Tatupu aside) its hard to tell when the starters go off and the backups come on. Players like OLB Julian Peterson, CB Marcus Trufant, DT Brandon Mebane and even Nickelback Jordan Babineaux are predictably efficient (if hardly heart stopping) and spared too much physical punishment during the regular season because they play the 49ers and Cardinals twice. Like the rest of the division, however, their 2008 schedule includes games against elite passing teams, which means their mettle will be properly tested by Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Wes Welker and now Brett Favre.

 

 

The Seahawks will – probably – win the division, earning one of the easiest playoff berths in the league. Coach Holmgren, now in his final year, ought to be gearing the team towards winning one than more playoff game and playing with enough ambition to end with a bang. Chances are, however, that Seattle will play well enough to get to January and then lose an uninspiring game to someone like Carolina.

Future HC Jim Mora is watching from the sidelines, and will be glad he doesn’t have another “Coach Killer” waiting to trip him up the way Michael Vick did in Atlanta. What he will need to work out, however, is where to add a few “opposition killers” to take the NFL’s most soporific team into the top tier.

St Louis Rams

Prediction: 7-9, 2nd in division

The Rams fans spent the entire 2007 season looking forward to its end. While the team went about amassing a truly awful 3-13 record the St Louis faithful could look forward to a high draft pick, stand amazed at RB Steven Jackson (one of the league’s best) and place blame on the injuries which scythed through a once-proud offensive line.

Fast forward to the 2008 preseason and the picture looks not that much better. Even with most of the starting offensive line back in place, highly paid QB Marc Bulger still looks uneasy and opposing blitzers are able to get to him too easily. Jackson’s prolonged holdout has also robbed the unit – a solid set of players including elite WR Torry Holt and underrated TE Randy McMichael –of any chance to gel. The halfback, who is probably more important to his team’s offense than any other back in the league, now only has two weeks to learn new OC Al Saunders’ famously complex offense, and chances are that the Rams will therefore be slow out of the gate.

A very good defensive front, balanced between youthful athleticism and experienced guile, provides reason for optimism, and defensive linemen Glover, Carriker, Little and rookie Chris Long will be looking forward to proving themselves against some of the NFL’s best tailbacks. Supported by MLB Will Witherspoon, the Rams’ front four ought to replicate some of the pocket-collapsing success the Giants’ line-led defense had in 2007.

Once opposing offenses aren’t running up the middle – and assuming they’re able to put enough blocking in front of the quarterback – the Rams will have more trouble. The secondary is notable for its lack of talent and depth, and apart from CB Tye Hill opposing gameplanners will not be unduly concerned about its ability to generate takeaways.

St Louis was only saved from a humiliating bottom-of-the-league placing last year by the utterly awful Miami Dolphins, and potentially could have been well placed to bounce back. Just having Steven Jackson on the field and with one or two decent O-linemen healthy probably guarantees a better record, but the team’s collective loss of confidence, Jackson’s destabilising absence and the likely growing pains of adopting to a new system will stop the Rams getting too far from the bottom of the league.

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