Jeff Fisher to the Rams: What Does It Mean to the NFC West in 2012?

Luke Bunger@LukeHBCardsCorrespondent IIIJanuary 16, 2012

Jeff Fisher has finally made a decision and chosen the St. Louis Rams.

Though Fisher was said to prefer the Rams early, just a few days back news began to break that Fisher preferred the Miami Dolphins. At one point, he was reported by Adam Schefter to be 80-20 in favor of the Dolphins.

Though fans in both Miami and St. Louis were probably most on edge for these past few days, across the NFC West—in San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona—fans were glued to the saga, waiting to see what would come next.

The NFC West takes a lot of stuff for being the worst division in football. But for the third time in as many years, the most high-profile head coach available has seen enough potential in an NFC West team to join it ahead of other, more high-profile gigs.

In 2010, Pete Carroll left USC to join the Seattle Seahawks and lead them, somewhat controversially, to a playoff spot following a 7-9 finish. Carroll then led them in beating the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints during the Wild Card Round before stumbling against the Chicago Bears.

In 2011, Jim Harbaugh left Stanford to join the struggling San Francisco 49ers and lead the team to a 13-3 regular-season record. Harbaugh also went on to upset the Saints in his first NFL playoff game as a head coach.

In 2012, it will be Jeff Fisher's turn, as he will to try to turn around a Rams team that looked helpless in 2011, and he is expected to lead the Rams back into divisional contention, perhaps staging a playoff upset of his own.

Only the Cardinals have yet to see a change at head coach since appointing Ken Whisenhunt in 2007.

Will Fisher's appointment help to cement the NFC West as a real NFL contender and turn around a division which has regularly been the laughingstock of the NFL? What does that mean to the other teams in the division, specifically the Arizona Cardinals? Let's take a look.


The Good News for the Arizona Cardinals

Though Rams fans are probably most excited by Fisher's appointment, there were no shortage of Cardinals fans were relieved when they heard the news.

The reasons? Ray Horton and Steve Keim.

Ray Horton is the defensive coordinator responsible for turning the Cardinals defense, and in no small part the 2011 season, around. Horton is a great defensive coordinator and will certainly one day get his own head coaching job.

Horton interviewed with the Rams a little over a week ago, but at the time the general consensus was that Fisher had the job locked up, Horton, with only one year of experience as a coordinator, was interviewed solely to satisfy the Rooney Rule.

However, Horton impressed...a lot. Rumors started to swirl that if Fisher wasn't hired, Horton would get the job, and Cardinals fans began biting their nails.

So when news broke a few days later that Fisher was leaning heavily towards the job in Miami, Arizona football fans took a sharp intake of breath, seemingly as one.

Breathe a sigh of relief, Cardinals fans—Fisher's appointment means Horton will likely stick around for at least one more season and further instill his effective defensive philosophy in the Cardinals' young defense.

Sure, he could still depart for another vacant position, perhaps in Miami or Tampa Bay. But that now seems significantly less likely, as both teams seem to have already interviewed, or have interviews lined up with, coaches who satisfy Rooney's rule, the main reason for teams calling on a first-year coordinator.

Horton was not the only Cardinals staffer up for a position in St. Louis. Steve Keim, the Cardinals director of player personnel, was, and technically remains, a potential target for the Rams' vacant GM job.

However, to land Fisher, the Rams apparently needed to give up an awful lot of authority to Fisher, which is reported to include a say in the hiring of all coaches and even front-office staff.

With Titans VP of football operations Lake Dawson, a man who worked with Fisher, now interviewing with the Rams, Keim seems, for now, to be staying put too.


Bad News for the Arizona Cardinals

While coaching stability is certainly a good thing for the Cardinals, it is not without its drawbacks.

Jeff Fisher is an experienced NFL head coach with a solid regular-season record, playoff experience and a nose for sniffing out talent. 

In St. Louis, Fisher will be given near total control of all aspects of the game, something he never really had in Houston/Tennessee, and the backing of an owner, Stan Kroenke, who has pretty deep pockets.

While in the NFL, absolute power is no guarantee of success—Cardinals fans will remember the mismanagement which ensued when Fisher's mentor, Buddy Ryan, was given absolute control in Phoenix.

But given the building blocks he has in place, (a franchise QB in Sam Bradford, a set of early draft picks and an owner apparently willing to spend his way out of a hole), it's hard not to suspect that Fisher will at least improve on 2011's performance.

That's a problem for the Cardinals, if only because they need to play this team twice. In 2011, playing the Rams was as close to a guaranteed win as you get in the NFL. In 2012, that will not be the case.

Fisher already seems to have his coaching targets. New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, and close friend of Fisher, Gregg Williams is rumored to be the Rams' new DC in 2012 and former Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is set to be officially announced as offensive coordinator, pending the signing of his contract.

This is an experienced, successful group, all of whom have coached teams to the playoffs in recent memory. Add to that Lake Dawson, who would officially carry the title of GM but, if reports are correct, would act as more of an adviser to Fisher, and it's easy to imagine the 2012 Rams looking nothing like the whipping boy which they appeared to be in 2011.

With the NFC West likely to be wide open next season, the Cardinals cannot hope to remain in contention without significant improvements on both sides of the ball.


The Good News for the NFC West

Following Fisher's signing, there are three NFC West coaches, Carroll, Harbaugh and Fisher himself, who are supremely motivated to justify their decision to join the NFC West and improve the quality of football coming out of it.

No coach wants his NFL epitaph to read, "He did okay, because he coached in a bad division."

With these three coaches duking it out to back up their choice to coach in the NFC West with actions, and with two out of the three also having the main say in the players they bring in, the level of competition in the NFC West and the caliber of players making their homes in there should result in a real change in perception of this division.

All of that ignores the Cardinals, who themselves have a good coaching staff and some elite players and will also be attempting to repeat their success from 2008 and 2009.

All in all—pending the draft and free agency, of course—this makes for one competitive, wide-open division, with each and every team having the potential to go deep in the playoffs.

In other words, exactly the sort of division which could get national media attention next season.

Fans of teams in the NFC West have long shrugged off the accusations of theirs being a "weak" division, but it would be nice to shed the belief for good.

Fans will know, for example, NFC West teams have won at least one playoff game in every season since 2004, and the division has sent two teams, the Seahawks and Cardinals, to the Super Bowl in that time. Both, it should be noted, lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, widely acknowledged to be one of only a few NFL dynasties of the modern era, and several others would be knocked out by the eventual champions.

However, this doesn't seem to have ended the nonstop jokes at NFC West teams' expense.

It is a very real possibility that the NFC West could see two or more teams represented in the playoffs in 2012, with all four teams in contention towards the end of the season. This, coupled with any of them going deep in the playoffs, and the NFC West could finally put an end to its position as the butt of all NFL jokes.


The Bad News for the NFC West

Of course, all of this comes crashing down if the coaches fail to perform.

The added scrutiny the addition of Fisher will no doubt bring only goes to increase the prospect of the NFC West forever cementing its position as the worst division in football if it once more sends a team to the playoffs with a losing record.

The Rams are still very much an unknown. Though Fisher was the most high-profile head coach available this year, his coaching style is somewhat out of vogue in the NFL right now.

He has never operated in the role the Rams are giving him with so much absolute control. While he has the potential to do some really exciting things in the draft, holding the second overall pick and the first pick on the second day of the draft—real trade bait—whether such a new inexperienced front office group can pull the trigger on any "killer trade" remains to be seen.

With Fisher having spent a season out of the game, there are also some questions as to whether he has the requisite knowledge to go into the draft and free agency, having the final say on hirings as he does, and make good decisions.

Carroll was adequate in his first year in Seattle, making the playoffs and upsetting the Saints, but he did so with the worst regular season ever for a division winner, and his failure to compete in 2011 has already put him in the hot seat.

If he fails to produce results in 2012, his dual role as head coach and VP of football operations is in real jeopardy. Both of the drafts Carroll has been in charge of have been considered only average thus far, and though he has made a lot of changes on both sides of the ball, to date his success has been relatively limited.

Harbaugh is looking very good in 2011 but in 2012 will face a much tougher schedule, and he may too struggle to repeat whatever success he achieves this season. The 49ers will undoubtedly have a tougher time repeating their results from 2011.

In the main, they will struggle to balance their salary cap requirements and keep their successful defensive unit intact, with two of their MVPs—Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson—entering free agency.

The team will have a real big decision about the future of Alex Smith, and their offensive priorities in 2012, with a huge number of free agents to deal with.

The Cardinals have the most consistency coming into 2012 and appear to be in the best position to challenge for the NFC West title. But they also many questions to answer, specifically on the offensive side of the football.

These questions revolve around the quarterback position—is that player on the roster, will they try to sign a top free-agent quarterback and how will their weakness on the offensive line likely limit whoever starts?

There is also a very real possibility of all teams being too evenly matched to get solid results. If no team is able to break away from the pack and divisional games are pretty evenly split, teams will really struggle to shine and show the world what they can do.


In Conclusion

Fisher's hiring is a real mixed blessing, both for the Cardinals and the NFC West as a whole.

The reality is, we will have to see whether things play out in favor of the Cardinals. It's hard to spin the immediate benefits—keeping some of the most successful parts of their staff and coaches intact—as anything but a positive, but the long-term effects are yet to be seen.

The draft and Fisher's foray into the free-agent market will likely give us a much clearer picture of what the future holds for the Cardinals, but right now, at least, it's anyone's game.


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