West No Longer Worst In NFC

Rob StatonCorrespondent IMay 7, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates after scoring on a 64-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Steelers won 27-23. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The NFC West has taken its fair share of hits in recent years and it’s easy to see why. Last year was a classic case—the Arizona Cardinals clinched the division with a 9-7 record. The less said about the rest the better—San Francisco, Seattle, and St Louis combined for a total 13-35 record and three top-10 draft picks.

Call this one a hunch, but I think we’ll see a wilder west in the NFC this year.

Arizona may have labored into the playoffs, but they found a second wind at the crucial time and flexed their muscles right up to the Super Bowl. This isn’t the same Cardinals team that were almost exclusively the nearly men of the NFC.

In Larry Fitzgerald they have a genuine star in the making and an offense that warrants consideration amongst the NFL’s elite. Adding Chris ‘Beanie’ Wells in the draft was an absolute steal athe the 31st overall pick and adds another dimension to their altogether potent attack.

Defensively there's room for improvement, but in the playoffs they did enough to get by, and it’s testament to Ken Wisenhunt that he found enough balance to get the most from his explosive offense.

Changes to the coaching staff could have an effect (coordinators Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast are now in KC), but you get the sense this is a franchise at the beginning of its journey, not the end.

One look at San Francisco’s recent history makes for gruesome reading. No playoff appearances for six years (worst run since the 70’s), and the 49ers lost twice as many games as they’ve won in that time frame.

Under the leadership of Mike Singletary, however, there’s cause for optimism heading into 2009. They ended last season with a 4-1 burst and took on a new identity as a hit-you-in-the-face style battle unit.

Sure, they aren’t by any means the finished product. They could use a greater pass rush threat and the offensive line is serviceable, if not elite. Shaun Hill is slated to start at quarterback, a guy with 10 career starts as a previously undrafted free agent out of Maryland.

But they do have the tools to fit Singletary’s vision. Patrick Willis is a tackling machine and potential playmaker on defense. Frank Gore is capable of carrying the load at running back and will be spelled next year by third round pick Glenn Coffee.

But perhaps the best move the 49ers made this offseason was drafting Michael Crabtree 10th overall. The two-time Biletnikoff winner is a quarterback's best friend and should make life easier for Hill as he aims to nail the starting role.

He’ll keep opposition defense honest whilst providing big play ability in the passing game. Crabtree has been overlooked in some quarters as having the potential to be an impact rookie—for me, he’s right up there in the rookie-of-the year sweepstakes.

The Niners could be a surprise package in 2009.

The St Louis Rams have also enjoyed a solid offseason. The appointment of Steve Spagnuolo was a coup for that franchise; he’s going to make a good head coach in the NFL. Rebuilding the offensive line has been a priority and big free agent signing Jason Brown and second overall pick Jason Smith will help create plenty of running lanes for Steven Jackson.

That looks likely to be Spagnuolo’s blue print in St Louis, because it’s what made the Giants an effective force. The running game in New York made life easy for Eli Manning and although the Rams might struggle to re-create "earth, wind, and fire" in Jackson, they have one of the league’s best backs. A rejuvenated running game will help Marc Bulger rebound after back-to-back disappointing seasons.

In fairness to Spagnuolo, it’s probably at least a two year rebuild. To see the Rams challenging in 2009 would be a recovery of Parcells’ proportions, when Miami turned a 1-15 nightmare into an 11-5 playoff dream.

There are still holes on both sides of the ball, although James Laurinaitis could be a dark horse for defensive rookie-of-the-year. He was a steal in round two and should offer leadership and organizational skills alongside toughness and game management.

St Louis may have to settle for a year of transition, but they won’t be the push over seen in 2007 and 2008. They’ll cause a few bloodied noses around the league and likely point towards a future challenge for the divisional title. Spagnuolo has a lot to prove as a head coach, but my money’s on him making things right again in St Louis.

That leaves me with my very own Seahawks. Nobody expected a 4-12 season in Mike Holmgren’s final year, considering Seattle’s dominance in the West, winning four consecutive division titles. Injury’s ravaged any hopes of adding a fifth title, and the ability to get back to the playoffs will depend heavily on an improved bill of health in 2009.

If Matt Hasselbeck overcomes his back problems, if Walter Jones recovers from micro fracture surgery, and if Patrick Kerney can get back on the field, there’s no reason why the Seahawks won’t be challengers in the NFC.

That’s a lot of ‘if’s’ though, perhaps too many for comfort. Tim Ruskell has spent the off season in a ‘win-now’ mentality, investing in short-term impact over long-term security. It’s a gamble for sure, another injury plagued season could undermine the team’s new era under Jim Mora.

However, only the worst kind of luck will put Seattle in a déjà-vu from 2008. How many team’s lose their starting quarterback, all their receivers, their best defensive pass rusher, and then their entire starting offensive line in one single season? If the Seahawks can stay healthy, they can challenge. It’s that simple.

The additions of Aaron Curry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, in particular, offer injections of talent and immediate impact—much needed considering the investment placed in both. Curry will line up as part of arguably the NFL’s best young trio of linebackers, whilst Houshmandzadeh will hope to create a telepathic link up with Hasselbeck in the passing game.

We’ve heard jokes about the ‘NFC Worst’. Maybe it’s a bold prediction because we’ve anticipated this kind of change in the past, only to be sorely disappointed. I just have a feeling the NFC West will be a tougher division in 2009—competitive as a single entity, but also a division no longer enjoyed by the other NFC teams who come to visit.