Why the NFC West's No Longer the Worst
For some time now, the NFC West has affectionately been referred to as the 'NFC Worst.'
Long considered a 'free pass' to the playoffs for whichever team wins the division, is it time to dump the nickname?
Arizona's run to the Super Bowl and fresh starts for the other three teams has given cause for optimism.
Here are some reasons why the west may no longer be worst in the NFC.
The Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks combined for a 13-35 record in 2008.
The result? Fresh starts all round as each franchise appointed a new head coach.
The Giants' defense, led by Steve Spagnuolo, had a real impact on the team's Super Bowl XLII victory.
Now Spagnuolo is charged with leading a Rams revival.
It might be a long term project in St Louis, with plenty of work to be done rebuilding the roster and finding an identity on both sides of the ball.
Spagnuolo is likely to build his team around the blue print in New York. Expect an emphasis on a strong ground game and a fearsome pass rushing defense.
The Seahawks named their successor to Mike Holmgren prior to the 2008 season.
Jim Mora has the difficult task of following the legendary coach and forcing a recovery from an unexpected 4-12 season.
Seattle GM Tim Ruskell has been aggressive in free agency and the draft, making key additions like T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Aaron Curry.
With an emphasis on 'win-now', the Seahawks will be hoping to make 2008 a distant memory.
The 49ers made a wise decision when they appointed Mike Singletary on a permanent basis after a strong end to 2008 - finishing 4-1 in their last five games.
For too long the Niners lacked a focus, a direction. That has changed with Singletary at the helm.
The team will be molded in their coaches image. Tough, outspoken, more perspiration than inspiration.
San Francisco might not be the most aesthetically pleasing team to watch in 2009 - but a fresh start under Singletary was just what this franchise needed.
Don't be surprised if the combined record of these three teams is much improved next season.
Class of '09
The NFC West had three teams picking in the top 10 of this year's draft.
The St Louis Rams grabbed Jason Smith with the second overall pick, the Seahawks took Aaron Curry at No. 4 and the 49ers got a steal with Michael Crabtree at the 10th selection.
Although not considered a particularly strong draft class, there's no doubt that this trio have the potential to develop into top NFL stars.
A nasty, aggressive left tackle - Jason Smith should provide the perfect platform for Steven Jackson in a rejuvenated running game in St Louis.
Aaron Curry was considered by many to be the draft's top prospects and should have an immediate impact as a rookie starter.
The most dynamic playmaker on the market was arguably Michael Crabtree. His presence on the 49ers offense will help Shaun Hill develop as a starter and keep the Niners balanced as they go for a run focused attack.
As with any rookie, there's never a sure thing.
But nobody can deny the potential on offer here. If they live up to expectations, the class of '09 could be a good one.
Pro Bowl Quarterbacks
Kurt Warner might be 38 years old in June, but nobody can deny he isn't still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
It helps when you're throwing to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, but it'd be unfair to take anything away from Warner's superb 2008 season which warranted serious MVP consideration.
He heads into 2009 with a new contract, having led the Cardinals to a Super Bowl and very nearly a championship.
Warner should serve as an inspiration for two other NFC West quarterbacks.
Matt Hasselbeck had an injury hit 2008 and will turn 34 this year.
Marc Bulger is also in his 30's and has endured two difficult seasons in St Louis.
However, both have Pro Bowl experience and on their day—rank amongst the best in the business.
With a clean bill of health and greater balance throughout the roster, the NFC West can boast some experienced quality at the most important position in football.
Super Bowl visits
Since the turn of the century, the NFC West has had more Super Bowl representatives than any other NFC division.
In fact, they are tied with the AFC East for most Super Bowl appearances in the NFL period.
Some would argue the weakness of the opposition gives the division winner a free pass into the playoffs.
There's some evidence in that suggestion last year—the Cardinals won the NFC West with a less than spectacular 9-7 record.
However, when it comes to the playoffs—the NFC West teams have shown they are capable of competing with the best.
It may not have the depth or the rivalry that the NFC East has.
But the NFC West has produced some good teams over the years—the number of Super Bowl visits shows that to be the case.
The NFC West boasts some of the best young talent on defense in the NFL.
The 49ers own possibly the most aggressive, dominant linebacker in the league in Patrick Willis.
Back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances in his first two seasons, 2007 defensive rookie of the year—Willis has had an instant impact on the NFL.
The talent doesn't stop there.
Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett both had tremendous campaigns in Arizona's Super Bowl run.
Adrian Wilson was another dominant presence, whilst Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie also showed he has the potential to be an elite corner back.
The Seahawks have one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL with Aaron Curry joining Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill in Seattle.
The Seahawks also boast proven veterans in Patrick Kerney and Marcus Trufant on their roster.
Much is expected from Rams' 2007 first round pick Chris Long.
St Louis also have some under rated talent in the form of Oshiomogho Atogwe and Will Witherspoon.
Larry Fitzgerald and co.
Larry Fitzgerald showed in the 2008 playoffs that he's ready to become an elite figure in the NFL.
His record breaking post season (546 receiving yards, 30 catches, 7 TD's) firmly solidified his position as one of the league's top receivers.
Playing in a pass friendly offense, he has the potential to become an all-time great.
You just can't cover Fitzgerald. Only Randy Moss has the full package of height, speed, route running, sure hands, separation and sheer physical presence.
No other team in the league has a trio as dominant as Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.
It's crucial the team resolves their dispute with Boldin to keep this group together.
A greater running threat will no doubt help too. Taking Chris 'Beanie' Wells 31st overall could prove to be one of the biggest steals in this year's draft.
Alongside power-house Tim Hightower, the Cardinals offense is positively frightening.
For so long this team were the nearly-men of the NFL.
With a potent offense and Ken Wisenhunt conducting things, the Arizona Cardinals could become one of the league's most feared teams.