At this point in the NFL season all slates are cleared and no team can be called a clear-cut division favorite.
Five out of eight divisions were won by two games or fewer. Among the three with greater divides, two of the second-place divisional teams still posted winning records.
Yet no division is so unclear at this point in the offseason as the NFC West. Recent divisional stud Arizona was inconsistent even during its prime and just witnessed its Hall of Fame quarterback pick the sunset he wanted to ride into.
The past two years the Cardinals have been aided by playing in arguably the worst division in football. The three other teams in their division have the same combined win total as Indianapolis managed on its own.
Taking away divisional games (in which an NFC West team was guaranteed a win) the division sported an unhealthy .300 record as a unit.
With mediocrity can come great parity however.
San Francisco already won two games against the Kurt Warner-led Cardinals last season, and are a young team that might just be finding itself. With a great running back in Frank Gore and defensive player of the year candidate in Patrick Willis, they have several pieces in place.
Seattle boasts a rejuvenated front office, helmed by new head coach Pete Carroll. They boast two first round draft picks (both within the first half of the round) and near carte blanche approval of owner Paul Allen to do what is necessary.
St. Louis seems the least likely to make a run at the division lead. They are coming off a 1-15 record in which the shambles of a team managed less than 11 points per game.
The Rams do appear to have a solid coach in Steve Spagnuolo and one of the league’s best all around backs in Steven Jackson. With the first overall pick they have a great chance at landing a cornerstone player to build the team around.
What all these teams have in common should be the deciding factor in who emerges atop the NFC West—questions at quarterback.
Arizona currently has one quarterback on its roster in former 10th-overall draft pick Matt Leinart. Leinart has looked very ordinary in his limited time as a starter, posting a career rating of 71 despite throwing to one of the league’s best receiving corps.
The Cardinals will be adding to the roster before the season begins, but how they go about that remains to be seen. The vote of confidence in Leinart makes an impact move like trading for Donovan McNabb or drafting a quarterback in the first round unlikely.
The team will probably bring in a younger name (be it a third-fourth round draft pick or a younger veteran) under the guise of backing up Leinart, with the idea that the competition for the starting role will be more subtle.
Trying to give support to Leinart could leave the team in a lurch however if the 26-year-old signal caller disappoints.
San Francisco would like nothing more than for that to happen. They have issues of their own at quarterback, having spent the last two years unable to establish a true number one guy from the Alex Smith/Shaun Hill tandem.
Barring any major surprises, Smith will be the opening day starter in 2010. With more than double the starts of Leinart he can no longer use inexperience as an excuse to his underwhelming play.
Smith was drafted first overall in 2005, and carries a career rating even lower than Leinart’s at 69. Taking over for Hill in Week 7, Smith actually posted encouraging numbers in 2009.
He ended the year with an 81.5 quarterback rating and had his first season with a positive toudown-turnover ratio.
Smith should also have the luxury of an established number-one receiver for the first time in his career. Michael Crabtree had 48 receptions for 625 yards despite missing all of training camp and five games to a contract holdout. Translated to 16 games the numbers equate to almost 70 catches for 909 yards.
Given the time to learn the team’s playbook and develop a rapport, Crabtree should flirt with 1,000 yards in his sophomore year, something that could very much help Smith to finally emerge from first-overall disappointment.
Seattle shows up as a wildcard within the division. Head coach Pete Carroll will bring an entirely new philosophy to a team that was 5-7 before it packed it in for the final four games.
Assuming he is still the opening day starter, Matt Hasselbeck is on the downward swing of his career, but still a proven veteran with a superior resume to the rest of the division.
If he can fend off the nagging injuries that slowed him the past few years, he is only two years removed from a 3,966 yard 28 touchdown 2007 season. He isn’t the team’s long term answer anymore, but in the short term he holds the resume to get results.
Pete Carroll is actively seeking additional help at quarterback, be it to take over the starting role or just replace departed (via trade) backup Seneca Wallace.
While coaching at USC Carroll had a great track with turning out quarterbacks. Four former Trojans are slated to start behind center in 2010 (Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel, Matt Leinart, and Mark Sanchez) two of which saw playoff action last season.
With a pair of first round picks to bolster a squad not long removed from seeing the postseason, Carroll and the Seahawks could find themselves leapfrogging Arizona and San Francisco if they can secure steady play from the quarterback position.
The final team in the division is also the farthest from entering the mix. The St. Louis Rams were the NFL’s worst team in 2009, with only a single win.
They have holes at virtually every position, and it is uncertain what order they will work to address them in.
Marc Bulger proved last season that he no longer has the capacity to be even a temporary answer at quarterback. Although only 32, a host of injuries have aged him prematurely, and he cannot be counted on to either play a full season or deliver results when playing.
Given the gaping hole behind center, the logical assumption would be that St. Louis would attempt to draft its quarterback of the future with the first overall pick.
It might not be the case however, as can’t-miss defensive tackle Ndamakong Suh makes for a tantalizing prospect for former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Should St. Louis elect to forego Suh, the assumption is that they will draft Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford.
With nothing else to really work with in the passing game, it would be a great surprise if in his rookie year Bradford were able to produce the kind of results necessary to flirt with .500, let alone fight for a divisional crown.
Still, with any team in the NFC West capable of major surprise or letdown in 2010, stranger things could happen.
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