Mild, Mild West: Previewing The NFC West In 2011-12
It's hard to believe just how bad the NFC West is.
This year, the division-winning Seattle Seahawks were the first team to ever make the NFL playoffs with a losing record.
The division collectively put up a record of 25-39, for a winning percentage of .391. Excluding divisional games, because someone had to win those, the NFC West went 13-27 for a .325 winning percentage.
Perhaps the worst part of that record is that it was actually a one-win improvement on 2009-10. Of course, in 2009-10, the Arizona Cardinals did post a 10-6 record, so it's hard to decide in which year the division was worse.
It's hard to imagine it'll be worse next year, but here's a preview of the mild, mild NFC West in 2011-12 (assuming there isn't a lockout, of course).
Arizona Cardinals: 2010-11 Season
Superstar wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was one of the few bright spots on a pitiful 5-11 Cardinals team this season. He put together his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season, as well as earning his fourth straight Pro Bowl selection.
The Cardinals lacked consistency at quarterback, with Derek Anderson starting nine games, John Skelton starting four and Max Hall starting three.
The Cardinals started the season 3-2, but after a bye in Week 6, they proceeded to lose seven games in a row and couldn't recover.
Arizona Cardinals: Offseason
Key Free Agents: Tim Hightower (RB), Steve Breaston (WR), Early Doucet (WR), Ben Patrick (TE), Alan Faneca (G) Deuce Lutui (G), Lyle Sendlein (C), Kenny Iwebema (DE), Bryan Robinson (DE), Alan Branch (DT), Gabe Watson (DT), Matt Ware (S)
Draft Position: Fifth overall
Arizona Cardinals: 2011-12 Outlook
Arizona's outlook for 2011-12 depends largely on its quarterback situation, among several other holes in the lineup.
Also, 2011-12 is the final year of Larry Fitzgerald's contract, and if the Cardinals can't put some key pieces in place toward building a winner, Fitzgerald may want out of Arizona.
There are too many questions for the Cardinals to answer heading into next season, and they likely won't be able to come close to a playoff spot.
San Francisco 49ers: 2010-11 Season
The 49ers were picked by many as the favorites to win the NFC West in 2010-11, but they lost five straight to start the season, and after climbing back to 5-8 after Week 14, their playoff hopes died with back-to-back losses to San Diego and St. Louis in Weeks 15 and 16.
The 49ers didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver, and their defense was barely above average (13th in the league).
To top it off, they fired coach Mike Singletary with a week to go in the season, and QB Alex Smith, the first overall draft pick in 2005, is an upcoming free agent. Neither side is sure if it wants Smith in San Francisco.
San Francisco 49ers: Offseason
Key Free Agents: Alex Smith (QB), Troy Smith (QB), Brian Westbrook (RB), David Bass (C), Ray McDonald (DE), Aubrayo Franklin (DT), Takeo Spikes (LB), Travis LaBoy (LB), Manny Lawson (LB), Dashon Goldson (CB)
Draft Position: Seventh overall
San Francisco 49ers: 2011-12 Outlook
Much of the 49ers' success this season will center around two key issues: the effectiveness of newly named head coach Jim Harbaugh, and who will be playing quarterback next season.
In 2010-11, Harbaugh led Stanford to a 12-1 record, including a victory in the Orange Bowl. Harbaugh was a widely desired option to fill vacancies throughout the college and NFL coaching ranks, including in Miami.
With a lack of can't miss quarterbacks in the draft this year, it's hard to know what the 49ers are planning. Early reports are that Harbaugh believes "Alex Smith can be a winning QB", so Smith might be back with the 49ers next season.
If the team responds to Harbaugh's coaching, and the QB situation is solved, San Francisco could challenge for the division.
Seattle Seahawks: 2010-11 Season
The Seahawks' 2010-11 season was an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least.
There were very low expectations for the Seahawks entering the season, and they surprised early by starting 4-2. They then proceeded to post a 2-7 record in the next nine games to set up a winner takes all showdown with the St. Louis Rams in the final game of the NFL regular season.
The game was at Qwest Field in Seattle, but the Seahawks were without first string QB Matt Hasselbeck Luckily, the Seahawks' defense stepped up. Seattle held the Rams to just six points, allowing it to clinch a playoff spot with a losing record, for the first time in NFL history.
The 11-5 and defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints came into Seattle as heavy 10.5 point favorites. The Seahawks built a 14-point lead going into the fourth quarter, but New Orleans stormed back to within four points, and had all the momentum.
Then, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch ripped off a 67-yard touchdown run that's already become known as one of the best plays in playoff history. It basically sealed the game, and let the Seahawks move on.
In the Divisional Championship game, the Seahawks luck seemed to have run out. They were down 28-3 to the Chicago Bears to start the fourth quarter and made a good attempt at an epic comeback. The Seahawks pushed the game to 35-24, but failed to recover an onside kick, ending their season.
Seattle Seahawks: Offseason
Key Free Agents: Matt Hasselbeck (QB), Leon Washington (RB), Mike Williams (WR), Ben Obomanu (WR), Sean Locklear (T), Chris Spencer (C), Brandon Mebane (DT), Will Herring (LB), Leroy Hill (LB), Matt McCoy (LB), Kelly Jennings (CB), Roy Lewis (CB), Lawyer Milloy (S)
Draft Position: 25th overall
Seattle Seahawks: 2011-12 Outlook
Matt Hasselbeck is an upcoming free agent, but it's expected he'll re-sign with the Seahawks. But, at 36, how much will he be able to contribute? Much of the Seahawks success depends on that.
Another key factor will be the continued improvement of Marshawn Lynch, who needs to take the next step into being a consistent 1,000-yard running back.
The Seahawks' chances at the playoffs will likely be based more on the performance of the rest of the NFC West, as their performance will probably be similar to this year's.
St. Louis Rams: 2010-11 Season
After a dismal 1-15 record in 2009-10, the Rams had the first overall pick in the draft and used it to select Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. In 2008-09, Bradford had become only the second sophomore to ever win the Heisman Trophy after posting a 67.9 completion percentage, 4,721 yards, 50 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 14 games.
Bradford immediately became the Rams' starting QB, and had a good season, breaking Peyton Manning's records for completions and attempts by a rookie quarterback. He was also named AP's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Under Bradford's guidance, the Rams improved to a 7-9 record, but lost 16-6 to the Seahawks in Seattle in the final game of the season to miss the playoffs.
St. Louis Rams: Off Season
Key Free Agents: Kenneth Darby (RB), Laurent Robinson (WR), Danny Amendola (WR), Mark Clayton (WR), Daniel Fells (TE), Adam Goldberg (G), John Greco (G), CJ Ah You (DE), Chris Hovan (DT), Clifton Ryan (DT), David Vobora (LB), Justin King (CB)
Draft Position: 14th overall
St. Louis Rams: 2011-12 Outlook
If Sam Bradford progresses the way many expect him to—on a similar path to Peyton Manning—he should be looking at a 4,000-yard season with a QB rating over 90.
That should be more than enough for the Rams to win the NFC West.
Look for the Rams to significantly improve upon their 7-9 record from this season, to somewhere around 10-6.