2009 NFC West Preview: The Wild Bunch

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2009

In Hollywood westerns, there are two types of shootouts which usually mark the pinnacle of the films.

The first is a clean, no muss no fuss gunfight, usually involving John Wayne. The bad guys wear black hats. The good guys wear white. The evil bandits get their comeuppance.

Nice. Clean. Quick.

The second type of shootout is the gritty brutal type, filmed by directors like Sam Peckinpah.

Tons of bullets flying. Lots of blood. Anti-heroes as your good guys. The railroads or sheriffs or regular white hats are the bad guys. Even the survivors are left beaten up and wondering why it all happened.

I tend to prefer the latter, which means I could be in for quite the treat while watching the NFC West this season.

This year the divisional race is proof positive that everyone has a shot at the playoffs in the spring.

One might be tempted to look at 2008 and assume that it’s the Cardinals world and San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis will just be living in it in 2009.

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Not so fast, buckaroo.

This division is not as spread out as it appeared to be last year and it’s likely that the end of the season will recall the final shootout at the end of Peckinpah’s "The Wild Bunch," when all hell breaks loose.

The Cardinals are undoubtedly strong contenders to repeat as division winners, but San Francisco could continue their late season surge of 2008, Seattle is nowhere near as bad as they appeared last season and even St. Louis has a chance to make things difficult for the reigning NFC Conference Champs.

The NFC West will be a hard-fought battle. Here’s how the gunfighters stack up.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cards appear to have only gotten better during the off-season thus far, cutting deadwood like Roderick Hood, Edgerrin James and Travis LaBoy, while either signing free agents like CB Bryant McFadden or drafting their replacements, as in the case of RB Chris Wells, DE/OLB Cody Brown or CB Greg Toler.

Yet not all is well in the state of Arizona. Anquan Boldin has continued his campaign for more money or a trade. The Cardinals have him for two more years at a reasonable price, so are unmoved to give him the first.

There was some noise before the draft he might be traded but nobody met the Cardinals’ price, so Boldin remains in Arizona but not happily.

Recently, he skipped minicamp due to a hamstring injury, and was joined by fellow unhappy camper defensive lineman Darnell Dockett.

The Cards have to hope that two unhappy players in the locker-room will not become a distraction.

Aside from the contract disputes, this is a team which will continue to excel offensively. Kurt Warner is back and even if Boldin is traded or holds out, still has Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Early Doucet and Jerheme Urban to throw to.

They’ve now added a potentially dynamic run game. Tim Hightower played well but not exceptionally so and James was largely ineffective.

Rookie Chris Wells has some durability concerns but he only missed three games in three years and has the ability to be a game changer in a way neither Hightower nor James was last season.

On the other side of the ball, the Cards struggled in several areas defensively, which will kill them if the problems persist.

They allowed the fifth most points scored (426 total) and while they played better near the end of the season, the Super Bowl showed that a team could still take advantage of defensive lapses almost at will.

Part of that problem was a complete inability to stop teams in the red zone. If you’re bottom of the league in allowing teams to score, it’s a lock you can’t stop them past the 20-yard line.

The Cardinal defense also allowed far too many third-down conversions, nearly 50 percent. Even third and long was a problem for this team.

It doesn’t matter a bit that you have one of the top offenses in the league if they never see the field.

The team has to get their issues resolved because a quick look at Arizona’s schedule tells you a return to the division title will be no cake-walk.

In the first three games they play at Jacksonville and host Indianapolis. They also visit the Giants, Chicago and Tennessee, and welcome Houston, Carolina, Minnesota and Green Bay.

Those are all games that will sorely test both the offense and defense and that’s not even taking into consideration a NFC West which is in much better shape than it was in 2008.

San Francisco and St. Louis will both attempt to keep the high flying offense off the field by controlling the clock via the ground game.

Seattle, while lacking a tremendously potent run game, will have a healthy Matt Hasselbeck throwing to TJ Houshmandzadeh and can depend on a relatively solid defense to make things tough on the Cards.

Arizona has the tools and ability to repeat, but it will not be an easy road.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers’ record in 2008 was, at first glance, a disappointing one. But after week seven, when then Head Coach Mike Nolan was replaced by current Head Coach Mike Singletary, the 49ers played far better than they had to start the season.

They ended to season with a 5-4 run, including impressive wins over Buffalo, the New York Jets and Washington.

Singletary wants has made some adjustments to the offense to give the run game more strength and focus than under the previous regime.

To that end, he recruited former Jets running back coach Jimmy Raye who helped Thomas Jones to two 1,000 yard seasons and a Pro Bowl, drafted tough blocking tight end Bear Pascoe and short yardage bruiser Glenn Coffee and brought back lead blocking fullback Moran Norris.

Singletary wants the offense to use the rushing attack to be able to impose it's will upon a game and while the team disputes it is going to be a run first team, it’s certain they will run the ball and run it often.

Which only makes sense, given that Frank Gore is the best weapon in the offensive arsenal.

While the team had game changing wideout Michael Crabtree fall into their laps on Draft day and still have veteran Isaac Bruce and emerging threat Josh Morgan, the lack of a clear-cut quarterback makes it hard to rely on the pass attack.

The offensive line is also a concern and while left tackle is locked down by Joe Staley, there are still some questions filling the rest out.

Chilo Rachal has played well at guard and they added former Steeler Marvel Smith with the thought that he can take the other tackle position.

They can only hope the additions can help keep whomever starts at quarterback on his feet, but more than likely they will try to limit the pressure by running the ball.

They also hope the defense can keep things close. Too often in 2008, the team fell behind and was forced to throw to come back.

With the line problems and the quarterback inconsistency, it was usually too much.

They need to pressure the opposing quarterbacks more after a season where they were middle of the pack in sacks (30) and only produced a dozen interceptions.

The 49ers face some tough out of division competition, including Atlanta, Houston, Tennessee, Chicago, Philadelphia and a trip to Green Bay in late November.

And then consider Arizona’s upgraded run attack coupled with its dynamic air game, Seattle’s finally healthy pass offense and St. Louis’ solid rushing attack.

All the teams they face can put points on the scoreboard. The 49ers are better off keeping their offense off the field by burning the clock.

If they can get the run game firing on all cylinders, consistently, they can do that.

That will give both the defense (and the team overall) a chance in any game, and beyond that a shot at the division.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks spent much of the 2008 season on the injury report.

At some point, virtually every wide receiver was injured and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck spent a ton of time battling back problem and a knee injury.

But Hasselbeck is back on track, and the wide receiver corps was bolstered by the off-season acquisition of former Cincinnati Bengal, TJ Houshmandzadeh.

Housh came with a hefty price tag, but it’s been a very long time since any Seahawk wideout has been a real threat so he could be worth it.

Adding Houshmandzadeh to the mix will not only help Hasselbeck, but open things up for Nate Burleson and second year tight end John Carlson.

It may also help mask a run game which was not addressed at all in the 2009 Draft or free agency.

The team is moving into a zone-run blocking scheme and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp will try to get the same group of backs who accounted for only 1,768 yards and only ten touchdowns on the ground.

Julius Jones and TJ Duckett form the nucleus of this attack and both will have to do much better if they are to help loosen up opposing defenses for the newly juiced pass attack.

Whether they can do it behind an offensive line filled with players fresh off the injured reserve is a different matter.

To help shore up the O-line, the Seahawks drafted center Max Unger. Unger is a guy who played four of the five offensive line positions at Oregon and could fill in anywhere along the front line.

He’s already practiced at left guard as well as center and it’s a sure bet he’ll see some action behind several different spots with so many vets coming off an injury.

Seattle is still playing in the free agent pool, and plans to have former Bengal Levi Jones in for a visit.

It won’t matter, though, if the defense cannot improve over its dismal 2008 performance.

Only Kansas City and Detroit were worse overall, and absolutely nobody was worse against the pass. Their saving grace might have been their 18th-ranked run defense.

Seattle has rebooted their once-dominant defense with several key off-season additions, most notably their No. 4 draft pick, linebacker Aaron Curry.

Curry will probably slide into the strong side linebacker position, which is in need of help after the team traded Julian Peterson to Detroit for defensive tackle Corey Redding and a fifth round pick.

Redding, in turn, will help fill in for Rocky Bernard, who left for the Giants in free agency. That’s assuming Redding can stay healthy.

Curry, along with Leroy Hill and Lofa Tatupu, will give the team a fearsome group of linebackers and should shore up the defense tremendously and help the defensive line bring the heat back to this defense.

Seattle faces some of the same monsters which the rest of the division does (Minnesota, Houston, Chicago, Green Bay) but also will see Dallas and Jacksonville.

They match up best within the division to a team like the Rams who are struggling to rebuild their offensive line, while they may have issues containing Arizona’s dynamic pass attack.

The 49ers may not know who their starting QB is, but Seattle knows it must be ready to hold down Frank Gore and keep the offense off of the field.

This team was never as bad as they looked last year and if they stay healthy, they will easily contend for the Division title.

St Louis Rams

New Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo had been on the short lists of a ton of teams when he joined the Rams after their tumultuous 2008 season.

St Louis dealt with almost as many injuries as Seattle did along the offensive line and that’s where they started their off-season moves.

First, they allowed longtime left tackle Orlando Pace to leave via free agency. The move was no surprise to most observers, as Pace had been injured often over the prior few seasons.

They filled Pace’s spot with the acquisition of Jason Smith, the top-ranked tackle in the NFL Draft.

Smith will play at either left or right tackle and will have an immediate impact, something the team needs if they want Marc Bulger to survive another season.

Expect a healthy dose of a healthy Steven Jackson as well.

Jackson began 2008 coming off of a 27-day holdout which contributed to a lingering thigh injury.

He should be in camp on time this year and the Rams are looking to go heavy in the run game, so Jackson should be back to his top end self.

He may have to do most of the heavy lifting, since the wide receivers are fairly big question marks.

Of course, Donnie Avery is expected to continue his progress towards becoming a true No. 1 wideout. But the team released veteran Torry Holt in the off-season, and you have to wonder who will step up to fill the void?

Defensively, like much of the rest of the NFC West, this was a team that was not very good.

Overall the squad ranked a horrid 28th, surrendering an average of 371 yards a game and 465 total points.

They tried to inject a little life into it by drafting Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis, who dropped in the draft due to questions about his athleticism.

Laurinaitis is a smart, savvy player who will immediately start on the team, likely next to Will Witherspoon and probably Chris Draft, now that the team has cut Pisa Tinoisamoa.

While Tinoisamoa didn’t fit the new defensive scheme and it’s understandable why the coaches felt letting him go was necessary, it’s hard not to worry about whether they can replace his productivity.

Tinoisamoa was the team’s leading tackler last year and one can hope Laurinaitis’ range will help make up for those.

Again, the Rams face the usual suspects in Minnesota, Green Bay, Chicago (in December no less) and Tennessee. They also see Houston, Jacksonville and Washington.

Within their division, they will be faced with some tough matchups.

They don’t have the guns to keep up with Arizona, and they will be hard pressed to get to Kurt Warner or stay with the wide receivers. Their own offense may find the Arizona defense difficult to handle as well, most notably the inexperienced wide receiver group.

They match up a little better with San Francisco and its potential run-centric offense and if they can shut Gore down and force whichever quarterback wins the August melee, it’s a game they can win.

Seattle will be a challenge. If the Seahawks defense gets back up to par, the Rams offensive line will be sorely tested. Seattle’s pass attack could be a good match for the Rams secondary, though if the Seahawks struggle to run the ball this season, it will allow the linebackers to drop into coverage more to help out.

Out of the entire NFC West, the Rams have the worst chance to take the division.

While they filled some holes, there are still too many question marks on both sides of the ball. But they can certainly make a nuisance of themselves within the division.

They can definitely make the NFC West a bit more wild.