2011 Division Previews: NFC West

New Sheriff In Town: Captain Comeback

NFC South

1. San Francisco 49ers (8-8) – The stage is set for the team with the most urgency to win now in the NFC West.  A change at the helm could be the biggest move in the division aside from Kevin Kolb being traded to Arizona.  Jim Harbaugh, a former quarterback, will greatly influence Alex Smith with his presence alone.  Smith, on his final leash, gets just what he needs to help revive his sputtering career – a new coach with a track record of success.  No longer does the former No. 1 pick have to fear “Samurai Mike” roaming the sidelines with his bulging eyes.  Surely, a more QB-friendly and approachable Harbaugh will do wonders for his confidence.  Just as much, it doesn’t hurt that the guy in charge is known for making something out of nothing.  Harbaugh turned a dismal Stanford program, known more for their academics than athletics, into a BCS Bowl winner.  He owned USC.  On top of that, he did it with just Andrew Luck and a crew of “leftover” (recruits passed by big-time schools) athletes.  Thus, you cannot overestimate the arrival of “Captain Comeback” to the Red & Gold, for not only Smith, but the team in general.  And it’s not like he’s dealing with “leftovers” and afterthoughts in the Bay Area.

While there’s no shortage of talent with this squad let’s just say the 49ers underachieving last season was, well, an understatement.  Before the team reached their first victory in ’10, they lost three games by a combined eight points to three (two division winners, defending Super Bowl champs) playoff teams.  After the first win of the year, the Niners lost the following game by a field goal.  Talk about frustration.  It’s evident early setbacks doomed the team that they couldn’t recover, however, it’s a whole new story in ’11, as the club will begin its candidacy for a division crown with nine of their first ten games at Candlestick or as winnable road affairs.  Much depends upon Harbaugh’s impact on Smith.  I think a lot of it does.  If you look at things from strictly a skill standpoint, the 49ers possess the best running back (sorry, Steven Jackson), pass catchers, offensive line (sorry, Tom Cable – Seahawks), and linebackers.

Overall, they have the most playmakers and the most to gain (or lose, depending on your fanhood) after last fall’s debacle.  Added is a pair of fresh playmakers (Braylon Edwards, Kendall Hunter), a revamped and improved secondary, a pass-rushing linebacker via draft, and of course, a new demanding leader on the sidelines.  Realistically, two things need to happen in order for the 49ers to capture the West: get out of the gate strong (schedule more favorable this time around) and have Smith play above-average football.  It’s not a stretch to see this club comeback and make an impressive turnaround under a coach who has led comebacks and turnarounds throughout his entire football career.  The question is: can the underachieving Smith follow in Harbaugh’s footsteps and become more like his overachieving coach?

2. St. Louis Rams (7-9) – A team heading in the right direction.  Franchise quarterback, check.  Young and aspiring head coach, check.  Workhorse running back, check.  Bonafide pass-rush, check.  Improvement during draft and free agency, check.  So, why won’t Sam Bradford and the Rams improve upon last season’s win total?  It’s very easy to see what stands in the way of progression in the “W” column.  Mainly, the first seven games are brutal.  If they are not facing an NFC East club, it’s one of the last two Super Bowl champs, or the Baltimore Ravens.  That could hinder the route to .500 much like the 49ers last year.  It’s a shame that the downfall to 2011 could be something they hold no control over.  Yet, you can make a case for the Rams playing better football without gaining more victories.  Undoubtedly, they added to Bradford’s arsenal with rookie tight end Lance Kendricks (second round, Wisconsin) and free-agent wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker (Jaguars).  That’s not even to mention the expected rise of a healthy Danario Alexander, first-year players Austin Pettis and Greg Salas, plus the return of Donnie Avery.  Steven Jackson will feel better taking a break, as the club acquired two veteran back-ups, Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood, to help ease the load.  Other key arrivals include a tough guard (Harvey Dahl), consistent safety (Quintin Mikell), and first-round pick Robert Quinn.  The future looks promising for the squad from “The Lou”, but it could be too daunting for a jump from second to first place in the West to occur during Bradford’s second run.

3. Arizona Cardinals (6-10) – Is Kevin Kolb the next Kurt Warner?  Well apart from accuracy and poise inside the pocket, Cardinal fans realize that if Derek Anderson, John Skelton or Max Hall are no longer legitimate options under center for their team this season – it’s all that matters.  Well, that is, as long as Kolb stays upright.  In 2010, Ken Whisenhut’s group allowed the second-most sacks in the NFL.  Cause for concern?  I think so.  Although Kolb will make things better, you still have to consider he’s lining up behind a subpar line and dealing with a suspect backfield.  With Ryan Williams out for the season, Beanie Wells is going to receive the majority of the carries at running back.  Keep in mind, Wells has never toted the rock for more than 176 times in a season as a pro.  Thankfully, the Cardinals have Larry “sticky mitts” Fitzgerald hauling everything in sight.  Along with Fitzgerald, tight end Todd Heap was scooped up in free agency to provide a second veteran target for Kolb.  Second-year man Andre Roberts looks like he’s going to develop into a playmaking wideout, and third-round pick Rob Housler could have an immediate impact a la Aaron Hernandez during his rookie campaign in New England.  On the defensive side, cornerback Patrick Peterson just adds to a very talented unit.  I’m interested to see how much of a boost he will bring returning punts.  From Adrian Wilson to Darnell Dockett, and Calais Campbell to Daryl Washington, it’s a 11-man crew with potential.  Yet, in the end, I don’t see enough balance from the run game and consistency from the defense getting to the quarterback for the Cards to contend in the NFC West – even though there’s star power in Arizona.      

4. Seattle Seahawks (3-13) – Tarvaris Jackson or Charlie Whitehurst?  Seems like a similar predicament the Cardinals were involved in last year at quarterback.  Despite going all in during free agency, upgrading a myriad of positions, Pete Carroll’s gang forgot to upgrade the most important position in football.  How are you going to get your money’s worth out of Sidney Rice and Zach Miller with a mediocre passer throwing them the ball?  Nothing in the careers of Jackson or Whitehurst suggests that they can instantly become a worthwhile NFL starting QB.  With point taken, will the team have to rely upon Marshawn Lynch to duplicate the Saints playoff game each Sunday?  I would feel better about Lynch’s prospects if fragile left tackle Russell Okung could stay on the field.  This is of utmost importance, seeing that the right side of the line features two rookies.  So, if the plan is to be a conservative ball-control offense, that indicates a strong defense must be in play?  Not exactly.  While the run defense has the potential to be strong with Brandon Mebane anchoring the interior, you have to wonder where the plays will come from outside of safety Earl Thomas.  Marcus Trufant is past his prime, Lofa Tatupu is gone, and Aaron Curry has yet to live up to his fourth overall pick status.  This is said with consideration to Chris Clemons, who provided the Seahawks with consistent penetration (11 sacks) off the edge in ’10.  With a less than stellar back-seven, the defense leaves much to be desired.  Coach Carroll is left with a conundrum: defend the NFC west title or sneakingly transition into the future by positioning behind the catbird’s seat of the “Andrew Luck Sweepstakes” next April.  Either way, he’s going to have fun this season, as Raheem Brock can already attest to.


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10 Responses to “2011 Division Previews: NFC West”

  1. Greg says:

    I really like your breakdown of the NFC West, especially the bit on the Seattle Seahawks. I could not believe how in the early hours of free agency, before any deals were signed, the Seahawks said “Tavaris Jackson is the number one quarterback who can turn our team around.” Seems like mediocrity is a tough hole to climb out of.

  2. Russ Loede says:

    Even more, they go ahead and dismiss the opportunity to acquire Kolb or Orton. How about McNabb? It’s just a backwards way of doing things. Address everything else except QB. Maybe it works out and they “luck” out next Spring.

  3. Greg says:

    While no team would come right out and say it, I’m sure that’s what they’re doing. Kinda smart I guess instead of paying big money for a stopgap qb (and yes I’m one of the few Kolb critics) and then shelling out again in a couple years. Gotta build and develop players.

  4. Craig says:

    Seattle 3-13 are you an absolute moron they will go at least 3-3 in there division.You want to talk about no name QB’s lets talk about Alex smith way worse than whitehurst or Jackson. And Zach miller put up monster numbers with a no name QB so whats your point about getting him the ball? San Fran is nowhere near a 500 team, rams are probably gonna start off 2-5 so they will be lucky to reach 7-9, arizona will be more like 4-12, and besides Fitz who is this star power you speak of? You can’t say a team is gonna do bad because they dont have a QB and then turn around and give a team with a worse QB a 8-8 record and the other 3-13 thats just stupidity. Rams/seahawks 1-2 sanfran 3 and arizona 4 scratching there heads as to why kolb sucks.

  5. Russ Loede says:

    Alex Smith > Jason Campbell > Tarvaris Jackson/Charlie Whitehurst.

    49ers have the talent to easily be above .500 but 8-8 sounds more reasonable. Jim Harbaugh coach of the year honors? How quickly do you fail to forget Willis, Gore, and Davis are top-notch quality players at their respective positions. They will standout like expected while Smith taps into his potential. If you watch him play, he clearly passes the eye test. As for Jackson? Whitehurst?

    At least 3-3 in the division? How is that obtainable? They have a major handicap at the most important position in football!

    Cards star power: Peterson, Dockett, Wilson. Campbell is a budding star, close to Pro Bowl status. Kolb is a solid QB. Watch it. D.Washington can play some LB. Don’t sleep on ‘Zona.

    You’ll realize that Smith is far better and vastly superior than Jackson/Whitehurst. So, you can knock Kolb but not Jackson?

    • Craig says:

      Gore is on his downside, Davis is the only real receiving threat and willis cant make all the plays on D. And yes seattle will win at least 3 games in the division. Explain how smith is better than charlie or jackson they have all yet failed to produce anything in the NFL but seattle has way better receiving options, I dont care how below avg your QB is when you have 5 receivers on the field over 6’3″ your gonna be able to make some throws. what potential are you talking about with smith 6 years no season over over 3,000 yards more int than TD’s, sound like potential to me. Seattle will win 3 divison games like this: beside the rams no team has a passing game, when red bryant and brandon membane are on the field the seahawks running D will be one of the best in the league, so its been proven that when alex smith has to make throws he cant and Kolb is still very green, I like seattles chances and the rams are young and it would be a huge task to ask them to win a divion match up in seattle.

  6. Craig says:

    and giving a coach who just makes the jump to the nfl coach of the year honors? come on seriously?

  7. Russ Loede says:

    when red bryant and brandon membane are on the field the seahawks running D will be one of the best in the league

    You lost me there – and I’m a fan of Mebane as I alluded to in the article concerning his interior presence as a run anchor.

    Gore on the downside? How about Crabtree and Braylon? Keep an eye on Kendall Hunter. Starter potential. Terrific third-down back.

    Smith passes the “eye test.” Now it’s time for him to pass the test itself. I’ve seen flashes of potential, now this is the year under Harbaugh to consistently put it all together.

    49ers interior line is strong and the right side will be the bread and butter for big Gore/Hunter runs. Up the middle, you’ll see a lot of that.

    Harbaugh’s immediate impact will put him in the conversation for coach honors.

    Rams are ready to win the division this season, but that early schedule is so brutal – and I usually don’t point out schedules as an issue because it’s so tough to call how teams are going to perform.

    Sidney Rice is a player, but will he stay healthy? Miller will get his. Williams has to show me last year wasn’t a fluke. Overall, Jackson is shaky on his deep pass accuracy.

    • Craig says:

      How did I lose you on mebane and bryant look at last season they were 3rd in the league against the run after 7 games I think maybe 5 I cant remember when they started getting injured. I would not be to sold on Crabtree hes done nothing except get hurt and be a diva. Edwards is a good no. 2 but not a no. 1. Hunter im unfamiliar with so I cant argue that. And yea gore is on his downside its historical that running backs go downhill after 28 and his injury last year was fairly serious. And even Ryan Leaf had flashes of potential still didnt help him out very well. And saying coach of the year before his first nfl game is a very bold statement, i dont see it his first couple years.

  8. Nice assessment of the NFC West, hopefully it will start to become the
    best division in the league as in the 80’s and 90’s.
    49ers could easily win 8 to 10 games this year, with there talent on the team and a bit of luck on winning some of the close games they lost to
    good teams last year. Think it may be a lot closer though in the final standings with the Rams winning 6 to 8 games.