Tale of two teams in NFC West



By Pat Kirwan
NFL.com Senior Analyst




(July 29, 2004) -- Two teams from the NFC West made the playoffs last year -- St. Louis and Seattle. That suggests that the NFC West has to be considered a pretty good division. Both teams lost in overtime in their opening playoff rounds, and both teams have high expectations to return to the playoffs in 2004 and win a few games this time. The other two teams, San Francisco and Arizona, are in rebuilding stages and can't be considered candidates for the postseason. For openers, the ***** and the Cardinals will be starting quarterbacks with under 200 career pass attempts, which equates into a time for patience. It also means the Rams and Seahawks have two games each against teams not ready to put a great product on the field in 2004. A year or two from now will be a different story for the ***** and Cardinals, but for this season, St. Louis and Seattle could be looking at over 11 wins each by season's end with the weapons they possess.


Keep in mind the NFC West as a division that lost more good veteran players than it gained this past offseason. The ***** have been trying to clean house, and I'm sure the other teams in the division were happy to see Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens (who caught 26 passes and four touchdowns in division games last year), Ron Stone and Garrison Hearst leave the West (all were on the *****, too!). Also, Shawn Springs, John Randle, Derrick Deese, Tai Streets and Jason Webster no longer represent NFC West teams. Outside of a few players like cornerback Bobby Taylor going to Seattle from Philadelphia and defensive end Bert Berry moving to Arizona, the subtractions outweigh the additions.

Two other things to not lose sight of about the NFC West are the home and away records. Last year, NFC West teams won more home games than any division in football when the four teams had a combined record of 26-6. Both St. Louis and Seattle were undefeated at home and the Cardinals got all of their wins at home. On the other side of the coin is the fact the division had the worst road record in the NFL at 7-25. The Philadelphia Eagles won as many road games as the whole NFC West combined! When it comes to getting on a plane and playing out of town, all four teams need a change in strategy. The Seahawks have very high expectations in 2004 and will find out right away if they solved their 2-6 road woes of last year when they open on the road with games in New Orleans and Tampa. Two long flights will set the tone for the whole season. Later in the year, they fly across the country twice to play the Patriots and Jets, so having a winning road record will be tough but necessary if they want to win the division. The Rams have all four of those same teams at home but they do travel to Green Bay, Miami and Carolina, so their "road challenges" continue. Simply put, the team with the best road record should nudge out the other for the title.

Five questions that need to be answered in 2004:

  1. How much does Marshall Faulk have left, and will the drafting of running back Steven Jackson mean there's a change coming in St. Louis?
  2. Dennis Green has put a lot of faith in unproven quarterback Josh McCown. He passed on potential franchise quarterbacks in the draft and ignored quality free agents in the offseason. Will McCown prove to be this year's Jake Delhomme?
  3. Can Dennis Erickson be fairly evaluated as a head coach with the large number of players being shown the door? Name a coach who can win when eight starters are removed from the roster, and draft picks and inexperienced players are expected to step up in their rookie season.
  4. Mike Holmgren has built the Seahawks the way he wanted to and now it's time to win the division, get home-field advantage in the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl. Is this the year, as many people believe it to be?
  5. Did the Rams make the right decision at quarterback? Kurt Warner is gone and Marc Bulger got the big contract. It was only a few years ago Warner got the big pay day. Bulger did throw as many interceptions as touchdowns in 2003.
Let's take a closer look at each team as training camps approach.

Arizona

Green is a professional winning coach who is three "Ws" away from 100. He will pass that milestone before December with his new Cardinals team. Green has also coached in 12 playoff games and that number will not grow before 2005. The most interesting thing about the Cardinals is they will have to play from behind most of the time, and that means more receiving opportunities for Anquan Boldin and first-round pick Larry Fitzgerald. Boldin caught 41 passes last year against NFC West teams -- an average of seven per game. Green knew what to do when he had Randy Moss and Cris Carter in Minnesota, and I expect the two young Cardinals will collect close to 150 receptions between them even though their quarterback (McCown) is inexperienced.

Speaking of McCown, Green has been straightforward and on this young man's side since he arrived in Arizona. The Cardinals paid Green for his experience and instincts, and if he is right about McCown, and I believe he is, then coach Green paid his whole salary in the first major decision of his tenure with the Cardinals. Only the Chargers with 18 wins in the past four seasons have a worse record than the Cardinals with 19, and with a new stadium opening for the 2006 season, the quarterback decision is as critical as any for a team that needs to start winning more.

The second area of hope that Green brings to the desert is the 2004 NFL Draft. From top to bottom, Arizona picked some fine players that will become the cornerstone of the rebuilding process. I asked one NFC GM to comment on the draft and the Cardinals were very close to the top of his list. Center Alex Stepanovich in the fourth round, linebacker Karlos Dansby in the second and quarterback John Navarre in the seventh were the picks he cited as great value for where Green got them.

There's also optimism stemming from the season-ending win against Green's old team, the Vikings, last year. Coach can point to that game when McCown threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns and ask, "Why can't the Cardinals play like that every week this season and get to seven or eight wins?"

The defense may not be ready to hold up its end of the bargain, though. Arizona was dead last in point differential, giving up the most points in the NFL last year. The Cardinals were unable to get to the quarterback, their leading pass rusher had three sacks and during their 0-8 road record, they gave up an average of 35 points per game. DE Bert Berry signed from Denver after getting credit for 11˝ sacks and will help, but lots more needs to be done.

I always felt former head coach Dave McGinnis was the right man for the job in Arizona, but the problems even beat down his great enthusiasm. If the Cardinals organization just stays out of Green's way, gets his draft picks all signed in time to use camp to get ready, and McCown has a little of that Delhomme magic, Arizona will win six or seven games, end the road losing streak, and point the team toward bigger and better things in 2005.



There is one blip on the Rams' success screen -- in 2002 they dropped nine games and finished 7-9. Last season, they got right back on course with 12 wins and a division title. Over the past five years, St. Louis has won 56 regular-season games and a world championship. In that same time period, they switched quarterbacks, changed a few starters on the offensive line, became more conventional with their offensive personnel groupings, and still managed to score the most points in the NFC. Prior to the last month of the season, the Rams managed to score 30 points or more on seven different occasions. But in the last month, they never topped 27 points and a last-game loss to Detroit, 30-20, and a playoff double-overtime loss to Carolina, 29-23, raises questions about the St. Louis scoring machine. Bulger had big numbers for the season and threw for the most yards of all the NFC quarterbacks but in that last month, he never threw for more than 236 yards, was intercepted all four weeks, was sacked nine times and only got the ball to veteran receiver Isaac Bruce five times the whole month. Bruce missed two of those games, which had something to do with the drop off in offensive production. Ironically, when Faulk missed five games in the middle of the season, the team went 4-1 and scored 144 points. Bruce is now in his 11th season and even though last year was the first time he missed games since 1998, the Rams have to wonder if their backup receivers are good enough to replace Bruce or Torry Holt if they get injured. Rams insiders say Dane Looker and Mike Furrey are very good players and can step up if needed. Opposing coaches sure would like to find out if that's true; Bruce and Holt combined for 77 receptions and seven touchdowns in their six divisional games.



The defense got the ball back for the offense more than any team in the NFL last year with 22 fumble recoveries and 24 interceptions. The Rams offense, with 46 extra series starts, should never have lost a game. The 22 fumble recoveries were five more than the closest team, and it does indicate the Rams defense was flying around and hustling to the ball. Grant Wistrom led that unit with 32 sacks in four years, but he now plays for the Seahawks. Also gone from the 2003 defense is DT Brian Young, who can be replaced but it does affect the depth up front. It is time for last year's first round pick, Jimmy Kennedy, to step up and play like a first rounder. He needs to generate 35-to-40 tackles and get to the QB at least three times or questions will start to be asked about him. His position coach, Bill Kollar, is one of the best in the business and he needs to keep the pressure on the young talented Kennedy. Defensive end Leonard Little had 12˝ sacks last year but it remains to be seen if he can duplicate that number without Wistrom on the other side. Bryce Fisher (one NFL start) and Tony Hargrove (rookie) will get the opportunity to win the job.

The Rams answered the health issues that Faulk has faced in recent years by drafting Jackson in the first round of the 2004 draft. Faulk hasn't made a 16-game season in the past five years, so they figure it's time to start grooming his eventual replacement. Coach Mike Martz knows there's lots to learn for Jackson and he can't just be plugged into a rotation with Faulk. But there's no argument that the time was right to start the process.

It's hard to beat the Rams at their place. If Bulger can limit his sacks and interceptions, the Rams are in for another playoff run. It's close, but I think I'd rather have Matt Hasselbeck than Bulger under center. St. Louis and Seattle could have identical records by season's end.

San Francisco

No team in the NFL had a more volatile offseason than the ***** when it came to personnel. The team has been on a steady decline since 2001, when they won 12 games. They won 10 games in 2002 and seven games in 2003. Now there's an inexperienced quarterback, the top two receivers are gone, the leading tight end in receptions is in Denver, 978 yards of offense provided by Hearst is gone, two starting offensive linemen left and their bright young defensive coordinator, Jim Mora, got a head coaching job in Atlanta. That is too much to overcome in one season.

The team put a lot of money into talented but controversial running back Kevan Barlow. He is capable of close to 1,500 yards of offense, but he's not a favorite in the locker room and needs to mature quickly to help a team that is in transition. The 2004 ***** are a great place to be for rookie draft picks who want to get some real playing time. First-round pick Rashaun Woods will plug right into the starting lineup, as should guard Justin Smiley. The personnel department and the coaches did a nice job during the draft of maneuvering around and getting some extra picks to fortify the depleted roster.

Quarterback Tim Rattay brings just 118 pass attempts in his career to the starting lineup. Tim did throw seven touchdown passes last year but five of those were to Owens and Streets, who will not be on the field for San Francisco. Last year, the once-mighty ***** lost four games by three points or less and used three different kickers. Todd Peterson steadied the kicking situation late in the year and will have the job in 2004.

The optimistic view of the San Francisco team is to point to their strong finish in 2003 when they went 3-1 and scored 136 points (34-point average). The realist looks at that and says Garcia threw for 1,071 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception in that span and he's now in Cleveland. The optimist says linebacker Julian Peterson and defensive end Andre Carter are two of the finest young defenders in the NFL, and right they are. The realist says cornerback is a question, safety is a question and most of the depth on defense is inexperienced. Is the glass half empty or half full? I say it will take time to find out and more likely it will be 2005 before the Niners see the fruits of their offseason decisions.

Seattle

Holmgren was brought to Seattle to do what he did in Green Bay. It was a wise choice of Seahawks ownership to show patience with the Holmgren plan. It hasn't been easy turning this franchise around and when the coach decided to build his program around an inexperienced quarterback, the process needed even more time. There were a lot of people questioning Holmgren's quarterback decision when he went with Hasselbeck, but after making the Pro Bowl last year and throwing 26 touchdown passes, he was proven right.

Now people are jumping on the Seahawks bandwagon even though this team doesn't have a playoff victory in 20 years. To get over the stigma of their playoff drought, three big things have to happen. One, the defense must get better in all phases of the game. Their run defense is good but it forces opponents to pass more and that phase of the game is in the lower third in the NFL. Two, young and highly paid wide receivers Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson did combine for 13 touchdown receptions, but they dropped enough potential scores that they have to pick it up -- especially Robinson. He only caught two touchdowns on the road last year, which helps explain the 2-6 road record. Third, they must figure out how to win when they fly east -- unless they do, they will not win the division and that means playoffs on the road. The Seahawks lost to the Bengals, Redskins and Ravens all by a touchdown or less in '03.

The addition of cornerback Bobby Taylor should help the secondary but there are still some questions about the safeties. If rookie Michael Boulware could make a smooth transition from college linebacker to strong safety, this unit could go from a weakness in 2003 to a strength in 2004. The pass rush will be better with Grant Wistrom now on the team, and the special teams are above average.

I like Seattle's chances of unseating the Rams as the division champions. Time will tell if Holmgren's sixth year is the culmination of a solid building plan.