2011 Division Previews: NFC West

New Sheriff In Town: Captain Comeback

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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