NFC West: 2012 simple requests

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 

2012 Rams schedule: Simple requests

April, 16, 2012
4/16/12
1:20
PM ET
A few simple requests for the St. Louis Rams amid expectations the NFL will release its regular-season schedule Tuesday:

  • A manageable start would help. In 2009, the Rams opened the Steve Spagnuolo era with three of their first four games on the road. Their first five home games welcomed Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Kurt Warner to the Edward Jones Dome. Tough game are unavoidable. Opponents were set long ago. But there's no sense in dooming a rebuilding team with an unusually tough early schedule.
  • Trips to Buffalo and Chicago early in the season could help the Rams avoid playing in frigid conditions for their two outdoor games in cold-weather cities (weather in Seattle can be rough, too, but generally not sub-freezing). Playing the Bears early could carry additional appeal if the NFL suspends receiver Brandon Marshall.
  • Trips to Miami and Tampa Bay early in the season can be tough from a weather standpoint, but the Rams should welcome such an arrangement. They train in the sweltering heat of St. Louis, after all, so the conditions would not shock their system. Also, the Dolphins and Buccaneers are breaking in new head coaches, as are the Rams. Perhaps there would be value in facing those teams early.
  • The Rams played back-to-back division games on the West Coast last season, first at San Francisco and then at Seattle. The second game was on a Monday night, giving the Rams additional time. The NFL will certainly work with the Rams this season as the team plays one of its home games in London. This will presumably include playing at home the week prior, then having a bye to decompress following the trip overseas. The Rams travel 4,190 miles to London, and 7,998 miles to their eight other destinations (one way).
  • The Rams have faced the Washington Redskins by Week 6 in each of the past four seasons. Another early game against them might beat the alternative this season given that Washington will likely be breaking in a rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III.
Note: The chart shows one-way travel distances for road opponents, plus the home game against New England, relocated to London. The Rams play in St. Louis against the Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Redskins and New York Jets.

2012 49ers schedule: Simple requests

April, 16, 2012
4/16/12
12:00
PM ET
A few simple requests for the San Francisco 49ers amid expectations the NFL will release its regular-season schedule Tuesday:

  • Cut down on the 10 a.m. PT kickoffs for road trips to the Eastern time zone. The other Western teams have similar concerns. All know what it's like traveling across time zones for games requiring them to awaken when players' body clocks are telling them it's 5 in the morning. Unlike those other Western teams, the 49ers were successful enough last season to justify moving some of their Eastern games to later time slots, including prime time. There's something wrong if the 49ers emerge with another five or six games in the 10 a.m. PT slot.
  • Avoid back-to-back road games against New England Patriots, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams or Minnesota Vikings. Every one of those trips is at least 1,590 air miles each way. One line of thinking says the NFL would not schedule East Coast trips in successive weeks against a team's will. That is something to consider with the 49ers, who won at Cincinnati and Philadelphia in back-to-back weeks last season, remaining in Ohio between games. Perhaps they would welcome another long getaway.
  • Schedule that road game against the Saints for early in the season. That is when New Orleans figures to be most vulnerable to fallout from its bounty punishment. Interim coach Joe Vitt will miss the first six games. The Saints could also be without defensive players, depending upon how the league decides to punish players for their role in the bounty scandal. Audio tapes revealed former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams encouraging players to take out certain San Francisco players. The 49ers might as well realize maximum benefit from the sanctions against the Saints.
  • No more cross-country trips on short weeks. Last season, the 49ers played a home game against Arizona, then flew across the country for a Thanksgiving game against Baltimore four days later. That was a brutal turnaround, especially so late in the season.
  • Another home game late in the season might be nice. The 49ers have played three of their final five games on the road in each of the previous four regular seasons. That should even out over time.
Note: The chart shows the 49ers' road opponents. Their home schedule features the Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.
A few simple requests for the Arizona Cardinals amid expectations the NFL will release its regular-season schedule Tuesday:

  • Please, no back-to-back road games against the New England Patriots and New York Jets. Each of those games will require trips covering more than 2,100 air miles. Sure, the 49ers went 2-0 on an extended East Coast trip last season, remaining in Ohio between games. That worked for them, but when the Cardinals tried something similar in 2008, they gave up 80 total points in consecutive defeats to Washington and the Jets.
  • Let's avoid late-season trips to cold-weather venues. Games against the Patriots, Jets and Green Bay Packers come to mind. Remember what happened to the Cardinals when they played the Patriots in a snowstorm during the 2008 season. They lost by 40 points.
  • Another home game to open the season, please. The Cardinals have opened at home only three times since moving to Arizona in 1988. They beat Carolina at University of Phoenix Stadium to open last season. Hot September weather was once a deterrent to scheduling early games in Arizona. That is no longer the case now that the Cardinals play indoors.
  • If the Cardinals play a Thursday night game on the road, make it against the 49ers. Arizona's trip to San Francisco is easily the shortest one the Cardinals make. A Thursday night road game against the Patriots or Jets would make for a tougher trip on a short week. Note that every NFL team plays at least one game in prime time this season, thanks in part to the league adding to its Thursday night schedule.
  • Facing the Eagles late in the season could be preferable to facing them earlier, on the theory that quarterback Michael Vick takes a beating and wears down. A look through Vick's career passing stats by month showed no clear pattern of late-season struggles. November was his toughest month last season. That was when Arizona roughed up Vick, shut him down and forced him to miss the next three games with broken ribs. The Philadelphia-Arizona game figures to be big for Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, who did not play against his former team when Arizona visited the Eagles last season.
Note: The chart shows the Cardinals' road opponents. Their home schedule features the Rams, 49ers, Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.
A few simple requests for the Seattle Seahawks amid expectations the NFL will release its regular-season schedule Tuesday:

  • Trips to Miami and Carolina would be best scheduled for later in the season, when hot temperatures have subsided in the South. I can recall the Seahawks melting during Week 1 road defeats to Miami (2000) and Jacksonville (2005).
  • The weather requests work in reverse, too. Trips to Buffalo and Chicago would be best scheduled for early in the season, before frigid temperatures turn those cities into ice boxes. The Seahawks did win a December game at Chicago last season, when conditions were tolerable (39 degrees, sunny, light winds) and the Bears were without quarterback Jay Cutler. Then again, if the Seahawks remain strongest running the ball and playing defense, they might be better suited for cold-weather games.
  • The chart shows Seattle with its usual list of long road trips. Remember when the New England Patriots complained to the NFL after facing cross-country road games in consecutive weeks a few seasons back? Well, Seattle will not want to experience back-to-back road games against the Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Bears or Rams. Every one of those trips is at least 1,700 air miles each way. Using the bye week to break up long trips would make sense.
  • Fewer earliest possible kickoffs, please. Seattle played five games at 10 a.m. PT last season. The Seahawks actually won two of them, but teams traveling West to East have long complained about the challenges associated with playing so early. They would much rather play later no matter how well certain Western teams have fared in these games at various times.
  • Consider home games against the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers for prime time. The 49ers-Seahawks game in Seattle last season was an extremely intense, physical battle -- a showcase for how much tougher NFC West defenses were becoming. Seattle's game against Green Bay game would be a natural draw if ex-Packer Matt Flynn is starting at quarterback for the Seahawks, as expected.
Note: The chart shows the Seahawks' road games. The schedule also features home games against the Cardinals, 49ers, Rams, Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and New York Jets.

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