NFC West: NFL scenarios 2012
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.
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.
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.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
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.
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.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the 49ers in 2012:
Dream scenario (14-2): The 49ers pick up where they left off last season. They continue to force turnovers and protect the football while dictating field position with their dominant special teams. This time, however, the offense has more firepower.
Receiver Michael Crabtree backs up coach Jim Harbaugh's comments suggesting Crabtree has all-time-great hands. A rejuvenated Randy Moss strikes fear into secondaries. Quarterback Alex Smith, armed with sufficient weapons, strikes for explosive plays more frequently. The offensive line, stabilized by Alex Boone's emergence as a top young guard, sustains drives on third downs and finishes them in the red zone.
Rookie receiver A.J. Jenkins hits stride in December as the 49ers clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs heading into Week 17. Colin Kaepernick throws for 350 yards and four touchdowns in the regular-season finale as San Francisco eliminates division-rival Arizona from playoff contention. Sufficiently rested, the 49ers score a dominating victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, delivering San Francisco its first Super Bowl title since the 1994 season.
Nightmare scenario (6-10): The odds catch up to Smith when the Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh delivers a controversial hit at the knees in Week 2. Kaepernick isn't ready, Moss loses interest and the offense can't score enough points. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning has the Denver Broncos looking like contenders.
The 49ers realize they were fortunate to have Smith start 18 games the previous season despite taking 51 sacks. They realize how risky it was going into the season without a proven right guard. How hard would it have been to pay one of the veteran options the team considered in free agency? That's a question reporters keep asking, even though none of them said much before the season. The question stings now that Smith is done for the season and Kaepernick is running for his life.
Tough defense and special teams keep the 49ers reasonably competitive. The coaching staff does its best to stabilize the situation. The 49ers compete and steal victories from other teams with quarterback issues. In the end, however, they become the latest team to suffer a hard fall after posting a glittering record the previous season. Rock bottom arrives when Sando notes, again, that the 13 teams finishing 13-3 from 2004 to 2010 averaged 8.3 victories the following season.
Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Cardinals in 2012:
Dream scenario (11-5): A full offseason of healing and playbook study lets Kevin Kolb prove the Cardinals knew what they were doing when they acquired him from Philadelphia in the offseason. There's plenty of credit to go around. The team's decision to reassign assistant coach John McNulty from receivers to quarterbacks becomes a popular storyline. There's no doubt Kolb's mechanics have improved, but talent and good health are what win football games.
Michael Floyd's addition through the draft makes the Cardinals' passing game nearly impossible to defend, particularly with second-year back Ryan Williams emerging as the game-breaking runner Arizona was convinced it had drafted. Adding young linemen for Russ Grimm to develop also pays off, particularly as the season progresses. Bobby Massie looks like a keeper at right tackle. On the other side, Levi Brown picks up where he left off last season, proving Arizona was right in re-signing him to a five-year contract.
The transformation on defense surprises even the Cardinals. Yes, Arizona made strides on that side of the ball while winning seven of its final nine games in 2011. But there was no way anyone could have expected Sam Acho to challenge Simeon Rice's season franchise record for sacks since 1982 (Rice had 16.5 in 1999). With a healthy Dan Williams at nose tackle and Acho pumping up an already-underrated pass rush, cornerback Patrick Peterson takes the next logical step in his development: picking off passes and returning them for touchdowns.
Winning at San Francisco in Week 17 delivers an 11-5 record and the NFC West title to Arizona, the team's third division crown in five years.
Nightmare scenario (5-11): No one can blame Gregg Williams or Jonathan Vilma for the concussion Kolb suffers in the Hall of Fame game against New Orleans to open the exhibition season. Some in the Cardinals' organization welcome the switch to John Skelton, but with Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells predictably battling knee problems, the offense becomes one-dimensional. That's tough for a team with Brown and a rookie starting at tackle. Kolb's return after a few weeks means as much as it did last season -- nothing.
By October, it's clear the Cardinals didn't do enough at tackle or outside linebacker to take the next step. Those offseason stories about a full offseason helping Kolb seemed justified at the time, but we should have known better. McNulty's coaching helps, but players revert to form under pressure, and Kolb is no exception. He wasn't going to develop instincts all of a sudden, was he? Aldon Smith's three-sack game against Arizona on Monday night in Week 8 doesn't seem so bad when Clay Matthews collects four of them the following week.
For the second time in three seasons, the Cards finish 5-11 after getting blown out at San Francisco in Week 17. The quarterback questions persisting upon Kurt Warner's retirement continue to linger. Watching Peyton Manning in the playoffs doesn't help.
Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for Seattle in 2012:
Dream scenario (12-4): Matt Flynn's fourth-quarter comeback victory over Green Bay in Week 3 serves notice in prime time that Seattle made the right move in signing the Packers' former backup. Sure, Russell Wilson lit up opponents during the preseason, but everyone figured coach Pete Carroll would go with Flynn heading into the season. Seattle hadn't been able to finish games on offense previously, but the vibe is completely different now. Flynn isn't perfect, of course, and he doesn't have to be. He has the NFL's most physical running back in Marshawn Lynch, two viable tight ends, a healthy Sidney Rice and a downright nasty offensive line.
Finally healthy, left tackle Russell Okung joins fellow 2010 draftees Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in the Pro Bowl. Second-rounder Golden Tate won't be making the trip, but preseason rumors of a potential breakout season weren't far off.
With the defense allowing only 16 points per game, Flynn doesn't have to be a hero most weeks. By midseason, it's all Carroll can do to refrain from gloating over the team's then-controversial decision to draft Bruce Irvin in the first round. Irvin's two-sack game at San Francisco on Thursday night in Week 7 gives him 5.5 for the season, matching what the 49ers' Aldon Smith had at the same point in 2011. Irvin doesn't quite equal the 14-sack total Smith posted as a rookie, but he's not far behind. The national pundits learn the hard way what should have been evident already: Carroll and the Seahawks' personnel department know what they want on defense.
A trip to Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game leaves the Seahawks thinking big.
Nightmare scenario (6-10): Flynn isn't the answer, Wilson isn't ready and Carroll pays a high price for failing to seriously address the quarterback position until his third season with the team. It's hard for some to believe the Seahawks would miss Tarvaris Jackson, but that is the case as Flynn predictably struggles in his first full season as an NFL starter. No one cares about the division title Carroll won a couple years ago. Critics cite his 7-9, 7-9 and 6-10 records in building a case for his dismissal. They also gloat over the growing pains Irvin experienced while transitioning from West Virginia to the NFL.
Lynch's diminished production makes him an easy target for those suggesting a big contract led to complacency. Some recall Shaun Alexander's post-contract demise. But there are other reasons. Another injury-plagued season on the offensive line becomes a primary culprit. Okung, James Carpenter and John Moffitt were coming off season-ending surgeries. Rice, the team's most talented receiver, had procedures on both shoulders. Banking on so many injured offensive players was understandable after the Tom Cable-coached line worked near-miracles in 2011. But every staff has its limits. Giving some of fullback Michael Robinson's snaps to new tight end Kellen Winslow also might have affected the ground game.
The defense does enough for Carroll to keep his job, but the team heads toward the 2013 draft needing to find its next quarterback -- or else.
Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Rams in 2012:
Dream scenario (8-8): Sam Bradford takes every snap on offense for the second time in three seasons as the Rams protect their franchise quarterback with sensible play-calling. It's the sixth time a Jeff Fisher-coached team finishes 8-8, but no one is complaining after the Rams' 15-65 run over the previous five seasons. Trusting offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to salvage right tackle Jason Smith becomes one of the surprise success stories of the 2012 season, and a critical one for the Rams' efforts to re-establish Bradford.
Turns out the Rams were not fibbing when they suggested Brian Quick, the receiver they took in the second round, ranked up there with first-rounder Justin Blackmon on their board. The constant threat of Steven Jackson and Isaiah Pead out of the backfield creates favorable matchups for Quick and the Rams' underrated receivers. Bradford publicly downplays a Week 2 victory over Robert Griffin III and Washington, but it feels good to win at home against the player St. Louis could have selected second overall this year.
Watching Janoris Jenkins score on a fourth-quarter punt return in Patrick Peterson's house improbably stakes the Rams to a 6-5 record, stirring visions of the postseason. It's certainly sweet to finally win within the division again. The Rams lose to San Francisco the following week and ultimately finish the regular season with a respectable defeat at Seattle, but the season is a success by any measure.
Nightmare scenario (3-13): Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks expose Bradford to significant punishment as Smith and the line struggle to find their bearings. Bradford doesn't want to talk about the ankle injury he aggravated at some point in the season's first month, but it's clearly a factor. Facing Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Julius Peppers, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Cameron Wake and Clay Matthews in the first seven games leaves Bradford limping toward the bye week, his confidence shaken.
Jackson continues to plug away, but we've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well for the Rams. The depth at receiver is indeed improved, but Bradford doesn't have any truly dynamic weapons. Quick understandably needs seasoning, but with Blackmon and Arizona's Michael Floyd challenging rookie receiving records, the Rams look bad for trading down. It's tough finding open receivers with Smith struggling at tackle, anyway.
First-round pick Michael Brockers and free-agent addition Kendall Langford upgrade the run defense, but life as an every-down defensive end is tough for Robert Quinn. The veteran outside linebackers signed as stopgaps represent only a minor upgrade from last season. Off-field issues dog Jenkins, and the defense fails to meet expectations. Critics conveniently blame Gregg Williams' suspension, but the problems are more complex than that.
The Rams head into the offseason with another high draft choice, one they'll almost certainly have to invest in a playmaker of some sort.