Wednesday, January 6, 2010
NFC West Team Wrap-ups
By Mike Sando
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A team-by-team analysis of the division. The arrow indicates which direction each team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 8
Biggest surprise: Arizona posted a 6-2 road record, allowing the Cardinals to win the division comfortably even though they lost both games to the 49ers. Coach Ken Whisenhunt spent his first two seasons building a strong home-field advantage at University of Phoenix Stadium. It would have been shocking to think the Cardinals would finish the 2009 regular season with a better record on the road than at home.
Biggest disappointment: Getting three key players injured during a meaningless game against the Packers in Week 17 could threaten the Cardinals' postseason staying power. Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (knee), receiver Anquan Boldin (ankle) and defensive end Calais Campbell (thumb) could be at less than full strength. It's possible one or more could miss the wild-card game. That's disappointing for a team that made staying healthy such a priority.
Biggest need: The Cardinals need to shore up their situation at tackle as they move closer to life without Kurt Warner. Left tackle Mike Gandy is in the final year of his contract. He seemingly hasn't played well enough to command a lucrative extension. The team invested a high first-round pick in right tackle Levi Brown, with underwhelming results. Warner's ability to get rid of the ball quickly allows the Arizona passing game to function even without solid pass protection from the tackles. That arrangement will not last.
Team MVP: Warner makes the offense work. The team appeared lost when he wasn't in games this season. Backup Matt Leinart was shaky in the second half at St. Louis and during extended playing time against the Packers in Week 17. The team had to put Warner back in the game after building a big lead at Chicago. Leinart put together an impressive drive at Tennessee, but that was about it. Appreciating Warner's value became easier every time Leinart went into games.
Future watch: Significant decisions await the Cardinals this offseason. Franchise player Karlos Dansby can become a free agent. Free safety Antrel Rolle's salary is scheduled to swell, likely forcing a renegotiation. Receiver Anquan Boldin will be entering the final year of his deal. Is it time to trade him? Those are just a few of the issues facing Arizona in the coming months.
San Francisco 49ers
Final Power Ranking: 19
Biggest surprise: Old-school coach Mike Singletary and older-school offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye ditched the team's power offense for a shotgun passing attack that diminished Frank Gore's role. The team gradually found ways to reincorporate Gore, but the offense remained quite a bit different. That was understandable once Alex Smith took over at quarterback and Michael Crabtree joined the team, but it went against everything Singletary and Raye preached all offseason.
Biggest disappointment: Failing to beat the struggling Seahawks in Seattle, when the 49ers absolutely had to win, stood out as the most disappointing defeat, just ahead of the loss at Minnesota on Brett Favre's heave in the final seconds. More broadly, the offensive line wasn't as good as the team anticipated, preventing Raye from establishing consistency in the ground game. Both starting guards struggled for the first half of the season. The line seemed to play better late in the year, but by then a knee injury had sidelined left tackle Joe Staley. The line never really jelled to the degree San Francisco could have anticipated.
Biggest need: Ahmad Brooks' emergence might diminish the team's need for a pass-rusher, although that remains a subject for debate. If Brooks is the real deal, the 49ers' biggest need might be for another top-tier offensive lineman. Finding a right tackle to serve as a bookend with Staley would certainly help.
Team MVP: Inside linebacker Patrick Willis is a dominant player in his prime. He helped the 49ers field the best defense in the division. Willis met or exceeded career highs with four sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. He also had eight passes defensed. Willis scored a touchdown on an interception return for the second consecutive season.
Future watch: Smith's partial emergence at quarterback left the 49ers hopeful but ultimately unsure of his prospects. The team will have to take a wait-and-see approach with him. It's possible the 49ers will draft a quarterback or sign a veteran in free agency, but Smith will likely enter the 2010 season as the starter.
Final Power Ranking: 27
Biggest surprise: Third-string running back Justin Forsett emerged as a more capable runner than the Seahawks ever could have imagined. He was outstanding in pass protection and showed he could sometimes produce as an every-down back. Forsett probably isn't the answer as a starter, but he stepped up when called upon.
Biggest disappointment: Having general manager Tim Ruskell resign during the season stood out as a low point in a winter filled with them. Ruskell had been riding high after a seemingly productive draft. But with the team slumping and the pressure mounting, Ruskell forced the organization's hand by asking whether his contract would be renewed. The team would not commit to him. Ruskell's resignation left coach Jim Mora as the next biggest target for criticism. It was a bad situation all the way around.
Biggest need: Upgrading the offensive line has to stand as a top priority for the Seahawks. They were down to their fourth-string left tackle at one point, making success impossible for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck during a make-or-break game against Arizona in Week 6. Seattle needs to restore some toughness up front through the draft and possibly through free agency. The status quo simply isn't acceptable.
Team MVP: Hasselbeck was the clear choice even though he tossed nine interceptions over the final three games. The veteran quarterback's toughness and resolve stood out all season. He played through injuries. He symbolized the fight Seattle needed to show during one of its darkest seasons. The production often wasn't there, but that could be said for the whole team.
Future watch: The organization finds itself at a critical point four years after appearing in Super Bowl XL. Ownership must make the right choice in its search for a general manager. Its new leadership must make wise use of two first-round draft choices. Tough decisions must be made throughout the roster and on the coaching staff. The margin for error is gone.
St. Louis Rams
Final Power Ranking: 32
Biggest surprise: Unknown receiver Danny Amendola provided instant life to the Rams' return game while also making contributions as a wide receiver. The Rams signed Amendola from the Eagles' practice squad in September. Amendola averaged 11.6 yards on 31 punts returns, 3.1 yards better than the league average, with five returns of 20 yards or longer. He also averaged 24.5 yards per kickoff return. The Rams ranked eighth in punt return average and 11th in kickoff return average. Amendola had a lot to do with that.
Biggest disappointment: Injuries prevented several key young players from developing during a lost season. First-round draft choice Jason Smith had trouble shaking the effects of a concussion. He lost valuable experience and never got a chance to play left tackle for an extended period. Smith, receiver Keenan Burton, defensive tackle Adam Carriker, cornerback Bradley Fletcher, receiver Brooks Foster and receiver Laurent Robinson all needed to play more this season. Each wound up on injured reserve.
Biggest need: The Rams lack playmakers on both sides of the ball. They badly need more firepower in the passing game. Finding a quarterback probably stands as the most important priority. Marc Bulger's $8.5 million salary next season appears prohibitive. Receiver is another position of need.
Team MVP: Steven Jackson showed toughness and leadership while producing at a high level all season even though teams were loading up against him every week. The maturity Jackson showed even when frustrated made life easier for first-year coach Steve Spagnuolo. Had Jackson spoken out -- as he had done previously -- a tough season could have become tougher.
Future watch: The Rams have options in the draft because they hold the No. 1 overall choice. They'll have to decide whether they can afford to pass up a quarterback. The 2009 season was harder than the Rams ever expected. They have nowhere to go but up.