It’s generally accepted that the NFC West is the toughest division in football, at least among those whose brains haven’t been warped by the charms of the AFC East, AFC North, NFC North or NFC East. No matter how teams are playing in any given year, there will be people who love those four divisions because they’re just so damned GRITTY.
Sorry, fans who root for the AFC or NFC South. Nobody cares about you, but you’re in college football country anyway.
From 2012-14, the NFC West was probably the best division in the NFL. It was definitely the most physical, and inter-divisional games were extraordinarily brutal at times. With the Seahawks coming off two straight Super Bowl appearances, the Cardinals winning 21 games over the last two seasons, and the Rams stockpiling talent from the Robert Griffin III trade, the 49ers’ already difficult 2015 schedule seems especially onerous considering they have to play three strong rivals two times each.
But what if the NFC West full of fall
guys teams? The NFL works in mysterious ways, and that’s not just a reference to their rookie symposium. (And that concludes the Cris Carter portion of this program.)
It happens every season … teams and divisions we think will stay dominant suddenly fade, as teams we previously laughed at rise to prominence. And even though this website can probably get some blame for pushing the idea that the 49ers are sinking while the rest of their division is either rising or maintaining, I can see some reasons for optimism that have nothing to do with what’s going on in Santa Clara.
St. Louis Rams
— Has a team ever prospered at the same time everybody’s expecting them to move? The St. Louis Cardinals are headed to the postseason, so why will anyone pay attention to a football team that (1) plays in one of the most depressing facilities in the league and (2) is owned by a guy who can’t wait to flee to Inglewood?
— The Rams haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004, when they were coached by Mike Martz.
— Their current coach, Jeff Fisher, is the most overrated head coach in North American professional sports. He’s been a head coach in 10 of the last 11 years, and his teams have had winning seasons twice over that span. I’m not sure why everyone thinks he’ll realize the same sort of success he enjoyed from 1999-2003 (when the Titans went 56-24 and came within inches of winning a Super Bowl). Maybe he seems extra dependable because he looks like a dad in a CBS sitcom from the 1990s.
— Who’s the first offensive player from this team that pops into your mind? Other than the quarterback they acquired from the Eagles, Nick Foles (who’s less injury-prone than Sam Bradford, but that’s not saying much), the answer is probably Todd Gurley, a rookie running back who’s coming off knee surgery. Their receivers, Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt and Brian Quick, aren’t scaring anyone.
— Their offensive line was awful last year and they didn’t do much to repair it, other than drafting Rob Havenstein in the second round (far earlier than just about everybody predicted he’d go).
— They signed Mike Iupati, who immediately injured his knee and had surgery on his left meniscus. Iupati played through a variety of leg injuries over the past several seasons, so 49ers fans aren’t surprised that he’ll miss several weeks after getting all that guaranteed money.
— They still haven’t found an upgrade over Carson Palmer, and his all-time record in the playoffs is 0-2.
— Corey Peters was signed to replace Dan Williams at nose tackle, and now Peters is out for the year with an Achilles tear.
— They’re not especially strong at cornerback after losing Antonio Cromartie to the Jets. Patrick Peterson quietly had a bad season in 2014 (13 penalties, 8 TD, 95.5 Rating against).
— If Larry Fitzgerald isn’t done, he’s close. However, the Cardinals can’t say goodbye and he might be the team’s No. 1 WR at the start of this season because Michael Floyd had three dislocated fingers come through the palm of his left hand.
Let’s see if this sounds familiar …
— After experiencing three successful seasons as a team, some of the top players are looking to get paid individually. Remember when Vernon Davis and Alex Boone held out last year? Russell Wilson got and Marshawn Lynch got theirs, Michael Bennett thinks he deserves more, and Kam Chancellor is still holding out.
— It’s hard to quantify how much pain is caused by extremely close playoff losses, let alone one of the all-time worst Super Bowl defeats. The physical toll from playing all those playoff games over the last three seasons shouldn’t be ignored, but everyone will focus on their goal-line decisions in Super Bowl 49. Lynch filmed a video making fun of Darrell Bevell’s (Pete Carroll’s) decision to pass on 2nd-and-goal. EA Sports found a delightful way to make fun of that final play as well. Sorry 12s, as 49ers fans who relive those fades to Michael Crabtree on a near-daily basis will tell you, the hurt never truly goes away.
— The offensive line was recently reconfigured, and currently they’re only settled at two spots (Russell Okung at left tackle and J.R. Sweezy at right guard).
— They added Frank Clark, an extremely talented player with more red flags than a Chinese consulate. It’d almost be a shock if he didn’t get in trouble this year for something. Aldon Smith has his problems, but even he didn’t come close to Clark’s collegiate rap sheet — he pleaded guilty to second-degree home invasion, a felony (for stealing a Macbook Air). Clark is known for a different incident involving his girlfriend, in which officers came to their hotel room and found that she had sustained multiple injuries. Clark later reached a plea agreement, pleading guilty to disorderly conduct as the domestic violence and assault charges were dropped.
— Some think Seattle will open things up with the addition of Jimmy Graham, but don’t be fooled. One new toy does not equate to a brand new, sexy offense. There’s a reason why Doug Baldwin (a nice player, but definitely not a No. 1 on just about any other team) is this team’s leading receiver since Pete Carroll came aboard. And if the o-line needs a little help opening holes for Lynch or in pass protection, Graham is not the guy to ask.
All that being said, the Rams could be special on defense, the Cardinals had the best record in the NFL last year until they lost Carson Palmer to injury and their quarterback situation deteriorated with each passing week, and the Seahawks are clearly the best team over the last two years and bring back a relatively young core. And these teams all still hate each other, so none of their games against one another will be easy.
However, it’s not like the 49ers are in a division with three Super Bowl contenders. One will contend (probably Seattle), one will disappoint (probably Arizona) and one will kind of hover around .500 while everyone praises their coach for pushing through after his starting quarterback got injured (probably St. Louis).