Back in 2010, the NFC West became the first division in NFL history to have a division champion with a losing record. Since winning an NFL division grants a team an automatic berth in the playoffs, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks won the division with just a 7-9 record, showing off the pure awfulness of the NFC West. The Seahawks weren’t a bad team, but they had no place in the playoffs. With a one-dimensional offense and a pedestrian defense, the Seahawks had absolutely no place in the playoffs. The only reason they made it was due to the other teams in their division. The St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, and Arizona Cardinals offered nothing to the division. They were untalented and poorly coached, but because of the parity of poor football in the league, they all competed for the division title. The NFC West had branded itself as not only the worst division in football, but the worst division in all of sports.
Fast forward to the 2013 season. The NFC West is arguably to most exciting and intriguing league in football. The West has two Super Bowl contenders in Seattle and San Francisco, and two competitive teams in the Cardinals and Rams, who could legitimately beat anyone on any given Sunday and would arguably make the playoffs if they were in a different division. The West has a plethora of explosive playmakers, suffocating defenses, and high profile head coaches. So how did it all change so quickly? What were the factors from making it the worst division in the league, to possibly the best division in the league?
One of the recipes for success in the NFL is quality quarterback play. In 2010, the quarterback play in the West was absolutely horrendous. Seahawks veteran Matt Hasselbeck and Rams rookie Sam Bradford were the only consistent starters for their respective teams. Now the West has four quality starting quarterbacks, highlighted by Pro Bowl caliber standouts in Russell Wilson for the Seahawks and Colin Kaepernick for the 49ers.
Wilson, the third-round steal of the 2012 draft, has started every game for the Seahawks since the start of his rookie season in 2012. In his rookie campaign, Wilson threw for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns, as well as completing over 64% of his passes. Wilson also showed his dual-threat capability, rushing for 489 yards and four touchdowns. Wilson’s incredible versatility makes it so hard for defenses to stop him. He is great both in and out of the pocket and his ability to go out of I-formation, read-option, or shotgun sets make him a nightmare to prepare for.
In week 10 of the 2012 season, Kaepernick replaced the injured Alex Smith in a game against the Rams. In that short amount of time, Kaepernick has established himself as one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league. Kaepernick led the 49ers to a 5-2 record to finish off the season and put up record setting numbers in the playoffs to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Kaepernick’s world-class athleticism makes him San Francisco’s biggest weapon. His running ability in zone-read and pistol formation sets make him one of the most unique and dangerous quarterbacks in the league. Last season he also proved that he can throw the ball with accuracy as well, throwing for 1,814 yards and completing over 62% of his passes.
The other two quarterbacks in this league are not too shabby by any stretch of the imagination. The Cardinals, Carson Palmer, is in his first year with the team and is already a much needed improvement for the team. Since the retirement of Kurt Warner in 2009, the Cardinals had not been able to find a reliable quarterback until Palmer was traded to the team from the Oakland Raiders. The two-time Pro Bowler has thrown for 1,483 yards to start the 2013 season.
Bradford, the only remaining West starting quarterback from the 2010 season, has also show his ability to play well in this league. The former #1 overall pick and 2010 NFL Rookie of the Year winner has instilled hope in a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004. Even though he has suffered several injuries in his short career, he has had a strong start to the 2013 season, throwing for 1,432 yards and 13 touchdowns in just six games.
The coaching staff in the West in 2010 actually had coaches that proved they could win games (besides former 49ers coach Mike Singletary). Former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt took the team to a Super Bowl in 2008 and former Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo brought the Rams from a 1-win season in 2009 to a 7-win season in 2010. However, Singletary proved that he did not have what it took to succeed in the league, going only 6-10 with a talented 49ers squad. The division needed a change of culture in the coaching department, especially at the top of the league and they got it with Seattle’s hire of Pete Carroll in 2010 and San Francisco’s hire of Jim Harbaugh in 2011.
Carroll and Harbaugh both had great success at the college level and have brought their knowledge and philosophy to the NFL. Harbaugh is a gritty, hard-nosed, “smash mouth football” kind of guy. When he first came to Stanford in 2007, Stanford was one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 conference. By focusing on quarterback play and incredible physicality, the Cardinal became one of the best teams in the nation in just four years. Carroll was one of the most successful coaches in USC history, winning two national championships and six BCS bowl games. He was truly a player’s coach and brought encouragement and excitement to the program, which was one of the things that made him able to recruit better than any other coach in the country. Carroll and Harbaugh and fierce dislike for each other when they coached against each other in college and they have now brought that rivalry to the NFL, which makes the NFC West that much more interesting at the top of the league.
The Rams, Jeff Fisher, and the Cardinals, Bruce Arians, have each had tough tasks trying to rebuild their respective teams, but both have done a marvelous job so far. After coaching the Oilers/Titans from 1994-2010 and winning three division titles as well as making a Super Bowl appearance, Fisher took a year off and then agreed to take the Rams coaching position in 2012. Under Fisher, the Rams improved tremendously, going from a 2-14 record in 2011 to a 7-8-1 record in 2012. Fisher is a seasoned veteran who has been there before and is a significant upgrade at head coach for the Rams. Arians, on the other hand, didn’t really break onto the scene until the 2012 season. Arians was serving as the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts when he had to step into the interim head coach position when Chuck Pagano had to leave the team for cancer treatment. The Colts became the darlings of the NFL when they rallied behind Coach Pagano and went 11-5 to make the playoffs under coach Arians, a nine-win improvement from 2011. In January of 2013, Arians agreed to be the Cardinals new head coach, and even though the Cardinals are a long way from making it to the Super Bowl again, Arians seems to be taking the team in the right direction.
In a super-charged offensive league, all four teams in the NFC West have put an incredible emphasis on defense to make them successful. The Seahawks have a lot of talent on offense, but their defense is what makes them one of the best teams in the league. Seattle’s physical secondary, featuring guys like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Walter Thurmond, makes them incredibly difficult to pass on whether their playing in man-to-man coverage or in a zone. They only give 190.6 passing yard per game, which ranks third in the NFL. The Seahawks front seven is incredibly fierce as well. They are fifth in the NFL in rush yards given up per game (91.6) and 2nd in the NFL in sacks (23).
The 49ers are also a force to be reckoned with on the defensive side of the ball. They are ranked in the top 8 in points against and total defense, which is one of the reasons they made it all the way to the Super Bowl last season. The linebacking core of NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Patrick Willis is one of the best in the league and defensive linemen like Justin Smith and Glenn Dorsey make it very difficult for opposing teams to run the football and give their quarterback time to throw. Despite the loss of linebacker Aldon Smith, the 49ers defense will once again give them a shot to contend for the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals defense isn’t as quality as the Seahawks and 49ers, but their two young defensive backs show potential to make the Cardinals one of the best secondary’s in the league. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, both former LSU players, have proved to be two of the best playmakers in the game on the defensive side of the ball. Peterson is a lock-down corner with great speed and athleticism, and one of the best punt returners in the game. Mathieu has great instinctual ability, and his unbelievable ball-skills made him a Heisman Trophy candidate back in 2011. The Cardinals still need to tighten some things up on defense, but their secondary has a very promising future.
Out of these four teams the 49ers and the Seahawks are really the only two teams capable of being contenders. The Rams and the Cardinals still have a ways to go before they can think about making a playoff run. However, if you look around the NFL, it would be hard to find 3rd and 4th place divisional teams that are better than the Rams and Cardinals. It is also hard to find two legitimate Super Bowl contenders in a division, like the 49ers and Seahawks, which is why the NFC West is arguably the most complete division in football.