A few years ago, it was absurd to think of the NFC West as anything resembling dominance. In 2010, the division was won with a 7-9 record, the first time a team with a losing record earned a playoff berth. That season, Seattle and St. Louis recorded seven wins, San Francisco had six, and Arizona recorded five, two years after the Cardinals played in Super Bowl XLIII. But after Seattle knocked off defending-Super Bowl champion New Orleans in a Wild Card matchup that season, the resurgence of the NFC West was on full display for the world to see.
Fast forward to present day, and the NFC West is the class division of the NFL. San Francisco is coming off an NFC Championship and a thrilling 34-31 defeat in Super Bowl XLVII. Seattle is fresh off of an 11-5 season, when they were one quick Matt Ryan drive and Matt Bryant field goal from facing the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. St. Louis is looking toward next season after winning seven games, 4 of which were against NFC West opponents, including a win and tie versus San Francisco and a split versus Seattle. Arizona, despite having 4 starting quarterbacks, started the season 4-0 before finishing 5-11, one of those wins coming against New England in Foxboro and against NFC West foe Seattle.
This division is now home to the some of the most talented and hard-nosed in the NFL. The 49ers have been favored to win the division over the last several seasons, but Seattle is also in the conversation going into this season. The makeup of both teams are extremely similar, with young quarterbacks, bruising running backs, playmaking wide receivers, and solid defenses that make the margin of difference between the two teams extremely slim.
But the other two teams aren’t far behind. St. Louis had a great offseason, bringing in talented playmakers on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Arizona has a new coach, the 2012 Coach of the Year in Bruce Arians, and a solidified starting quarterback situation with Carson Palmer. As good as the division was last season, it is slated to be even better this fall. But how did we get here? Let’s dive in deeper to look at the road each team has taken since that upset win for the Seahawks in the 2011 Wild Card win over the Saints.
For San Francisco, it was seemingly a flick of the switch to become the cream of the crop of the NFC West. After that 2010 season, San Francisco came into the next season with a new head coach (Jim Harbaugh) and general manager (Trent Baalke). Their play improved immediately, winning 13 games and pulling off a memorable NFC Divisional round win over New Orleans before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the NFC Championship game.
Michael Crabtree saw his play improve in his first season under Harbaugh, recording career highs in yards and catches in each of the coach's two seasons in San Francisco. The defense also became more feared under Harbaugh, ranking 2nd in points allowed per game in the NFL in those years. So in two years, the Niners went from a 6-10 campaign to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1994. They are still pegged a favorite to play in the Super Bowl next season.
In the case of Seattle, their climb to the top of the NFC West has been different from San Francisco on one hand, and similar on the other. Seattle didn’t improve their record after winning the Wild Card game versus the Saints, in fact finishing 7-9 again the next season as well. The similarity comes from the head coaching situation, which featured new head coach Pete Carroll, who spent nine years at the University of Southern California.
The fluidity of the quarterback position is largely what kept the Seahawks stuck at seven wins in 2011. However, as unexpected as it was, 3rd round pick Russell Wilson became the starting quarterback and grew throughout the season, reeling off wins 7 of the team's final 8 regular season games before valiantly losing in the NFC Divisional round to Atlanta.
The Seahawks defense became even better in 2012 as well, leading the NFL in points allowed. With a steady hand now leading the offense, with the quality of skill players on offense, and an extremely stingy defense, Seattle will definitely give San Francisco all they can handle for that NFC West crown.
For St. Louis, they have been putrid for many years, posting just 15 wins from 2005-2010. In 2010, they drafted Sam Bradford first overall as franchise quarterback. They saw immediate improvement, and appeared to be on their way to their first NFC West title since 2003. However, the Seahawks took that from them on the last game of the 2010 season. Injuries to key players then hampered their 2011 season, and the team stumbled to 2-14.
But as we saw with the previous two teams mentioned, a new management team led by head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead helped bring an improvement last year, as the Rams returned to a 7-9 record. Most notably, 4 of the Rams 7 wins were against NFC West opponents. They now enter 2012 with a different look on offense, losing 3 key starters (Steven Jackson, Brandon Gibson, and Danny Amendola), and bringing in a host of speedy pass catchers, including 1st round pick Tavon Austin. That should give Sam Bradford a host of weapons he hasn’t had since he’s been in the NFL. They also have a defense that led the NFL in sacks last season and added playmaking linebacker Alec Ogletree in the draft. They will be a factor in the division next season.
Finally, Arizona has taken a dip in the last several seasons. After winning the NFC title in 2009, the Cardinals have won just 18 games in three years. Even last season, which started out promising with a 4-0 start, the Cardinals mustered just one win in the final 13 weeks. The Cardinals were marred with quarterback problems, starting 4 different signal callers during the season. They also lacked consistency in the running game due to injuries, and could never really feature All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
This season looks like it could be quite different. Carson Palmer is the starting quarterback for that team, and incoming head coach Bruce Arians looks to continue the trend for new head coaches in the division. They do have a strong defense, which with improved coaching and quarterback play, should make Arizona effective next season.
As you can see, the NFC West has come from the bottom. Now they’re here, and the world has taken notice. Two Super Bowl favorites, many people’s surprise team, and a team led by reigning Coach of the Year are featured in this division. As we head into training camp, we anxiously await the regular season opening in early September. In Week 1, Arizona takes on St. Louis. In Week 2, San Francisco visits Seattle. The fun begins immediately!
By: Kenny Bunch