Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Long And Suite Preview: The NFC West

Pete Carroll (left) and Jim Harbaugh (right) already have the most intense coaching rivalry in football, dating back to their days in the Pac 10 (now 12). The stakes are even higher this year, as Carroll's Seahawks and Harbaugh's 49ers might just be the two best teams in the NFL.

 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The transformation that this division has undergone over the last three years is pretty incredible. In 2010, A Week 17 matchup between the 7-8 Rams and 6-9 Seahawks actually decided which of the two teams would HOST a playoff game the following week. It was pretty embarrassing. Now there’s an argument to be made that it’s the best top-to-bottom division in the league. Even 2012’s last place finisher Arizona had wins over Seattle and New England.

The Northwest half of the division, San Francisco and Seattle, are still the two favorites to make the postseason. Arizona was submarined by some of the worst quarterback play in recent league history, finishing with a TEAM passer rating of just 63.1. Newcomer Carson Palmer, while far removed from his Pro Bowl seasons in 2005 and 2006, is still a passable quarterback, posting a passer rating above 80 in each of the last four seasons. If they could win five games seemingly just on defense and special teams last season, improved quarterback play and improved production in the running game (hopefully) thanks to free agent pickup Rashard Mendenhall, a .500 or better season could be in their future.

The division’s enigma is St. Louis. Former #1 overall pick Sam Bradford has not lived up to that billing, and it becomes even more of an albatross due to his old-school rookie contract, which pays him more than twice the amount that last year’s top picks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III receive, ten times the amount Colin Kaepernick gets, and SEVENTEEN times the amount Russell Wilson gets. Still, they were a 7-8-1 team last year, and have promising young talent on both offense – their top three receivers and starting tailback are all 24 or younger. Still, their performance this year largely depends on whether Bradford can produce at a level better than 20th in passer rating, 21st in Total QBR, and 16th in both DVOA and DYAR.

Storyline(s) To Watch:

Which Seattle Team Shows Up?

On one hand, the Seahawks were a legitimately great team last season - their +10.4 average scoring margin was the best in the NFC, and third-best in the league behind New England and Denver. On the other, there were two plays last season where if either had gone the other way, the Seahawks would have missed the playoffs entirely.

The first and obvious example is the end of their Week 3 Monday Night Football game against Green Bay, when an interception in the end zone was called as simultaneous possession, and thus a game-winning touchdown. The other was a near-turnover in the 4th quarter of their game against Chicago in Week 13 - on a 1st-and-10 from their own 14 yard line, with 3:28 to play, down 14-10, Russell Wilson rolled out and dumped the ball to Marshawn Lynch. As Lynch made a move to get out of bounds, Charles Tillman punched the ball out. At the time of the fumble, the only players in the frame were Chicago defenders, but the ball rolled straight down the sideline to Wilson, who scooped it up as he trailed the play. In fact, this play came in the middle of a 97-yard touchdown drive that put Seattle in the lead (a game they would eventually win in overtime), but there were a number of plays that could have been the difference between winning and losing (including a 4th-down conversion at mid-field and a near interception from Major Wright).

If either (any) of those plays had gone the other way for Seattle, they would have finished 10-6, not 11-5, missed the playoffs, and I supremely doubt they'd be a trendy Super Bowl pick right now.

So the question becomes - which is a better indicator of Seattle's ability as a football team? Their elite scoring margin that suggests they're an elite team, or the silly luck that they needed in a few close games to even get them into the playoffs?


Can Arizona Actually Utilize Larry Fitzgerald?

As Jeremy wrote above, the Cardinals were a mess at quarterback. Combined, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer had the lowest yards per attempt in the league, at a somewhat embarrassing 5.6 yards (1.5 yards below the league average).

This widespread ineptitude led to star receiver Larry Fitzgerald enduring the worst season of his career, posting career lows in touchdowns (4) and yards per reception (11.2), while posting the lowest totals since his rookie season in receptions (71) and yards (798). That's right, Larry Fitzgerald, one of the most talented receivers of this generation, was held to 4 touchdowns and under 800 yards on this train wreck of an offense.

Enter new coach Bruce Arians, who spent the last six seasons bringing along Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck as an offensive coordinator, and quarterback Carson Palmer. While Palmer hasn't done a great deal of winning over the past two years in Oakland, he does seem to be a serious upgrade for the Cardinals. After throwing for over 4,000 yards on 61% passing in 2012, Palmer should at least not be the liability last season's Cardinal signal callers became.

Add in the addition of running back Rashard Mendenhall - who thrived when healthy under Arians in Pittsburgh - and Arizona has the chance to be one of the most improved offenses in the league. And, of course, getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald will greatly help their cause.


Player(s) To Watch:

St. Louis' Offensive Skill Players

Both Daryl Richardson and Tavon Austin will be thrust into roles that they've never played before. In the case of Austin, because he's a rookie, technically speaking any role would be one that he's never played before; Richardson will assume the role of "featured back" for the Rams this season after just 98 carries last season.

Richardson had a mildly productive season last year, gaining nearly 500 yards on a robust 4.85 yards per carry, but most of those runs came in situations where the defense wasn't expecting one - draw plays on 3rd-and-long and the like. Richardson is very small for a feature back, just 5'10", 192 lbs, so St. Louis will also need production from sophomore reserve Isaiah Pead, whose season last year consisted of a whopping 23 touches (10 carries, 10 kick returns, and three receptions).

After throwing Chris Givens and Brian Quick into the mix, the five Rams who will expect to see most of the offense's touches from scrimmage collectively average less than one year of NFL experience - Richardson, Pead, Givens, and Quick are all from the 2012 draft, and Austin's zero years of NFL experience dips that average below one. It remains to be seen whether these players are seeing this much responsibility so quickly out of necessity, or because the team really believes this is the future.


Vernon Davis

The 49ers are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, and perhaps no player is more intriguing than third-year quarterback Colin Kapernick. With a trip to the Super Bowl and record-setting playoff rushing performances already under his belt, it's easy to see why San Francisco traded away Alex Smith in favor of the dual-threat quarterback from Nevada.

The one issue with Kaepernick, however, is that with him under center (or in the pistol), star tight end Vernon Davis largely disappeared last season. Now, the Niners won a ton of games anyway, and I'm totally stealing this observation from Jeremy, but at some point don't you have to get one of the league's most talented tight ends involved?

Before Kaepernick took over as the full-time starter last year, Davis has 29 receptions for 404 yards and 4 touchdowns in 9 games. Things looked like they would get even better, as he grabbed six catches for 83 yards and a TD in Kaepernick's first start against Chicago.

But, after that game against the Bears, Davis would only catch six balls the rest of the season, for a meager 61 yards and no touchdowns. Now, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are all great weapons, but Davis is probably the best player at his position on that offense. Whether or not he can thrive with Kaepernick at quarterback could be the difference between San Francisco being a very good team, and the 49ers being a great team.


Jeremy's Picks:

49ers 11-5
Seahawks 10-6
Rams 7-9 
Cardinals 4-12

Joe's Picks:

49ers: 12-4 
Seahawks: 11-5 
Rams: 6-10 
Cardinals: 3-13

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