Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Set Pieces - For Better or For Worse, the NFC West Is the Most Competitive Division In the League.


With the Draft behind us and the bulk of free agency settled, there are two months between now and the 2008 football season, when the NFL's epic story continues with another chapter. In that time, TiT will be looking at the players, coaches, and situations that will form their own small stories and will play a large role in driving our experience of the season as a whole. Today, we look at the NFC West and the divisional race most worth watching...even if it makes you want to gouge your eyes out.

Ask anyone what the most competitive division in football is this year, and you’re likely to get the same quick response people have given for the last couple of years: the AFC South. Certainly, there’s little doubt that the AFC’s southern fried division packs the most bang for your buck of any of the divisions, with each team a legitimate playoff contender, and each putting out a unique and well executed game plan, generally making for stellar in division competition. Furthermore, the big marquee names combined with their marquee talent make for exciting Sunday theater. Indeed, this knee-jerk reaction of the typical football fan is both understandable and, on paper, completely rational.

But here’s the thing: Until Peyton Manning says so, that’s his corner. Dwight Freeney’s coming back (forgot that the Colts did all that last year without him, didn’t you), and Marvin Harrison is scarier than ever and ready to destroy the number two corner on your favorite football team. The Colts have won the AFC South every year since 2003, and this year, with the talent they have returning and young players (Ugoh, Gonzalez) maturing, the script will remain the same: Indy jumps ahead early, SOMEBODY teases like they’re playing it close, and Indy curb stomps them in the divisional games. Wake me up when the credits roll, ok?

So the real answer to the question of which division is going to be the most competitive isn’t the AFC South, which is actually the most talented, but rather a division that has yet to find clear dominance; a division that had the kind of draft that evens out the terrain in a year; a division where everyone is willing to drag everybody else down to the mean, where each win feels like a pyrrhic victory. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the 2008 NFC West, where the motto is “Hey, somebody has to crawl out of this crab barrel eventually.”

First off, let me dispel the dirtiest rumor you’ll hear about the division: The Seattle Seahawks are not running a damn thing. Fine, they’ve won the NFC West every season since 2004; those victories are some of the ugliest and most meaningless you’ll find in NFL record books. In 2004, they won the division, only to lose a wild card matchup to their division rivals, the Rams, who went on to win the NFC (EDITOR'S NOTE: BLARGH that was a bad miss. They went on to lose in the divisional round. WOW I'm off my game over here. That said, my point still stands: The Rams were better than the Seahawks in a year where Seattle won the division.) In 2007, they eeked out a victory solely because the Cardinals didn’t turn the keys over to Kurt Warner sooner. In 2006, they won the division at 9-7, with St. Louis at 8-8 and San Francisco at 7-9. A 9-7 DIVISIONAL WINNER!!! Smell what I’m cooking: Scraping by thanks to a coach who has his shit together the soonest does not a divisional 800-pound gorilla make.

The fact of the matter is that every team in this division can, on any given day, pop every other divisional competitor in the mouth, and they absolutely suck against pretty much everybody else. But for the Matt Leinart experiment, the literal breakdown of every single component part of the Rams offense, and Mike Nolan and Alex Smith leaving couples therapy, last season could have seen a divisional competition in which someone had to walk away the winner at 8-8. If you can’t get with that, then you’re lying when you say you want close races, and should return to your regularly scheduled AFC programming.

But if you can envision yourself glued to the in division games, then this season’s NFC West is even cattier than the last. Quick, team by team:


Seattle gets a little older, and the clock keeps ticking on when the wheels fall off. DJ Hackett is gone, meaning that the receiving corps consists of Deion Branch, Bobby Engram, and Nate Burlseeawwojgfngngnnn (/falls asleep). The tandem of TJ Duckett and Julius Jones is about to make fans long for Shauny’s 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Matt Hasselbeck continues to play just good enough to keep Seneca Wallace as the team’s most dynamic WR and nothing more, but not quite good enough for anyone to acknowledge that you don’t post a 91.4 QB rating for your career without doing something right. Oh, and Jim Mora is waiting to take the team over. Catch that football fever, Seattle.


Arizona returns its surprisingly chippy pass offense (5th in the league?!?), added two of the most dynamic pass defenders and a steal of a slot man in the draft, and enters year three of the Matt Leinart experiment (which is either to see whether he can be a pro QB or to se how many hits his internal organs can take thanks to his inability to dodge tackles). Oh, and did anyone else notice that this team had the 9th best run defense last year??? No reason to think they can’t break through the 8-8 glass ceiling and win the division this year. Inevitably, this means they’re going 4-12, but they SHOULD compete for the division.


St. Louis would like to remind you that it isn’t their fault that Steven Jackson, Marc Bulger, and Orlando Pace looked like they were all made of dried macaroni and football know-how last year. Yeah, that 24th ranked offense from 2007? In 2006, with everyone healthy, they were the 6th best in the league. Also, Donnie Avery is showing all the symptoms of Steve Smith complex, except he actually has other receivers distracting defenses. Oh, and the defensive front four includes Adam Carriker and Chris Long, two young players you want to build a team around, and Leonard Little, who’s going to seriously mess with your world now that he’s got some help on the other side of the line, is deadly (/wrings collar and does standup-comic “yeesh” noise)


Finally, the San Francisco 49ers still have everything that made people think they were going to go to the Super Bowl last year, except the defense has another year together and this year the offense gets to play the “we’re scrappy underachievers with our backs against the wall” card. Frank Gore is either really overrated or really underrated. Alex Smith goes Good Will Hunting on us or moves on to go tutor kids for the SATs. Vernon Davis evolves in year three or officially becomes the biggest disappointment of the 2006 draft (don’t even TRY to say that Reggie Bush is worse). Isaac Bruce either plays well or gets set adrift on an ice floe. And Mike Nolan in a suit! I defy you to tell me you don’t want to watch these extremes in a Mike Martz offense coached by Mike Nolan in suit.

Will Arizona eek this out at 9-7? Will Seattle slide by with tiebreakers? Will St. Louis or Arizona put together a five game stretch that has them winning it at 10-6? I have no clue, and neither do you, and that’s why this is the one division that demands your attention this year. Because if everyone is around where they should be (read: no 2007 Rams-style meltdowns), every one of these teams is geared to play the other closely and competitively, no matter how they fare against opponents from outside the division. Will it be particularly well executed? No, but if I wanted that, I’d watch the Chargers play Gladiator Mice with the AFC West (that noun-verb will stick, dammit). I like my divisional wide open, and whether these teams play down to their ugly worst-case scenario or their breathtaking best-case scenario, it’s gonna be close.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Rams did not win the NFC in 2004.

Adam said...

Seattle's defense doesn't exist, apparently. Three Pro Bowl starters last year? Possibly the best linebacking corps in the league? Not ringing any bells? All right. Just don't be surprised when they go 11-5.

Adam said...

I'm sorry, four Pro Bowl starters. My mistake.

Anonymous said...

Go Niners!

Tjern said...

wow you must have something againt the hawks. You mention every year except the year Seattle was healthy and dominant ('05) Each year we improve our defense and draft well. you cannot win 4 straight division titles on accident. Were you one of the people who thought the 49ers were going to the Super Bowl last year? Laughable.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but this article is a joke.

"Frank Gore is either really overrated or really underrated." Brilliant stuff.

The Rams lost to the Falcons after beating the Seahawks in the Wild Card round in 2004 -- they did not "win the NFC."

Comparing Donnie Avery to Steve Smith is laughable this early in the game.

The NFC West may be competitive, but it's because they are all pretty mediocre clubs. It doesn't make for interesting football, and the rivalries are pretty much second tier compared to other rivalries in the NFL. Nobody wants to watch the Cardinals duke it out with the Seahawks on Sunday when the Bears and Packers (for example) are playing the same day, no matter what the records are.

And sadly I say all this a Rams fan. Get us out of that damn dome!

jim jones said...

Matt Hasselbeck does just enough to not get benched in favor of Seneca Wallace? You lost your credibility there, not that you had any to begin with. This is the same Matt Hasselbeck that was leader of the NFL's #2 ranked offense in 2005. He is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the NFC, and maybe even the best now that Favre's retired. I don't know why you would think this division will be tight when it's been consistently owned by Seattle.

Everyone says the same crap every year.. "This is the year the Cardinals shock the world!" "The Niners are gonna trample the NFC West!" and it never happens.

Anonymous said...

Why does Deadspin link to this crap?

Kevin said...

Wow... this is trash. Why fact check? I can't imagine anyone found this worth reading.

It's almost like you thought the funny picture of Smith was going to make this tolerable. It wasn't.

Bizurke said...

Gotta agree with some of the previous posts. The NFC west is interesting, for sure, but it's a mix of mediocrity that is welcome on the Eagles schedule this year. The AFC north and NFC east are the most solid top to bottom. The Texans and the Birds finished last in each division and not one NFL team considers either an automatic win.

If the NFC West interesting? yes, but as far as close competition, with some flux... the AFC Central interests me more: How will Bal rebound? Is Cle worth the hype? Will Cincy implode? Do the Steelers still have it? These questions interest me more than those that arise from the NFC West. ARZ and STL should rebound a bit, SEA still has an imposing home field and D, and the 49ers don't look to be too threatening. Pretty blah division to me, and perhaps the least intriguing in the NFL (other than the AFC east which will feature NE and NYJ taking turns mugging MIA and BUF).

Anonymous said...

Rams won the NFC in 2004..ummm no. And by the way the seahawks made it to the superbowl in 2005, looks like you failed to mention that. And also by the way Matt Haselback has been to the Pro- bowl like almost every year since like 2004. And also if you have watched any seahawks football in the last five years you would know Shaun alexander is the most overatted runner in the history of the NFL. His backup was an improvment when he was in there. He was the product of an amazing O-Line in 2005. Julius Jones will be a huge improvment. Maybe you should get your shit together before you write next time.

not a retard jets fan said...

guess the fact that the NFC East sends 3 teams to the playoffs every year flew over your head - I guess when all the NFC West teams are 4-12 that is "competitive" in a sense though.

Anonymous said...

Ha, this is so bad. Seattle still has the best D and QB in the division which will be enough to ensure another title. They won it last year with Shuan "can't find work" Alexander carrying the ball!

Deadspin, shame on you for linking to this clown and wasting five minutes of my time!

Cody said...

wow:

"Ask anyone what the most competitive division in football is this year, and you’re likely to get the same quick response people have given for the last couple of years: the AFC South"

Uhh, if you asked this someone about the most competitive top-to-bottom division in football it's easily the NFC East - which has been a consistently strong division year over year - it's only the past 2 seasons that anyone in the AFC S has challenged Indy. Look at it this way, until last season, you could basically pencil in 2 wins over Houston for every team, which already inflates teams win totals. So you get two sundays off. Who gives you a day off in the NFC East? Dallas? NYG? Wash? Philly? Plus, Tenn and Jax only recently came on - so this division is very top heavy.

Top to bottom, the NFC E is filled with quality teams and has to be the most competitive division in fball.

Andrew said...

> The NFC West may be competitive, but it's because they are all pretty mediocre clubs.

Um, yeah ... that's kinda the point of the article.

Alan said...

Buzz Bissinger approves of this article. No reason to repeat the many flaws in this post. You must pay as much attention to the NFC West as the boys in Bristol do.

Zac Soto said...

Blargh, where to start here...

1. WOW I was wrong on the 2004 "NFC Champ" Rams. That was a big miss.

2. As to the Seattle Seahawks, I like them, but if you think they're "dominant" in the same way other perpetual divisional champs have been, you're crazy. They won last year because they were slightly better than the rest of the terrible division, and the gap became smaller this offseason (losing Hackett and Alexander will hurt that offense).

3. The Cardinals can easily win that division this year. So can the Rams (peep the injuries). So can the 49ers (if Smith reverts to 2006) form. All 4 teams being able to win = SUPER competitive division.

4. AFC South > NFC East for the past two years. The Texans would routinely beat both the Redskins (who crawled into the playoffs due to a terrible NFC) and the Eagles (who were the divisional whipping boy). Now, if your point is that there's more TALENT in the NFC East, fair.

5. I don't dislike the Seahawks, again, I just think that they've come out on top of a scrum every year...WHICH IS THE POINT!!!

6. All that said, seriously, cut my hands off for that 2004 "NFC Champ" Rams mistake.

It's MOST COMPETITIVE, not BEST.

julia said...

Seriously though, what do you guys expect? You are reading a football column written by a guy who lives in France and shaves his chest.

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