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.