Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Premature Evaluations 2009: NFC WEST

In an effort to get ready before season three of Throwing Into Traffic (the charm!), we'll be going division by division with Premature Evals. Here, we tackle the NFC West. Enjoy.

St. Louis Rams

I mentioned this before, but if there’s any team that will test the importance of the quarterback position it’s the Rams. Loaded to the gills with quality, borderline elite playmakers on offense, and boasting a defensive front that should be disruptive at worst and nightmarish at best, the team still has a glaring hold at signal caller, with Marc Bulger still grasping at the smoke and mirrors that used to be 2006. Still, at least he robbed the franchise for $62.5 million at the end of that year. In case you didn’t realize, I’m not enthralled by the Bulger Reclamation Project.

What does intrigue me, if only cautiously, is the presence of Kyle Boller on the sidelines. Despite being tossed aside by the Ravens, Boller has a physical skill set that makes Bulger’s look laughable, and with the offensive firepower the Rams already have around him (Avery will be back sooner than expected, Keenan Burton is a legitimate possession receiver, Randy McMichael is a gritty TE who can catch, and Steven Jackson is one healthy season away from reminding us that he was a versatile back before being a versatile back was cool). What the team needs is a game manager (cue yawns), and yet they’ve managed to leave themselves with a choice between a rookie (Keith Null), an incompetent victim of the yips who had two good years, and an incompetent backup with mutant strength. All things being equal, is it that crazy to give the ball to the guy with the physical gifts to reach all points, let Steven Jackson run the show, and see if Donnie Avery can’t get the jump on defenses one or two times a game? If the potential for failure is always there, shouldn’t spectacular failure be more palatable than the slow suffocation of Marc Bulger doing just enough to lose with good form?

And I just endorsed Kyle Boller. So much for plans of a happy return.

San Francisco 49ers

As much as I dislike the “hard nosed” football stereotype that Mike Singletary has preached from day one, his presence on the sidelines gives the 49ers something they haven’t had since Mike Nolan took over: A clear identity. Where most franchises attempt to make coaching hires that fill the perceived gaps on their team, Singletary seems to take everything the 49ers already do well and push them into either perfection or absurdity, depending on how it all plays out. Singletary wants to be run-first, and Frank Gore gives him the ability to do that with a surprising degree of burst and unpredictability (not to mention the promise that Glen Coffee has shown in a small sample size. Singletary’s defensive mindset should also emphasize the progress of a defense that was surprisingly stout against the run (13th in the league). Don’t even get me started on what this means for the continued development of LB Patrick Willis, who plays with an angry, hyperactive motor that is reminiscent of Singletary himself. Certainly, if the goal of any coaching staff is to make that which is good about a team great, Singletary would appear to be an inspired choice.

But what worries me is that the 49ers may be leaving behind some real talent simply because it doesn’t fit “the plan,” making Singletary’s plan not so much a fully realized identity than it is a narrow worldview. Alex Smith, now two years removed from a promising showing at QB, is all but buried behind the completely uninspired Shaun Hill. More importantly, the team, largely due to former offensive coordinator Mike Martz, has wasted the promise of Vernon Davis, who still has one of the most breathtaking athletic skill sets of any TE in the league. Emphasizing that which is good is, well, good, but not if it fails to see that there is good to be found where it has not yet been explicitly realized. Whether or not Singletary is willing to take that risk will determine whether or not this is another lost season for a franchise that once looked primed to make the leap back into relevance.

All that said, I’m proud of Singletary for taking a chance on rookie QB Nate Davis, who could calm my fears about Singletary and wind up being the anti-Alex Smith for all the right reasons (as well as some ironic wrong ones).

Seattle Seahawks

My “grizzled vets in need of redemption” radar was going crazy before the acquisition of RB Edgerrin James. At this point, I might be the only person outside of the Pacific Northwest making a point of watching Seahawks games. Housh finally free of the role of Ochocinco’s straight man? Julius Jones with Edge breathing down his neck? Deion Branch, a former Super Bowl MVP and once deemed worth trading a first round draft pick, fighting for his very career after surviving offseason rumors of being cut? Hell, I’m even pulling for Matt Hasselbeck, the perfect distributor for this varied aerial attack and a man who has legitimately seen both his health and legitimate achievements (ok, Super Bowl XL was a screwjob) stolen from him , to return to form (though we should never forget, FREE SENECA WALLACE). We’ve seen how a team of talented individuals, pushed to the brink of being scrapped, can respond with firepower once unseen (see: 2007 Giants). If you think the same thing can’t happen in a significantly weaker division, I’m not sure what to tell you. Enjoy your east coast bias at your own peril.

Perhaps most intriguing here is the mix of rough edged, gritty youth and veteran desperation. John Carlson, the best offensive rookie you never heard of last year, gives the aging bookends of the pass offense the freedom to find matchups by remaining a constant threat in the middle of the field. Angry DE Patrick Kerney and his 11 years experience are flanked by ends with no more than three years of experience and plenty of youthful physicality. Better still, the LB tandem of Leroy Hill and Lofa Tatupu now faces the pleasant dilemma of working rookie Aaron Curry, easily the draft’s most thrilling physical specimen and most solid all around defender, into an already frightening defensive scheme.

Certainly, there are huge question marks on this team (the pass rush, a leaky secondary, and the comedy routine of Julius Jones and Edge leap to mind), but none of that negates the genuine excitement I feel for a team whose need to succeed HERE and NOW is palpable. Besides, I seem to remember another team with a weak run game and pass defense but a dynamic pass attack and plenty of defensive athleticism doing pretty well last year…and they happened to have Edge on their roster, too.

Arizona Cardinals

Which brings us to the one team everyone thinks was a fluke. News flash: Kurt Warner was always really, really good, as was Larry Fitzgerald, as was Anquan Boldin, as was Darnell Dockett…and the list goes on. This team, and the undeniably talented individuals that compose it, were knocking on the door before last year’s stunning NFC Championship, and considering that many of the key pieces are still in place, I’m not sure why everyone is so certain they can’t once again air raid everyone to death. Hell, considering how spry Beanie Wells has looked, they may have even added a new dimension to one of the most formidable offenses in the league (second best in passing). Add to that a year of maturity to a young, athletic defense (Rodgers-Cromartie and Calais Campbell both showed potential to be great players on a defense that should be better under new management), and the only question appears to be the pink elephant that has been in the room even since last year: How long can a 38 year old who relies on quick reflexes possibly stay healthy, and what happens when he inevitably needs to take a few games off, or even retire?

So much depends, then, on whether or not Kurt Warner can hold up…or perhaps more realistically, on whether or not Matt Leinart believes this can still be his team. When he first arrived in 2006, Leinart was a cement footed rookie inheriting a team with no clear plan to succeed (the contribution of Whisenhunt to the team’s decision to focus on their strengths as a means of overcoming their weaknesses can’t be overemphasized). Collapsing under the weight of his own hype and unfair expectations, Leinart inevitably lost the QB competition to a well worn Kurt Warner, who was much better suited to thriving amid low expectations and has a quick release that more than compensated for similarly slow feet. But age is age, and sooner or later Warner is going to break down. If he were to suffer even a minor injury this year, Leinart could easily find himself carrying the Cardinals for a short, but important stretch. In a league where initial failure is usually the only failure you ever get a chance to show, Leinart is (either this year or in the near future) going to be asked to buck the system for the evaluation of offensive starters. Whether he embraces the freedom that such failure offers and sees that there is nothing left to fear, or lets it become his albatross will make all the difference as to whether last year was the arrival of prophetic vision or a fever dream.

1 comment:

chris said...

Great post Zac, but I'm still not buying the cardinals as a real contender... YET. They had a magical playoff run. I'll give them that, but I'll need to see more this season. Their run was against:

1. A Falcons team with an exhausted Michael Turner (averaging over 100 yards a game and 4.0 yards a carry, but rushes for 42 and 2.3 against the average cardinals run D)

2. A Panthers team where Jake Delhomme did just about everything in his power to lose that game (5 interceptions against a D that had 13 all season)

3. The Eagles. Ok, this was just an all around good win, but it WAS against the Eagles who, by contract with the NFL, must do everything possible to get to and lose the NFC championship game. Mission accomplished.

More than anything though, I'm concerned about the Cardinals regular season play last year. They went 6-0 against their hapless division and 3-7 against the rest of the league.

For those 3 wins, they beat a Dolphins team who hadn't gotten its groove yet (Started out 2-4) and is also likely overrated (7-1 against NFC and AFC west, 2-0 against the Bills). Other than that, the Cardinals have a win against the Bills and an overtime upset over the Cowboys. If you take away that overtime win, they have 0-1 wins against quality teams.

If they can run the table on the NFC West again and then pick off Detroit, they can surely squeeze out two wins in somewhere, but that's a big if. The NFC North (minus the lions), AFC South, Giants, and Panthers schedule won't be easy. Even if they go 4-2 in their division, I think they might be looking at a 7-9, 8-8 season.