Oh lord, do I even have to preview the NFC West? It’s the divisional equivalent of gingivitis, for Goodell’s sake. Granted, three of the teams have somehow made the Super Bowl in the last decade, but perhaps it’s fitting that none of them won it. Among the contestants for the NFC West crown are a star-studded, under-achieving ex-powerhouse of the 1980’s, a fading upstart who lost the Super Bowl two years ago, a muddled group of underachievers now helmed by a phony college coach, and The St. Louis Rams. My preview tour ends on a down note, beginning right now.
QUESTION ONE: IS MATT LEINART ON THE OUTS IN ARIZONA?
Matt Leinart’s time with Arizona is as frail as a dehydrated supermodel, and the indicators are that coach Ken Whisenhunt has more faith in Derek Anderson, who had an inexplicably good year in 2007, and has done nothing worthwhile since. Still, that’s more than Leinart has contributed to the NFL, and it seems the USC grad hasn’t learned any life lessons from Kurt Warner. Speaking of Warner, by the time this is posted, I fully expect a begging-and-pleading campaign from Cardinals fans the size of Beatlemania to convince Warner to come back. Fat chance of that happening, sad to say.
Alex Smith, you’re in luck. The 49ers only real competitor in the division was Arizona, and it seems that the quarterback situation just may seal their doom. Really, it’s an offense with Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Brian Westbrook, and a young and promising offensive line. Smith just has to not make too many mistakes. In fact, I dare say that Mr. Smith has some serious fantasy sleeper potential. The team averaged only a mere 100 rushing yards a game last season, but with Smith needing confidence, expect many handoffs to Gore and Westbrook to keep his spirits high.
QUESTION THREE: DID SAN FRANCISCO GET LUCKY BY DRAFTING TAYLOR MAYS?
How appropriate that a potential future-All Pro for the 49ers was the 49th pick. Taylor Mays incredibly fell to that spot, when the belief was he would go in round one to the Seahawks (with Mays former coach, Pete Carroll). Carroll pulled a sleight of hand and took another safety, Earl Thomas, instead. San Francisco probably can’t believe their fortune, supplementing the likes of Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer, and Michael Lewis with a reincarnated Sean Taylor clone. Mays might not start this year, but wait until Mike Singletary gets his aggressive hooks into Mays’ brain. It’s going to be very scary.
QUESTION FOUR: IS THIS THE END OF MATT HASSELBECK?
Matt Hasselbeck turns 35 in September, and his body is about as shattered as a glass house in an earthquake. The mysterious name “Charlie Whitehurst” is floating around, playing musical chairs around Hasselbeck’s battered carcass. It may not even take an injury for Hasselbeck to get thrown aside. Pete Carroll may want to put his signature on the team sooner than later, and he’s likely to make Whitehurst his legacy player. Of course, if Matt Leinart’s on the outs in Arizona, one wonders if Carroll would trade for his former protégé. Regardless, Hasselbeck’s not reliving 2005 in 2010, that’s for sure.
QUESTION FIVE: WHEN WILL WE SEE SAM BRADFORD?
I had conceived this question before AJ Feeley smashed his hand, and it looks like Sam Bradford’s going to be called upon early. I’m writing this on a night where wide receiver Donnie Avery looks to have had his knee destroyed, likely ending his season. If that’s the case, then Bradford has a taller mountain to climb. If Steven Jackson stays healthy, that will alleviate some of the pressure, but Bradford’s not righting the ship in one year. There are too many unknowns around him, and it’s going to take him some time to figure out the NFL playing style.
1. SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (9-7)
If any team in this division gets ten wins, it’ll be no small miracle. If Alex Smith wakes up and says “Hey, I should play like a first overall pick!”, then 11-5 could be reasonable. For now, let’s play it safe at 9-7. The offense has too many potent weapons (which Smith has to be the brain center for), and the defense has amassed quite a young army, led by Patrick Willis. If the 49ers somehow miss the playoffs, Smith’s not coming back in 2011. Again, given the lack of depth in the NFC West, shouldn’t San Fran take it?
Even this may be generous. There’s no quarterback, at least from what I can see. If Kurt Warner makes it to the Hall of Fame, this should be listed on his achievements: watching the shockingly great Arizona Cardinals die as soon as he skipped town. Also, a lack of Anquan Boldin does Leinart and Anderson no favors. Granted, Joey Porter and Kerry Rhodes as additions to the Cardinals defense can improve the team’s horrid pass coverage, as well as provide a good alpha leader in Porter to motivate with energy. It still won’t be enough to win the West, though.
3. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (5-11)
Pete Carroll’s dumped some interesting ingredients into the mixer bowl, but nothing looks congealed yet. Aging-but-capable receivers like TJ Houshmandzadeh and Deion Branch remain, as does solid young tight end John Carlson. Running back Justin Forsett shocked many with a 5.4 yards per carry average in 2009, and the youngster could be a keystone behind an unlikely renaissance for the Seahawks offense. However, there’s a lack of continuity at quarterback, on the offensive line, and the defense at large. I considered Seattle’s chances at the division crown, and while they could win some tough games, they’re just not there yet.
4. ST. LOUIS RAMS (4-12)
Sam Bradford, welcome to Hell. The team that averaged less than 11 points a game in 2009 is now without the star receiver in Donnie Avery and are turning to an expensive rookie quarterback to lead them back from the abyss. One positive could be coach Steve Spagnuolo’s tinkering with the defense. The additions of Fred Robbins and Na’il Diggs provide some veteran wisdom, and they join Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, and OJ Atogwe to fortify a decent group. If Coach Spags can create anything resembling his world champion Giants defense, there’s hope for the Rams yet.
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