Yeah, the NFC West Still Sucks, But Here’s Almost 1,700 Words About It

Posted: September 8, 2011 by Dinner Party Animal in football, NFC West, NFL

It’s the ultimate in NFL cliche to say that quarterback is the most important position on the field.  Watch a game on TV, and you’ll hear announcers mention it at least once a game.  If it’s Monday Night Football, Jon Gruden alone is good for at least five.  Like virtually every cliche, it has a fair amount of truth behind it, which at least makes it better than the old adage that teams should run the football to win games.  With all that being said, the NFC West this year offers a somewhat interesting lens by which to examine the state of the quarterback position in 2011, as well as the promise of another crappy playoff team.

Arizona Cardinals

Exhibit A in the argument that the quarterback position matters most would be the Arizona Cardinals, and Kevin Kolb.  After a two-year run as Division Champs and a Super Bowl loss, the team was seemingly utterly unprepared for Kurt Warner’s retirement.  The results were perhaps the worst collective quarterbacking in living memory, as Derek Anderson, John Skelton, and Max Hall combined to shatter the previously established standard of replacement level.  The team won five games and was lucky to do so.  In the off-season, they shipped a second-round pick and their best cornerback to the Eagles for Kolb, then gave him a massive contract.  All this for a guy who’s thrown 11 TDs and 14 interceptions in the league.

Kolb supporters point to a couple of decent games as a fill-in starter for Donovan McNabb, and the fact that he beat out Michael Vick for the starting job last year (before getting hurt).  Doubters point to an unimpressive set of numbers, a lack of truly impressive physical ability, and the aforementioned frailness.  The Cardinals may well strike gold, but at this point it’s hard not to look at the move as wishful thinking.

Some have advanced the notion that Kolb was acquired in part to satisfy Larry Fitzgerald, who signed his own long-term deal this off-season.  If so, it makes an already questionable move even worse.  Fitzgerald is a great player, yes, but trading significant resources and committing a lot of money to an at-best good quarterback just so you can commit even more money to a wide out who, while great, can’t turn Kolb into Warner just by willing it, isn’t smart.  This continues a series of puzzling moves, as the Cardinals have let plenty of defensive talent leave over the last few years.  Couple that with the utter lack of options at quarterback last year, and doubts exist about the direction of the franchise. Of course, if Kolb turns out to be a great, or even good, quarterback, all will be forgiven.  And if he doesn’t, you can bet on wholesale changes in the desert in the next few years.

St. Louis Rams

Before the 2010 NFL Draft, the St. Louis Rams were faced with a dilemma.  They held the first overall pick, and their choices were essentially narrowed down to two: Ndamukong Suh, a world-beating defensive tackle, and Sam Bradford, a former Heisman Trophy winner who’d missed most of the prior season with a shoulder injury.  St. Louis, a franchise which had seen one of the all-time great displays of quarterbacking virtuosity just a decade earlier, was without a long-(or even short-) term answer at the position, and so they passed on the almost certain star in Suh to entrust the next few years of the franchise to Bradford.

There are two conflicting narratives on how the season went for Bradford: many in the media saw his first year as evidence of future greatness, pointing to solid if unspectacular numbers and a receiving corps which was, to put it kindly, shitty.  Others saw yardage and completion percentage totals that were inflated by a ton of short passes, as well as the fact that Bradford wasn’t even the best rookie QB in the league.

Obviously, the Rams hopes this year largely rest on the idea that Bradford will continue down the path of franchise quarterback.  While the receivers are still bad, and longtime stalwart running back Steven Jackson is another year closer to his professional grave, the thought is that an improved Bradford will fashion an average offense, which could be coupled with a young and somewhat talented defense to produce something approaching a decent team.  In the NFC West, that would be enough.

The shadow side is that Bradford may not be all that good.  His year last year was statistically inferior to almost every quarterback who saw significant action last year.  When compared to, say, Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco’s rookie seasons, the year looks even worse.  While there clearly is talent, Bradford has yet to demonstrate an ability to throw the ball downfield or diagnose defenses.  In the final game of 2010, with a chance to earn a playoff spot, he was terrible against a Seattle defense that ranked among the league’s worst.  There exists a potential for St. Louis to be stuck in a long holding pattern, with Bradford’s high draft pick and occasional spots of ability teasing the team, even as he fails to develop into a elite passer.  Struggles this year, against a much tougher schedule, would start to perhaps bring whispers that the team may have made a mistake tying their fate to Bradford’s.

San Francisco 49ers

For an example of what could happen to the Rams one need look no further than the 2005-2010 49ers.  After drafting Alex Smith first overall in 2005, the team has yet to make the playoffs, or even record a winning season, during that time span.  Smith has consistently been one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league, and the team has paid him a boatload of money for the privilege.  Despite talent on both sides of the ball, the franchise has been completely inhibited by Smith’s failings.  Just this season, they finally invested a high draft pick in a quarterback, taking Colin Kaepernick early in the second round.

Still, they’ve decided to put the ball back in Smith’s undersized hands this season.  Kaepernick is widely seen as more of a developmental project, and while it’s likely he’ll see the field at some point, he’s not ready yet.  Offensively, the team is hoping for a healthy season from Frank Gore, something that looks less and less likely each passing year, as well as growth and maturity from Michael Crabtree, again something of a failing bet.  Vernon Davis remains one of the league’s best tight ends, and the line is competent if not great.

Defensively, Patrick Willis is a great player at a relatively unimportant position, and the rest of the unit lacks playmakers.  The hope is that first-round pick Aldon Smith provides a pass-rushing threat from the outside, but small-college players are rarely impactful early on in their careers.  The 49ers are in that most-dubious of NFL categories: just enough talent to think that with a few breaks they could make the playoffs, but in reality they have a flawed and not-particularly young roster with no star players at important positions.

Seattle Seahawks

Alone among the four teams in the division, the Seahawks appear resigned to the fact that they won’t get good quarterbacking this year.  The team let long-time favorite Matt Hasselbeck walk in free agency, choosing to recognize the fact that despite a playoff win and a bundle of good memories, Hasselbeck has been among the worst starters in the league the last few years.  Not happy with the idea of backup Charlie Whitehurst becoming the starter, the team signed Tarvaris Jackson to a free agent deal which, if nothing else, illustrated the difference that media narrative can play in a signing.  Jackson, like Kevin Kolb, had been drafted as a quarterback of the future, then been stuck behind higher profile players with only limited chances.  By now, everyone’s familiar of the way the Brett Favre saga developed in Minnesota, but even before Favre the Vikings appeared unwilling to commit to Jackson.

Now, it’s more than possible this is because Jackson was never any good.  He was widely considered a reach when the team drafted him in 2006, and while there have been occasional flashes, he’s rarely performed at a high level.  Still, he’s compiled a statline that compares somewhat favorably to Kolb’s.  Additionally, he offers a much broader set of athletic abilities.  The potential exists that he may tap into them, offering the team some value at the position.  It’s unlikely, but no one would ever claim the the Brad Childress-led Vikings were a model franchise, so they could easily have been wrong about Jackson.

The team made a number of off-season moves beyond Jackson, bringing in talented-if-fragile wide receiver Sidney Rice from Minnesota as well.  They also addressed the woeful state of their offensive line, drafting linemen with their first two picks and signing Robert Gallery away from Oakland.  Unfortunately, last year’s top pick Russell Okung, has battled ankle injuries through much of his career, and the team’s first rounder this year, James Carpenter, has been unable to earn a starting spot on the offensive line.

Defensively, the team has gotten younger and more athletic in the secondary, while bringing in some effective, if not great, defensive linemen.  With the return to health of Red Bryant, it’s not impossible that this is an above-average defense.

The most likely scenario is that Jackson struggles, and is possibly replaced midseason by Whitehurst, who will probably do the same.  Even an improved defense will do little to bail out an offense that can’t move the ball, and the team may be dead in the water by mid-November.  However, if Jackson does show signs of improvement, if the young offensive line can provide protection and some push in the running game, it’s possible the Seahawks could remain in the hunt for another dubious Division Title.  Whatever the case, at the very least they’ll remain more flexible at the quarterback position than any other team in the division, meaning that if an opportunity arises in the 2012 draft, they’ll be better suited to take it than the Cardinals, Rams, or 49ers.

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