Normally the NFC West is the NFL’s most predictable division, but 2014 was anything but for the NFL’s left coast. While the Seattle Seahawks (12-4) won the division title for the second straight year, and came literally within one play of winning back-to-back Super Bowls, the rest of the division was slightly different.
The Arizona Cardinals (11-5) came out of nowhere to qualify for the playoffs, while the San Francisco 49ers (8-8) regressed in the worst possible way. The Cardinals in their second year under Bruce Arians flourished on offense despite injuries to every quarterback on their roster (Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley, Logan Thomas).
They also were dominant on defense thanks to coordinator Todd Bowles. It was one of the best turnarounds in the league last year. As for the 49ers; all of the talk about Jim Harbaugh’s future, and the legal issues with some of their players (defensive end Ray McDonald and linebacker Aldon Smith) became a much bigger distraction then we were led to believe. They missed out on the postseason after three straight appearances.
As far as the St. Louis Rams (6-10) are concerned, another injury to quarterback Sam Bradford, plus lackluster play on offense overshadowed a solid performing defense.
The Seahawks are looking for another Super Bowl ring, the Cardinals hope to surpass the Seahawks, the 49ers made a ton of changes which may not necessarily be a good thing, while the Rams need to find the winning recipe on offense.
Here are the biggest moves made within the NFC West thus far…..
Seattle has made the biggest splash so far in this offseason. Their blockbuster trade with the New Orleans Saints for tight end Jimmy Graham could give them their third division title.
Perhaps he could have been that dependable receiver that the Seahawks needed on the 1-yard line in Super Bowl 49. The ‘Hawks can’t change the past but Jimmy Graham adding another dynamic to the offense does give them a brighter future.
The biggest changes with the Cardinals have been on the defensive side of the ball. Coordinator Todd Bowles is now the head coach of the New York Jets. Bowles has been replaced by the unproven James Bettcher.
They also lost defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, and are undecided on whether or not to keep linebacker John Abraham due to his ongoing health concerns. The good thing is they have acquired defensive tackle Mike Iupati, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, and defensive end Cory Redding.
Ultimately, their coaching will decide how the defense performs in 2015.
The San Francisco 49ers have done a complete overhaul of their roster, and not in a good way. Many of the stars that shined during the Jim Harbaugh era are no longer on the team, including Harbaugh himself. Former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula –who has no previous head coaching experience- was promoted in the wake of Harbaugh’s slightly unexpected departure.
Perhaps the York family feels that giving Tomsula the keys to the kingdom will keep a sense of familiarity with the team. But let’s be honest, the 49ers are heading into rebuilding mode. They also lost defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to the Chicago Bears, he’s been replaced by Eric Mangini who was the tight ends coach last season.
Before that, Mangini was an analyst for ESPN. They also lost –or will lose- numerous talented players that made the Niners a contender under Harbaugh. Running back Frank Gore is now an Indianapolis Colt, linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Boreland announced their shocking retirements recently, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin went to Carolina, and it’s doubtful that they’ll re-sign wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
They also let go of the aforementioned defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Mike Iupati, they cut wide receiver Stevie Johnson and fullback Bruce Miller is facing a possible suspension after being arrested on spousal battery charges.
The 49ers did bring some players in to replace some of the missing pieces. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett should be a perfect fit. But running back Reggie Bush won’t nearly replace the production that the Niners got from Gore.
Bush has only rushed for 1,000 yards twice in his career (2011 and 2013) since entering the league in 2006. He’s only had 500 or more receiving yards twice as well (2006 and 2013). Even his special teams numbers are downers (804 total return yards, 4 punt return touchdowns).
Unless he takes his career to the next level in a 49ers uniform, Bush is just a stop-gap player for the time being. Their best acquisition so far has been wide receiver Torrey Smith. At this point in time, I find it hard to see the 49ers getting back above the .500 mark.
The Rams have slowly improved over the last couple of years. But their achillies heel has been their offense. It never helps that the quarterback that you spent a first round draft pick on can’t stay healthy. And with Sam Bradford’s numerous trips to injured reserve over the course of his career, the Rams felt they needed to make a change.
And they did just that by trading Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles for Nick Foles. Foles may not be the flashiest quarterback, but he’s one of the most consistent.
Since 2012 Foles has gathered 7,084 total yards and 50 total touchdowns. He also has a completion percentage of 61.6 in that span to go with a 94.2 passer rating. Things may finally be looking up for the Rams.
Perhaps the balance of power may shift a little bit in the NFC West for the 2015 season.