The Niners came knocking last year, losing to the eventual Super Bowl winning Giants, but can they repeat atop the NFC West?
It’s been over six months since anything even remotely resembling football has been on television (unless, of course, you live in Canada, where their bastardized rendition of the Great American Game starts in July, has three downs, 10 extra yards and literal acres of end zone). It’s August and we’re all tired of the 162-game baseball slog; it’s time to start talking football again, and this week we're talking NFC North.
AFC Previews: East, North, South, and West.
NFC Previews: East, North, and South.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Since Kurt Warner traded his spikes for a suit, the Cardinals’ offensive numbers have dropped off dramatically. In the final three seasons with Warner under center they averaged 402 points, good for seventh best in the league; in the last two years without him, they’re barely breaking 300 and only five teams have averaged fewer points.
It’s time to face facts: despite a $7M bonus in March, Kevin Kolb is barely an average quarterback (57.7 completion percentage, 9-8 TD to INT ratio) let alone a replacement for Warner. He holds on to the ball too long (sacked once in every nine pass plays), which is bad news behind a bottom ten offensive line. He also surrendered eight fumbles in nine games in 2011, a number that would have likely been greater had he not been injured for the remaining seven. The upside for Arizona is that they drafted WR Michael Floyd, who at four years with Notre Dame caught more passes than any other first-round receiver in the last 10 years. He’ll be an excellent complement to Larry Fitzgerald, who’s been without a running mate since the departure of Anquan Boldin and who the Cardinals want to use more effectively on slant routes and in the midfield where he can beat secondaries and explode downfield. Team that tandem with Early Doucet in the slot and the Cardinals could have a formidable three receiver set…
2012 Expectations: With no one to throw to them. The Cardinals upgraded a passing game without upgrading its most integral part, the QB. The least they could have done is upgrade to O-Line to cater to Kolb’s tendency to hold the ball, but nope. There is no run game to speak of in Arizona (they ranked 24th last season with backup QB John Skelton finishing second in rushing yards with 128) so they’ve put a lot of eggs in the Kolb-coming-around basket. He won’t. 6-10, third in the NFC West.
San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
In an age of all-hands-on-deck offense, the Niners took the road less travelled to a 13-3 record last season: superior defense and special teams. And it paid off: They finished the year in the black in takeaways (a plus-28 mark, the best by any team in the past 15 years), held opponents to 77 rushing yards per game (and only 3 TDs) and surrendered a mere 14.2 PPG on any given Sunday. But the defensive number to note this season is 11, as in all 11 starters will be returning in 2012, making for another year of formidable foes.
On the other side of the ball, the Niners could use some work; they finished 26th in total offensive yards but found a silver lining in learning how to use QB Alex Smith effectively. He’s better suited to be a game manager than a Brady or a Brees, but after losing an overtime heartbreaker to the Giants in last year’s NFC Championship game, the Niners brought in some offensive options to help move the ball better and balance out their team. Giants expats Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs offer above-average talent at depth positions and a whole slew of backs will take the pressure off Frank Gore. After finding his groove, the Niners probably won’t ask Smith to do much more with the ball, but Jacobs is a prototypical goal-line back and Manningham offers mileage on three receiver sets, so at the very least the options are available should San Fran find themselves playing from behind.
2012 Expectations: Gore is still the star of this show on offense, but the wealth of backs will be welcome as the Niners lost an average of 20 yards on the ground in the second half of last season after defenses started zeroing in on him. Kendall Hunter is a better pass catcher than either Jacobs or Gore, and LaMichael James is a raw speedster, running the 40 in 4.37 and breaking 1,500 yards in each of his three seasons at Oregon. But even with the influx of talent, the Niners won’t look to change too much; last year’s 13-3 record probably exceeded expectations, but with their core defensive group returning, some additions on offense and a weak division to beat up on, we expect they’ll contend for the NFC crown again. 11-5, first in the NFC West.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
“Tinkering” is the word we would use to describe what’s been going on in Seattle for the past few years. They’ve been experimenting with different offensive and defensive strategies and personnel trying to find the right fit, and the results have been mixed. But 2012 might yield better results.
Defensively, they seem to have found a good mix; only six teams allowed fewer points last season, and while there are no Jared Allen-esque standouts, the unit as a whole seems to work well. Offensively, the pieces have been a little more replaceable; a revolving door at QB, a wide array of average-at-best receivers. They found a keeper in RB Marshawn Lynch, who after a slow start averaged 105 yards over the final nine games, but they need more to really take that next step toward a winning record. Newly signed QB Matt Flynn is at that point in his career where the numbers could go either way; he takes a lot of sacks (and Seattle gives them up) and in limited playing time has thrown too many interceptions, but he also put up huge numbers against New England and Detroit last year (480 yards and 6 TDs against the Lions). The sacks and INT problem might be solved by short routes from tight ends Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow, but Flynn could find himself overwhelmed by the wealth of receivers and never settle into a groove with any of them.
2012 Expectations: Should the latest Seattle experiment go awry, the Seahawks have Russell Wilson waiting in the wings. At 5’11”, he flew completely under the radar in the draft, overshadowed by the likes of Andrew Luck, RGIII and Ryan Tannehill, but in his final season with Wisconsin, he completed 73 percent of his passes and had a 33-4 TD to INT ratio. He seems to be walking a similar path to Andy Dalton; if he continues down that road Seattle might finish above .500, but as it stands they should settle for at least 8-8, second in the NFC West.
St. Louis Rams (2-14)
The Rams’ abhorrent 2-14 record earned them a shot at drafting RGIII, and while speculation swirled as to whether they would, they ultimately passed on the opportunity, a nod from the franchise that they still have faith in their former first rounder, Sam Bradford.
Bradford was electric in his first season but it’s gone downhill from there. Granted, he hasn’t had a lot of talent around him to work with, but a franchise QB has to be better than a 53.5 completion percentage and a 6-6 TD to INT ratio regardless of his supporting cast. To add insult to injury, the Rams allowed a league-high 55 sacks last year, so the pressure is on for him to not only be smarter in the pocket but to work faster. St. Louis does have one of the best backs in the league in Steven Jackson, a 240-pound bruiser they can rely on to move the chains, but with such a shoddy offensive line he rarely finds an opening in goal line situations. On any other team Jackson would be an easy pick for double-digit touchdowns; last season he scored five.
2012 Expectations: But that’s not bad considering the Rams only managed 16 offensive touchdowns all season. This is a team that’s in trouble; if Bradford continues milling about in the bowels of quarterback mediocrity (a generous term for what he did last year), the Rams will find themselves engulfed in another losing season. Even if he gets back to where he was as a rookie, the Rams will have a hard time getting much done with their receivers, and the window on a big back like Jackson, 29, is closing fast. They did rank just outside the top 10 in defense last year, but if this offense unravels any further (it’s hard to believe it can) it won’t really matter. Bottom line: Bradford needs to step up, and he needs to do it now. 5-11, fourth in the NFC West.