Predicting The NFC West

I thought about doing an NFL preview, but virtually every NFL preview fails for the same reason: too large of scope. Instead let's do something a little more manageable. I'm familiar with each team's end of the year DVOA and complete season DVOA trend. I know their team age, personnel additions, subtractions, scheme and schedule. I also know their backstory, hopes and inner turmoil. And I guess, knowing all that, these predictions will only be kinda off, rather than stupidly, almost comically absurd in their errance off, like most NFL predictions.

1st Seattle Seahawks 13-3

What more can I say?

2nd Arizona Cardinals 9-7

In 2007, Arizona survived a spate of early injuries, limped to 8-8, but played 6-10. How then do they improve? A little like Seattle, actually. Tim Hightower doesn't need to be great to improve upon blunted has-been Edgerrin James. And Hightower won't be great, but he should be good enough, consistently enough to help improve Arizona's 20th ranked rushing offense. That's important, because running the ball is as essential to Ken Whisenhunt's system as passing is to Mike Martz's. Ideally, Hightower won't replace James, but complement him. Giving the Cards two backs that can absorb double digit carries every game. That relentless rushing attack, successful or not, is designed to open a deep passing game. Gains in the rushing attack may show most in the passing attack. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin dream of safeties walked towards the line.

The defense should improve because of better depth and fewer injuries.

3rd San Francisco 49ers 7-9

I've been as skeptical as anyone about the 49ers resurgence, but an important move was made this offseason that will pay dividends: Escaping Alex Smith. Smith backers never hesitate to note the four offensive coordinators Smith has studied under in his four seasons, oblivious to the fact that other than Norv Turner, Smith was key in the other two's dismissals. Under Turner, Smith enjoyed a "breakout" season. Smith's "breakout" season merited the 38th ranked DYAR among all quarterbacks with 100+ passes. That season, Smith played behind a legitimately strong offensive line and teamed with one of the ten best running backs in the NFL. At his best, Smith looked like the kind of game manager teams seek in a third string quarterback. At his worst, Smith looked every bit as bad as Ryan Leaf.

A quarterback that bad pervades the play of the entire team. San Francisco sports a reasonably talented, if shallow, defense, and surrendered only a kind of below average 1.72 points per drive (17th). Their defensive DVOA, though, was 11.5%, 28th in the NFL. Football Outsiders predicted that defense to help lead San Francisco to the NFC West title in 2007. Oops. Their rationale: many young, talented players maturing at the same time. I think that begins to happen this year, as the Niners have much of the same talent as last year, a legitimate left tackle in Joe Staley and are finally free of the soul stealing suck of Alex Smith.

4th Saint Louis Rams 5-11

Last season, I saw a talented unit that could overcome its terrible defense to chase respectability. Instead, shame blindsided them with a steamroller. The defense was as awful as anticipated. Following an Orlando Pace injury, the offense followed suit. Pace returns, but after two seasons lost to injury, at what level? Losing Isaac Bruce wouldn't hurt most teams, but with Keenan Burton and Donnie Avery failing to force themselves into the mix, any reason not to double Torry Holt on every play left with Bruce.

That offense, above average at best, terrible at worst, is again paired with a defense unlikely to improve. Adam Carriker and Chris Long are building blocks, but two players don't make a defense and neither do the other nine rubbernecks fronting the Rams depth chart. Collectively, the Rams defense is old, thin and talent poor. Unless Long produces at a Hall of Fame level as a rookie, the Rams will depend on blitzing to create pass rush. Their secondary won't withstand the missing men.

It doesn't help that Scott Linehan is as precarious as a head coach can be entering a season and is flanked by former head coaches Al Saunders and Jim Haslett. Neither are satisfied as assistants. The Rams needed an acceptance of failure and a housecleaning before a painful but productive rebuilding. Instead, they got 2007 2.0.

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