On Sunday I was able to watch all the games at once at the sports book in the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. It was great to be able to just watch the full spectrum of what was happening in the NFL in real time and get to see a pretty crazy day of football, and yet sucked to see all my hopes and dreams dashed as I threw away my losing parlay bets. I guess I can always pay my bills next month.
The thing that was most impressive on Sunday though (besides how royally screwed I can get on the river) was the performance of the NFC West. By the end of the day, the Patriots, Cowboys, Lions, and Redskins had all lost to teams in this division. The same division "playfully" known as the NFC Worst for the better part of the last decade since re-alignment, had just taken out two 2011 playoff teams and two more that were coming off big week 1 wins. The notion that the NFC West was a division on the up-and-up seemed to creep up at the end of last year with the Cardinals and Seahawks improving significantly in the second half of the year, but now it seems like it's something we really need to start considering seriously.
I am not saying that the NFC West is the best division in the NFL or the NFC quite yet, but I am going to bring up that the idea is worth considering. Could it be possible that the division has three playoff teams? How "easy" of a win are the Rams anymore? And can I get a loan? Please?
Let's take a quick look at the history of what made the division so bad since 2002 re-alignment and why it might have now finally gone from Worst to First... errr, Best.
(This is a recap of what made the NFC West so bad. If you want to skip to now, look below)
The thing about this division looking so pathetic is that each of the four teams has had runs of being terrible. It didn't really seem like that was going to be the case when the divisions re-aligned in 2002 after the Houston Texans made the league an even 32 teams. The Rams and 49ers were already in the NFC West and stayed right where they were.
Those two teams were also the best teams in the division in 2001: The Rams went 14-2 and lost in the Super Bowl. The 49ers went 12-4. Arizona moved over from the NFC East (Why even give the divisions regional names if they're going to be so wrong?) where they were a respectable 7-9 in 2001 with some respectable young players such as the dominating David Boston! The biggest move, besides how Phoenix apparently lifted out of the ground in Florida and flew over to Arizona, was the Seahawks coming over from the AFC West to the NFC West.
The Seahawks were 9-7 in 2001 and seemingly on the way to getting over the hump under the tenure of Mike Holmgren. This was definitely a division that could have four tough teams, no easy path to the playoffs in the NFC West... and then it turned out that 9-7 was actually a pretty dominating record.
Let's break this down by team:
The 49ers were the first winners of the division, going 10-6 in 2002 with Jeff Garcia. You might remember that they had that crazy wild card win over the Giants in 2002, but that would be their last playoff win for nine years.
San Francisco didn't have another winning season until just last year. They hit rock bottom in 2004, going 2-14 and getting outscored by 193 points. Things got so bad that year that Ken Dorsey made seven starts. Between 2004 and 2007, the 49ers averaged 4.5 wins per season and were among the very worst offensive and defensive teams in the NFL. Runs of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary proved to be quite embarrassing. The hiring of Jim Harbaugh could have been of equal risk, he of no NFL coaching experience, but it has so far worked out pretty well.
But we'll get to that later.
The Cards came into the division as the classically-awful team and that's what they were in 2002 and 2003. Arizona was outscored by 155 points and 227 points, respectively. Dennis Green was who we thought he was and lasted just three years, while Ken Whisenhunt has been the head coach since 2007.
The funny thing is that the Cardinals have been neither terrible or great since Dave McGinnis was fired after 2003. They've won between five and ten games in each of the last eight seasons, but they do have one of the only Super Bowl appearances for this NFC West. They did get pretty bad again in 2010, going 5-11 and getting outscored by 145 points, but they've otherwise "just been here" and took advantage of a terrible division in their 2008 and 2009 division-winning seasons.
Not that any of these teams haven't taken advantage of a weak division at one time or another.
The Rams came into the division as the current powerhouse. They were the best team in the NFL from 1999-2001 and seemed unstoppable. I still remember how scared I was that we had been moved into a division with the Rams and how fearful I was when we started facing them twice a year.
Hard to believe I ever felt that way.
St. Louis won the division in 2003 and 2004 and were the team standing between the Seahawks and the division title. They haven't been to the playoffs since and the Rams won an NFL record-low 15 games over a five year span from 2007-2011. Getting outscored by 150 points is pretty bad, but the Rams were outscored by: 175, 233, 261, 39, 214.
The Rams time at the top was short and sweet and their time at the bottom has been long and kind of hilarious to watch. That time might be over.
I'll make this quick since you probably know a thing or two about the Seahawks. While Seattle has been the most successful team in the NFC West with a division-best six playoff appearances, they can't pretend like all of those seasons were great or that they have escaped terrible seasons. The rest of the division combined has six playoff appearances since 2002, however Seattle was outscored in three of their six playoff appearances.
Between 2008 and 2010, covering three coaches, Seattle was outscored between 97 and 110 points in each of those years, and they still came away with one division title. All the Seahawks had to do to win the West in 2010 was be better than three of the worst teams in the NFL. Hell, I'll take it, but the Seahawks needed to do really well in the draft if they were going to get better without one of the top picks that they may have deserved.
Luckily, they did.
Looking at the whole picture of what made the NFC West the worst team in the conference (or league) for most of the last decade, it seems fair to say that we were right to be given that nickname.
2002 - 49ers win the West at 10-6. They were +16 in points and the weakest division winner, while the Cardinals had to be one of the three or four worst teams in the NFL.
2003 - The Rams are a legit Super Bowl contender at 12-4. The Cardinals are outscored by almost twice as many points as any other NFL team. The Seahawks win a wild card spot and Matt Hasselbeck wants the ball and we're going to- oh nooooooo! St. Louis loses to the Panthers in their divisional playoff game.
2004 - Seattle wins the division at 9-7 and -2 points, the worst in both categories for any division winner that year. The 49ers -193 points is the worst in the NFL. Or if you're a San Francisco fan, THE BEST! It was a down year overall for the NFC and the Rams won a wild card at 8-8, before beating Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. They got beat by the Falcons by 30 points in the next round.
2005 - Not sure anything happened this year.
Oh yeah, Seattle has arguably the best season of any team in the division since re-alignment, going 13-3 and doing enough to win the Super Bowl. Except that they didn't. The 49ers are outscored by an NFL-most 189 points.
2006 - Again, the Seahawks win the division, but this time at 9-7 and after opponents had outscored them by 6 points. It's the second time in three years that Seattle wins the NFC West despite being outscored. The 49ers are outscored by 114 points and go 7-9, while the Cardinals go 5-11. Seattle does get a win over Dallas in the playoffs, but I'm not sure how that one ended.
They lost a close one to the Bears in the next round.
2007 - The Seahawks take another division title and this time with a 10-6 season that saw them beat opponents by 102 points. The 49ers and Rams are two of the three worst teams in the NFC though. Seattle beat the Redskins in round one and got beat good by the Packers in round two.
2008 - The Cardinals end Seattle's run on the top and win the division at 9-7, outscoring opponents by a point. The Rams are outscored by 233. Arizona makes a crazy run in the playoffs though and comes within inches of winning the Super Bowl over the Steelers.
2009 - Arizona builds off of its most successful season in franchise history by going 10-6 and their second straight NFC West title. Seattle is outscored by 110, the Rams (-261) are so, so, so, so bad.
2010 - Who says that you need to have a winning season to be a champ? Seattle takes the title by going 7-9 and being outscored by 97. That's more than double what the Rams and 49ers were outscored by... combined. But they Beast Moded into a playoff win over the Saints.
In total - Over the first nine seasons of the division, here are some interesting numbers:
- The division went 11-11 in the playoffs and 0-2 in the Super Bowl.
- The AFC West is the only other division without a Super Bowl win and is 0-1 in that game, not having made it since the first year of re-alignment in 2002.
- There has been a bottom-six NFL team in the division in every season since 2002, with several top picks in the NFL draft. We can thank the Rams for most of that.
- This isn't really a thing about the NFC West, but a reminder of how major it is to play at home. Only once has the division not won at least one game in the playoffs despite being so bad. That came back in 2003 when the Rams had a bye week.
I took a cab ride home last night from the airport and the cabbie was a 49ers fan. I didn't really want to have some long conversation with a 49ers fan, I just wanted to get home, but we don't always get to decide the arguments we have. Of course to him, the 49ers were the best team in the NFL and will win the Super Bowl. There wasn't a hint of doubt in his mind.
I didn't necessarily disagree though. Well, I disagree that they'll just go win the Super Bowl, but San Francisco has a solid team. What I really wanted him to know though was that the 49ers likely wouldn't win 13 games again because the division was too tough. That's where it's harder to get a 49ers fan to agree.
There are no easy wins the NFC West, and it starts at the bottom with the Rams. For four out of the last five years, they've arguably been the worst team in the NFL. Sometimes it's not even an argument, it's just fact. In their first year under Jeff Fisher though, they look like a completely different team after a 27-23 loss to the Lions in week 1 and a comeback 31-28 win over the Redskins in week 2.
You could also argue that now the Rams have the best quarterback in the division after Sam Bradford seems to be a new man with Danny Amendola healthy again. Despite losing two of their five starters on the offensive line to injury and their first round pick Michael Brockers, the Rams have already scored more points in 2012 than they had scored combined since 2006.
(After mostly just giving you straight facts for this article, I'm sure you did a double-take there. Remember, I make jokes sometimes.)
Losing to the Cardinals in week 1 made us feel like crap for losing to such losey losers. I wonder how the New England Patriots feel now. That's why I tried to stress perspective that after week 1, we couldn't know how good or bad the Cardinals were. Despite the fact that Arizona could have lost that game if Stephen Gostkowski hadn't kicked like Rob Gronkowski, they held the Patriots down on offense and did enough to win. It's no different than saying that the Patriots had no business getting that opportunity if it weren't for Ryan Williams.
The Cardinals are pretty bad on offense right now, not being able to run the ball or pass the ball, but they could be very good on defense and special teams. The Seahawks saw it first hand and now have a win over the Cowboys, a team that beat the Giants in week 1. Arizona is 9-2 in their last eleven games, with one of those losses coming in the division.
Seattle is 6-4 in their last ten games and three of those losses came in the division.
Finally, the 49ers are coming off of a 13-3 season and now have won 16 of their last 20 games, including playoffs. They came within a heartbeat of beating the Giants and going to the Super Bowl. This season, they've already won in Green Bay and beaten the Lions pretty handily.
Right now you'd have to say that the 49ers are the proven elite team in the NFC West, the team that ESPN will happily cover for hours when they meet teams like the Giants and Patriots this season. There is a good chance that they could be 5-0 when they play the Giants in week six, if they can win at Minnesota, at the Jets, and against Buffalo at home.
Seattle and Arizona are the two teams that are fighting in the middle for a chance at the top. Either one could be a serious wild card contender this season and maybe more. Finally, the Rams have gone from bottom-feeder to... middle-feeder? The Rams were 2-7 last year before losing their final seven games. Five of those games were against the NFC West and Bradford missed six games. They might have been able to improve, but were never given much of a chance to breathe. This division doesn't seem to have an especially shitty team and could have three really good ones. As a whole, all four teams seem to have really improved since the middle of 2011.
Or maybe they haven't. Maybe a team will win the NFC West at 9-7 and we're right back to being the NFC West of old. It's hard to make too much out of an eight-game sample, even if the division is 6-2 in that sample with one loss in-division and against some of the better teams in the NFL. It's a great start for the division, a great step towards respectability.
It's nice to root for other NFC West teams to lose but at the same time it's better to say that we could stand against the best the NFC has to offer. The interesting thing is that in the era of the pass, the NFC West doesn't feature an elite quarterback yet. There probably won't be a lot of high-scoring games, but part of that will be that the 49ers, Seahawks, and Cardinals could all have great defenses, while the Rams won't be as bad with Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan at corner.
Larry Fitzgerald stands as the only elite receiver. Vernon Davis as the only elite tight end. None of the quarterbacks could say that they're elite as of today, but Bradford and Alex Smith are off to great starts. However, it's nothing compared to other divisions:
The East has Romo, Manning, Griffin, and Vick. The South has Brees, Ryan, Newton, and Freeman. The North has Rodgers, Stafford, and Cutler. You could actually argue that four of the five worst quarterbacks in the NFC are in the West. Of course, you might believe that Bradford, or Smith, or Wilson, or even Kolb are not in the bottom five but it's like my dad used to say: It doesn't matter what you believe, it only matters what you can prove.
I mean, if you asked me for the truth and said that it was "B.S." when I told you that Russell Wilson isn't as good right now as Robert Griffin (and possibly even Christian Ponder for all we know) I'd tell you the same thing that my dad said to me: "You can't handle the truth." (When I asked him who my real father was.)
You could say that the division is flawed in that aspect. That it lacks elite quarterbacks right now. You'd be right to say that it does when the top ten quarterbacks in the NFC reside on other teams, but perhaps not that it is flawed. While other teams might have the quarterbacks, the NFC West has stocked up on the guys that stop quarterbacks: Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Patrick Peterson, Adrian Wilson, Dashon Goldson, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Finnegan, and Jenkins. That's a pretty filthy start when listing the defensive backs in the division.
It won't get much better when you try to run on the 49ers and Seahawks, potentially the top two run defenses in the NFC. And for offense, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, and Steven Jackson headline the running backs when healthy. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams have struggled to get going but they had to start against Seattle. Robert Turbin, Kendall Hunter, Daryl Richardson, LaMichael James, and Brandon Jacobs back them up. Not a bad second line either.
But is this division the best?
The difficult part is that as a whole, the NFC looks pretty solid right now. Which bad teams from last year look all that bad now? Not the Redskins with Griffin. Not the Bucs. The only 0-2 team is the Saints, a team that was 13-3 last season. Things will shake up and some teams will struggle, I'm just feeling pretty sure that three of the best overall teams could reside in the West. At this point, the NFL is like a box of chocolates; sweet and tasty. But also because you don't know what you're going to get.
It's like the time that I got a Mountain Dew at a restaurant and my dad said, "Did you order the Code Red?" Well, you're God damn right I did, I told him.
At this point it seems like for the first time since the NFL re-aligned, the NFC West has a few good men. It should be one hell of a fun struggle to watch and nobody can say that the winner will have escaped as a victor of lucky circumstance. The NFC Worst? More like the NFC Fir-err-Bes-ehh... Look, it's just the NFC West. And it's one difficult test.
Damn it, it's impossible to not pun or rhyme.