The “NFC Worst” sprung into existence in 2010 when the Seattle Seahawks became the first team in a full season to make the playoffs with a losing 7-9 record. The Carolina Panthers of 2014 have since joined that list, with a slightly better 7-8-1 record that year.
In the midst of the offseason activity whirlwind, especially considering the San Francisco 49ers’ nearly inevitable improvement, I began wondering what the NFC West’s chances are of being one of the stronger conferences this year.
The NFC West has some bad history. Not only did they set that illustrious mark in 2010, but they are one of two teams who have only had three winning teams once. The other is the NFC North, who did it in 2012.
For reference, here’s the breakdown of the other divisions. All of these marks are since 2002, when the massive NFL realignment created the four-team divisions with which we are now familiar.
Years with three teams better than 8-8
NFC North - once
NFC South – 4 times
NFC East – 3 times
NFC West - once
AFC North – 3 times
AFC South – twice, including last year
AFC East - 3 times
AFC West – 5 times!
The one year the NFC West pulled it off was a very memorable 2013, which saw Seattle, SF, and Arizona above .500. Arizona drafted Tyrann Matthieu that year and a grand total of zero other NFL starters. This will also be the last mention of the Arizona Cardinals in this piece, as they promise to be every bit as entertaining as last season but pose no threat to the winning-record club.
This year’s contenders
LA Rams, 13-3 in 2018
They would have to regress 5 games to disqualify themselves.
· Rodger Saffold
· N’damukong Suh
· John Sullivan
· CJ Anderson
· Todd Gurley’s knees
· Sean McVay’s boyish charm and element of surprise
· Clay Matthews
· Eric Weddle
· Darrell Henderson
I see a significant step back likely in the cards for the Rams. Even with a high selection and some decent hype given to Henderson, it’s nearly impossible to see how their offensive line or run game will be at the same level as last year. They lost two starters off the line, and their best remaining lineman in Andrew Whitworth is another year old, and we’re not talking from 29 to 30; he’ll play at 37 years old this season.
Two-time All-Pro Eric Weddle is a massive addition for them this year, but the others are not. For the most part LA focused on retaining the Super Bowl players they wanted to retain, but they’re still going to be a team to run against, and it will be difficult to maintain the 32.9 ppg they put up in 2018. At one point Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp were in concussion protocol at the same time towards the end of last year.
Regression is almost inevitable, though for them to give up 5 games on last year doesn’t feel likely.
Seahawks, 10-6 in 2018
They would have to regress 2 games.
· Doug Baldwin
· Earl Thomas
· Frank Clark
· Justin Coleman
· J.R. Sweezy
· Mike Davis
· Shamar Stephen
· Will Dissly’s return
· Ezekiel Ansah
· 11 draft picks - Only Minnesota had more
· Mike Iupati
· Al Woods
· DK Metcalf, mostly because Seattle was able to swipe what could be a start-worthy rookie receiver without investing a top-10 pick.
· Jason Myers, whom we all hope will be the greatest improvement over his replacement on this entire list.
It’s hard to view more than the departures of Clark and Coleman as having a significant impact on this season. Baldwin had already passed the #1 torch to Tyler Lockett, and Thomas was present for a grand total of forty-something days last year. Who the next man up will be at DE and nickel corner is a big deal for the Hawks this year, but it would be difficult to defend that the likes of Davis, Stephen, and Sweezy are going to cost Seattle two games.
SF 49ers, 4-12 in 2018
Need to improve 5 games to make winning record
This is the precipice on which the NFC stands, so to speak. What are the Niners going to be capable of this season?
· The return of Jimmy Garoppolo
· The subsequent return of Jerick McKinnon
· Dee Ford
· Nick Bosa drafted
· Kwon Alexander
· Wes Welker as Receivers coach???
· Dontae Johnson
· Tevin Coleman
· Jason Verrett
· Pierre Garcon
· Brock Coyle
· Cassius Marsh
Will they be better than 4-12? I’d put big money on it. Will they be at least 2 games better (6-10)? Still, seems more likely than not. Could they see a full 5-game improvement, however?
First, the positives. By volume, San Francisco made the most noise in the division this offseason. Their defensive line could rival the years when Aaron Donald still had the element of surprise and teams were scared of the Rams.
49ers defensive line now features *5* first-rounders. In order of drafting: Ford, Armstead, Buckner, Thomas, Bosa— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) April 26, 2019
Combine that with two improvements in the backfield in McKinnon and Coleman, to free up Garoppolo to do overrated Garoppolo things, and we’re looking at very significant improvements in three areas of San Francisco’s team.
But, there are still glaring unknowns in the secondary, and they’ve got the hardest schedule in their division by opponents’ 2018 winning percentage. Last season left them 27th in the league in pass defense by DVOA, and as good as newcomer CB Jason Verrett is, he’s basically always hurt.
Here’s the most likely scenario I see. If San Francisco makes it past 8-8, it’s going to be because defense is generally ahead of offense early in the season, and the 49ers get off to a hot start with their oppressive defensive line. They have a six-game stretch to close the season that we’ll call…unfortunate.
At New Orleans
Sure, it would look even more menacing without Green Bay, but I left them in there because it’s still Aaron Rodgers at the helm and it’s safe to assume at some point he will throw the ball. Atlanta also had a losing record, but was in the same injury-plagued position as SF, and, is still better. I have no empirical evidence for this, except they were in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, and that Matt Ryan > Jimmy Garoppolo. Surrounding those games are four division leaders or runners-up, all with dynamic QBs.
Call it a cop-out if you want, but I firmly believe that the 49ers are a winning team…just not this year. In addition to the final stretch of this season, they have two road games that would normally be favorable (@Cin, @Was), were they not 10AM starts on the East Coast as the 2nd road game in a row in both instances.
But hey, it’s the NFL right? Crazier things have happened. Either way, at the moment the NFC West looks like they are far from the danger of Monday morning office jokes, and closer to being one of the stronger conferences while we all await the upcoming ascension of Kyler Murray.