This has been the NFL’s laughing stock division the past eight years, with a total of seven teams having a winning season in that time. By contrast, the NFC East had 17 winners in that stretch.
There hasn’t been a wild card from the West since 2004, when a St. Louis squad that was outscored by 73 points got a berth at 8-8.
Two seasons ago, Seattle emerged as the division champ despite a 7-9 record, the first time any loop winner was so undecorated. Those Seahawks were outscored by 97 points, a futility mark for any postseason team.
There’s more. In 2008, the group was a cumulative 20 games under .500, the worst such mark in league history.
FYI: The last time a major pro sports team won a league title with a losing record was in 1949 when the NHL Maple Leafs (22-25-13) took the Cup.
Thus, every season even the most helpless of West squads can look in the mirror and see a team capable of being mediocre and winning the flag. But maybe not this season, for it’s going to be hard to fathom anyone making the jump over San Francisco, which was 13-3 in 2011.
Here’s how the division standings should look at the end of the season:
San Francisco 49ers
Under rookie coach Jim Harbaugh, SF increased its win total last season by seven games over its 2010 mark – the exact leap Bill Walsh’s 49ers made in 1981 en route to their first Super crown.
Last year’s club tied a league mark with only 10 turnovers. Incredibly, in Walsh’s second year in 1980, his team had 10 turnovers in only one game. SF’s plus-28 turnover margin ranked second best in NFL history. And the 49ers were the only team not to allow a return score.
But don’t expect a repeat of those numbers. For instance, the previous four teams that didn’t give up a return TD yielded a norm of five the next year.
On offense, QB Alex Smith made strides under Harbaugh. Smith had a TD/interception ratio of 17/5 and career bests in yards per pass (7.07) and completion percentage (61.3). Alarm bells go off, though, regarding pass protection. He was sacked 44 times, more than anyone else. At Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, he went down nine times.
RB Frank Gore took pressure off with 1,211 rushing yards, sixth best in the league, but much of that came early against bottom-feeder defenses. He’s also been slowed by ankle and knee problems.
SF’s defense, meanwhile, was stout and caused 14 QB fumbles in 2011, tied for second most. And with all its starters back, there’s little reason to think there will be a major drop-off in play despite facing a first-place schedule.
Ex-Packers backup Matt Flynn once had the edge in the three-way QB derby over Tarvaris Jackson and heralded rookie Russell Wilson (Wisconsin/N.C. State).
Then came the preseason and Wilson blew the field away with three outstanding performances that earned him the starting job in Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals.
That makes Flynn arguably the richest backup QB in the NFL. Coming over from Green Bay, he was expected to be the starter off that franchise record-setting performance for the Packers in Week 17 last season (480 yards passing, six TDs),
Jackson is now out of the picture, having been sent to the Buffalo Bills. With Wilson and Flynn Seattle shouldn’t be the tenth lowest scoring team in the league again in 2012.
Especially not if RB Marshawn Lynch approaches last year’s effort, when he had 1,204 rushing yards, good for seventh on the league charts. But he faces possible NFL discipline after being arrested for DUI this summer.
Seattle’s strength is its defense, and it improved by 50 yards a game the second half of the season and had three defensive backs in the Pro Bowl. But the Seahawks did lose their leading tackler of the past three seasons, MLB David Hawthorne, who signed with New Orleans.
Seattle would warrant a closer look in the division if not for its gruesome schedule. Four times it will face a team coming off an extended break after playing on a Thursday. That’s horrible considering only two other teams have as many as two such games. Then throw in another game against a team off a bye, and that’s a tough hurdle to overcome.
St. Louis Rams
Ex-Titans coach Jeff Fisher takes over a team that had the league’s worst record in 2011 at 2-14. One of its signature sequences was taking possession at Washington’s 19 in Week 4 and then punting.
Dating to 2007, St. Louis’ 15-65 record is the worst any team has had in a five-season stretch in the 16-game era that dates to 1978. You have to go back to the 1968-72 Bills to find a club that had fewer than 15 wins in a five-year span (13-54-3).
What merits a close look is QB Sam Bradford’s injured ankle. His recovery from last year’s high sprain was an issue early in camp when he said he still wasn’t 100 percent. With only retreads A.J. Feeley and Kellen Clemens in reserve, Bradford had better remain standing. Those backups took turns directing the Rams to shutout losses in the final month last season.
Equally important to St. Louis’ hopes will be the health of bulldozing RB Steven Jackson, who has had seven straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, the longest current streak in the league.
In fact, overall health is a major concern, since the Rams also were devastated by hurts in the secondary last season. But if Bradford and Jackson can make it through the year, the Rams have a good shot to escape the cellar.
Probably the most damning thing that can be said of an athlete is that he plays scared, and that’s what Oakland DE Tommy Kelly commented about Arizona QB Kevin “Big Bucks” Kolb after a recent exhibition game. Although Kolb doesn’t have the happiest feet in the pocket (that dishonor goes to Jacksonville ’s Blaine Gabbert), he’s up there.
Kolb went 1-6 in 2011 before suffering a concussion. John Skelton went most of the rest of the way during a 7-2 closing stretch, but he did throw an average of two INTs a game in his final seven outings. Ouch!
Yet no matter who’s throwing, WR Larry Fitzgerald continues to excel, last season averaging 17.6 yards a reception, by far a career best. And Arizona got him company by drafting Michael Floyd of Notre Dame in Round 1. That could help steer the eyes of DBs from No. 11 now and then.
Defensively, Arizona came on strong in 2011. After yielding more than 400 yards in five of its first 10 games, it never gave up more than 369 the final six. Alas, the Cards still forced only six turnovers in that surge.
Sadly for fans in the desert, they could be watching a last-place team for the fifth time since 2002. And in this division, that’s pretty bad.
Next week: AFC West
“Popular” Bob Christ has been writing about the NFL for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in publications from coast to coast in the U.S. and Canada. Contact him at [email protected]