By Tony McClean
Updated: September 6, 2006
NEW HAVEN, Ct.
— Over the last week, BASN has been previewing the 2006 National Football League season with a look at all the eight division races in the both conferences. Today, we end our series with a look at the NFC West.
The Seahawks not only won the West last year, they rode the NFC’s best record all the way to the Super Bowl. Can they repeat as division champs or will someone emerge to topple them?
The Cardinals added ex-Colt RB Edgerrin James and a new stadium to the mix while offensive guru Scott Leinhan will try to resurrect the “Greatest Show on Turf” with the Rams.
In Frisco, Mike Nolan’s rebuilding plan enters year two with a few more weapons. Will it be enough for them to contend.
Okay, lets take a look.
Losing massive guard Steve Hutchinson was the only major burp during a rather quiet off season for the defending NFC champs. His replacement, Floyd Womack, is a converted tackle. However, the Seahawks offense should survive nicely because whoever plays guard is lining up next to Walter Jones. Shaun Alexander may not repeat his MVP numbers, but he really won’t have to. Seattle was also one of the teams that was in pursuit of holdout WR Deion Branch. If the Seahawks are able to work out a deal with the Pats, it would make an already potent offense great.
What To Watch For: Acquiring ex-49er LB Julian Peterson may be the one of the best moves Seattle pulled off during the off season. Peterson was a two-time Pro Bowl player in Frisco before he tore his Achilles, causing him to miss most of the 2004 season. Peterson returned last year short of his old form, but the extra year should help him now, considering he’s still just 28 years old. Playing along side Lofa Tatupu will make the Birds’ D even tougher in 2006.
Outlook: You have to go back to the 2000 Titans to find the last Super Bowl loser to make the playoffs the following season. While they probably won’t have home-field throughout this year’s postseason, Seattle is still one of the elite teams in the NFC. They may find themselves a little closer to the pack in their division and within the conference, but this is still one of the league’s five best teams.
After spending nearly two decades in Arizona, the Cardinals truly have a home. Cardinals Stadium includes a natural grass playing surface contained in a retractable, 12-million pound tray that’s 234 feet wide by 400 feet long, the first of its kind in North America. With that, management made the biggest free agent splash during the off season by bringing in Pro Bowl RB Edgerrin James and drafting Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinhart. A offense that already includes a receiver tandem of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald should be a bit more explosive. However, if the Cardinals are really going to fly, the defense must hold up its end of the bargain. What To Watch For: For recent Cardinal head coaches, their tenure in Arizona has been much like the team’s offense over the years — three and out. From Gene Stallings to Dave McGinnis, Joe Bugel to Vince Tobin, and a Buddy (Ryan) in between, the shelf life of an Arizona Cardinal head coach is not really long. With Dennis Green entering his third season (11-21) and a new stadium to showcase, the pressure to win (or be competitive) in the desert is at a white hot level. That will be the story all season for these birds of prey. Or should it be pray, as in for more wins.
Outlook: Folks have been jumping on and off the Arizona bandwagon during the off season. Adding James will definitely put asses in the seats of their new digs. But if the “same ol’ Cardinals” show up, the novelty will wear off quick. While they’ll should show some improvement, they may not quite be ready for prime time (i.e. the playoffs) quite yet. This team looks at best to be a year away from being a serious postseason contender.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Just how far have the Rams fallen off the NFL radar? Chew on this: They won just once within the division and lost twice to the 49ers for the first time since 1998. It was all the fodder management needed to send Mike Martz out on his ear. Enter Scott Linehan, ex-offensive coordinator with Miami and Minnesota. His presence on offense will put a smile of the faces of guys like Bulger, Holt, and others. But it’s the other side of the line that will make for a long day for Ram fans. Ex-Saint boss Jim Haslett is the new defensive coordinator and he’ll the push for toughness. Management did go out and add some new faces (DT La’Roi Glover, LB Will Witherspoon and DB Corey Chavous) to the D.
What To Watch For: With Marshall Faulk’s Hall of Fame career all but over, RB Steven Jackson should finally be able to shine in the Rams’ offense. His 1,046 yards (8 TDs) easily led the team in 2005, but the former No. 1 pick is on the verge of a breakout campaign in 2006. Much like Faulk, Jackson can also catch the ball as witness to his 43 receptions last year. Unlike his predecessor, one gets the feeling that coach Linehan will not fore sake his young star.
Outlook: The offense probably won’t approach their “Greatest Show On Turf” days anytime soon, but that may not be a bad thing. If they can become a decent defensive team and just be productive on offense, they could surprise. However, St. Louis must play six of its first 10 games on the road, and three of the four home games during that stretch.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Welcome to year two of the Alex Smith/Dick Nolan era in Frisco. It’s still too early to say whether Smith, who threw 11 interceptions and one touchdown pass as a rookie and finished with a passer rating of 40.8, will develop into a player who proves his worth as the top overall pick in the draft. Bringing in Trent Dilfer (Hasn’t he played for everyone?) as a backup should be a help, but it’s Mr Smith’s show for better or for worse. Defensively, a unit that ranked in the league’s bottom 10 in five of the last eight years and was last in 2005 lost players like Julian Peterson and Ahmed Plummer. Given the emphasis being placed on the offense, it looks the like the other side of the line will likely be abused by opponents and neglected by management again this season.
What To Watch For: In the tradition of tight ends like Antonio Gates, Alge Crumpler, and Tony Gonzalez, the Niners are hoping they’ve found someone similar in top pick Vernon Davis. The rookie from Maryland will quickly become Alex Smith’s new best friend as the both try to learn the NFL.
Outlook: I could just cop out and write the words “They stink” for a few paragraphs. However, that would be totally accurate. Are the Niners contenders? No. Will they be contenders next year? Probably not. But in the wacky NFL when you can be 4-12 one year and Super Bowl champs the next, anything can happen. Barring any miracles or something real crazy, the words “work in progress” will be this team’s mantra for the next few years Predictions 1. Seahawks 2. Cardinals 3. Rams 4. 49ers