by Robert Ferringo - 07/27/2005
Somebody explain this to me because I just don't get it. According to the "experts" and "insiders" involved in NFL prognostications, Arizona is the "sleeper team" this year in the NFL. The friggin' Cardinals are going to be the trendy, out-of-nowhere, bad-to-great, feel-good story of 2005-06. Are you serious? Do you really expect me to believe in a team with one - count it, ONE - winning season in the last 17 years?
OK, I understand that since the Chicago Bears came out of nowhere in 2001 and went 13-3 and after the Panthers went from awful to awesome in 2003 everyone now tries to predict which team will be the next Surprise in the league. There's some merit to that, since you can make some serious bank by getting on a team before the masses realize how good they are. But you can also look pretty foolish if it doesn't work out.
Take last year for instance. It was the Cincinnati Bengals. Everyone was all over the Bengals last year before the season. Result: 8-8 and watching the playoffs. Thanks for playing. Did people forget it was the Bungles? We're all proud that they're at .500 (and I think they can be even better this year, but we'll get to that later) but they didn't live up to the hype in 2004.
So, no, I'm not buying the Arizona Cardinals this year. They're still owned by the Bidwell's, and the type of bad karma that surrounds a low-life hustler like that can't be erased over night. That and the fact that they have A) a terrible run defense, B) two unproven corners in a pass-happy division, C) no go-to, 1,000-yard running back, and D) Kurt Warner (post-deal with the devil expiration) under center. Arizona did have a great draft and a decent offseason, and Dennis Green has them heading in the right direction, but this year isn't the year of the Cardinal.
So who will win the NFC West? Well, it won't be the San Francisco 49ers so we'll just get that out of the way right now.
I'm taking the St. Louis Rams. They're offense will be even better this year (if that's possible), and if their defense improves they could be back as a threat in the NFC. However, that would require them playing with some heart and some shrewd moves by Mike Martz. The potential is there and they have the benefit of the league's easiest schedule. They should be back in the postseason (where they'll probably get bounced 47-17 again like last year).
The Rams' main threat will again come from the Seattle Seahawks. But I'm running out of patience with this manic-depressive team. They too possess a powerhouse offense and a suspect defense. They too are led by a shady coach who you can't count on in the clutch. And they too have the overall talent to shake things up in the NFC. But there's something unsettled up in Latte Land. But I still can't put my finger on it.
2005 NFC West previewST. LOUIS RAMS
2004 Record: 9-9 (6-2 home, 3-7 road)
2004 Rankings: 6th offense (5 pass, 26 run); 17th defense (11 pass, 29 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 6-11-1 (3-4-1 home, 3-7 road); 10-8 vs. pts. (4-4 h, 6-4 r)
2005 Odds: 42-1 to win Super Bowl, 20-1 to win NFC, 11-5 to win NFC West, 8.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 32 (.445 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 18 (10 offense, 8 defense)
Key stat: Their 15 takeaways were the worst in the league.
Key acquisitions: Dexter Coakley, LB (from Dallas); Chris Claiborne, LB (from Minn.); Rex Tucker, G (from Chicago); Alex Barron, OT (draft) Key departures: Tommy Polley, LB (to Balt.); Kyle Turley, OT; Antuan Edwards, S (to N.E.)
Offense: It's tough to believe, but they should be even better this year. Steven Jackson will be the starting running back, and Marshal Faulk becomes the top third-down and specialty back in the NFL. Jackson averaged 5.0 yards per carry last year. Barron will apprentice under Orlando Pace, who for once isn't holding out. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce still have it, and look for Kevin Curtis to break out this season.
Defense: People run against the Rams in order to keep their offense off the field. That isn't anything mind-bending. So the focus of their offseason should have been shoring up the D-line and getting some badass linebackers. Well, they didn't do either. Claiborne and Coakley should help, but will it be enough?
X-factor: Coach Mike Martz. The only coach in the NFL that may be worse than him is Jim Haslett in New Orleans. If St. Louis doesn't make it back to the playoffs in a position to do some damage, Kyle Turley might not be the only guy who wants to kill Martz.
Outlook: They have the most talent in the division, a huge mental edge over Seattle (3-0 against them last year), and a huge home-field advantage. If the defense can improve just a bit (especially versus the run) they could be back in the NFC title game. Try 10-6.
2004 Record: 9-8 (5-4 home, 4-4 road)
2004 Rankings: 8th offense (13 pass, 8 run); 26th defense (23 pass, 23 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 5-12 (1-8 home, 4-4 road); 11-6 vs. pts. (7-2 h, 4-4 r)
2005 Odds: 28-1 to win Super Bowl, 10-1 to win NFC, 6-5 to win NFC West, 8.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 29 (.457 opponents' 2004 win %)
Returning starters: 16 (10 offense, 6 defense)
Key stat: They were the least penalized team in the league last year on offense (by far) with only five per game.
Key acquisitions: Andre Dyson, CB (from Tenn.); Kelly Herndon, CB (from Denver); Jamie Sharper, LB (from Houston); Joe Jurevicius, WR (from T.B.); Jerome Pathon, WR (from Indy); Bryce Fisher, DE (from STL)
Key departures: Chad Brown, LB (to N.E.); Koren Robinson, WR; Ken Lucas, CB (to Carolina); Chike Okeafor, DE (to Arizona); Anthony Simmons, LB; Bobby Taylor, CB
Offense: So ironic that their season ended on an easy touchdown dropped by Bobby Engram. Drops killed them last year, yet they still finished eighth in total offense. They brought in two possession receivers (Jurevicius and Pathon), and sent their most talented wideout (Koren Robinson) packing because of personal issues. That should balance out, and put them in the top 10 on offense for the fourth straight year.
Defense: Almost half the starters were gone from last year's unit. That's good because they played with absolutely no heart. They have talent, but Ray Rhodes just isn't getting enough out of these guys. They were in the top 10 in the league in turnovers again last year (sixth), but they need to be tougher on third down. Opponents converted 42.4 percent of the time against them.
X-factor: Alexander is miserable over his contract situation. Not only that, but he thinks Mike Holmgren cost him the rushing title. Alexander put up almost 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. If they're going to take the next step they'll need him to continue those types of numbers.
Outlook: All this talent and you're telling me that they've topped out at 10 wins (in 2003) over the last five years? They improved on the road last year, but Holmgren and Rhodes still need to prove that they can get the most out of their players. I don't think they'll be playing in January.
2004 Record: 6-10 (5-3 home, 1-7 road)
2004 Rankings: 27th offense (24 pass, 22 run); 12th defense (9 pass, 27 rush)
2004 Against the Spread: 9-7 (5-3 home, 4-4 road); 9-7 vs. pts. (3-5 h, 6-2 r)
2005 Odds: 38-1 to win Super Bowl, 16-1 to win NFC, 2-1 to win NFC West, 7.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 31 (.449 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 18 (9 offense, 9 defense)
Key stat: Had the 4th most penalties on offense last year (nearly 8 per game), and were second worst in yards per play (4.3).
Key acquisitions: Kurt Warner, QB (from NYG); Ian Allen, OT (from Philly); Robert Griffith, S (from Cleve); Chike Okeafor, DE (from Seattle); Oliver Ross, OT (from Pitt); Antrel Rolle, CB (draft); J.J. Arrington, RB (draft)
Key departures: Emmitt Smith, RB (retired); Freddie Jones, TE (to Carolina); L.J. Shelton, OT (to Cleve); Duane Starks, CB (to N.E.)
Offense: The key isn't Kurt Warner on this team. It's who's running the ball. They need Marcel Shipp, Arrington and Troy Hambrick to combine for 1,800 yards if they have are to have a chance to go to the playoffs. Warner will never return to the glory days of St. Louis, but he should be able to spread the ball around to a very young, exciting, and athletic group of receivers that includes Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson.
Defense: The defense is actually pretty solid, and should be improving. They shouldn't have let Starks get away to New England, because their secondary is very shaky in a division that feasts on weakness in the back line. Getting pressure from the front line - Betrand Berry and Okeafor give them solid bookends - will help. But I don't think it will be enough.
X-factor: Rolle. It's tough to expect a rookie to step in and produce at any position, especially at corner. He has two solid safeties behind him (Griffith and Adrian Wilson), but Rolle will be expected to keep up with guys like Torry Holt and Darrell Jackson. Welcome to the NFL.
Outlook: I've made my opinion known about the Cards. They're heading in the right direction, but they're not a playoff team. I defy anyone to point to one area on this team where they are playoff-caliber. You take trendy. I'll take tried and true.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
2004 Record: 2-14 (1-7 home, 1-7 road)
2004 Rankings: 26th offense (20 pass, 30 run); 24th defense (19 pass, 20 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 6-10 (2-6 home, 4-4 road); 9-7 vs. pts. (6-2 h, 3-5 r)
2005 Odds: 185-1 to win Super Bowl, 75-1 to win NFC, 22-1 to win NFC West, 4.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 27 (.471 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 18 (8 offense, 10 defense)
Key stat: They were dead last in points given up per game (28.2). Oh, and don't forget the -19 turnover ratio.
Key acquisitions: Marques Douglas, DE (from Balt.); Jonas Jennings, OT (from Buffalo); Alex Smith, QB (draft); Johnnie Morton, WR (from K.C.)
Key departures: Cedrick Wilson, WR (to Pitt); Scott Gragg, OT.
Offense: Bizzaro world when the 49ers - the team of Rice, Montana, Young, Craig, etc. - are as horrible offensively as they were last year. Alex Smith or Tim Rattay? Won't matter. They'll be awful again this year. New head coach Mike Nolan brings seven new offensive assistants with him, so it's about implementing the foundation of an offensive scheme. But that won't help them much this season.
Defense: Can't blame it all on the offense. The defense was one of the worst in the league last year. Oh, and they didn't do much to upgrade. They're another team making the switch to the 3-4, which should further highlight the phenomenal skill of linebacker Julian Peterson. Too bad for Peterson that his team is so bad. It's hard to imagine, but they may be even worse than last year early in the season.
X-factor: Kevan Barlow. He was a bust last year after becoming the No. 1 running back (822 yards, 3.4 per carry). I know it's tough to run the ball when you're always losing, but if he can be more effective early the 49ers may be able to stay close in some games.
Outlook: Well, they still suck. I really don't know what else to say. Looking at their schedule I see maybe four games that they could win. They won't win more than that.
If you enjoyed Doc's 2005 NFC West preview, check back throughout the week for more NFL division previews.
Our early bird full season football package is now available! Football is what made Doc famous and no one knows college and NFL better than the team at Doc's Sports. Even thought we are still weeks away we have been getting many signups for our early bird special - full season only $725. This will increase to our normal price of $975 once the season gets closer so sign up now and take advantage of this great offer. Sign up for football picks here.