Doc's 2007 NFC West Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 08/21/2007
I'm going to be completely honest with you - I have absolutely no idea who is going to win the NFC West. No idea. I can speculate. But that just makes me one of the bobbleheads. Much like Creationism, I truly don't believe there's anyone that can speak intelligently on the subject. And much like the 2008 Democratic Nomination, I would laugh in the face of anyone who said that they could predict the outcome with any certainty.
But hey, that's what I get paid for; conjecture and rampant hypothesizing is my life. So let's break this down according to what we know wins in The League: defense, coaching, running the ball, and quarterback play.
First, the NFC West is is The Division That Defense Forgot. The Seabirds had the best group of the bunch last year and that was with just the 19th-ranked unit in the league. San Francisco made some splashy free agent signings, but they still don't tackle well and don't appear to have settled on a 3-4 or 4-3 base. St. Louis has a solid defense, 1-11. But they are as deep as a reflecting pool and won't hold up under the grind of a 16-game slate. I love the daring of mad scientist Clancy Pendergast, but the Arizona defense is also stuck in limbo regarding its 4-3 or 3-4 base. But the bottom line is they don't play either one very well.
Next, we have to look at the coaches. Mike Holmgren is a proven winner with a system straight from the mind of the immortal Bill Walsh. Scott Linehan and Mike Nolan are each an up-and-coming whippersnapper that has laid solid foundations in St. Louis and San Francisco, respectively, but both still have a lot to prove. And Ken Whisenhunt is a rook. Again, Seattle has the edge with St. Louis and then San Francisco coming in behind them.
Further, we have the running game. San Francisco finished No. 6 in the league last year on the shoulders of Frank Gore's breakout season. Seattle stumbled and St. Louis - despite the superhuman efforts of Steve Jackson - was simply mediocre. Arizona? Well, let's just say that I'm sure Edge and his gold grill probably spent a lot of time wishing they had stayed hidden behind that massive Indianapolis offensive line.
Finally, we have the quarterbacks. Matt Hasselbeck is a stud on the field. Matt Leinart a stud off it. Alex Smith is developing into one of the top young QB's around. And Mark Bulger is the best of the bunch. QB play certainly isn't an issue in this division. The Rams also have the benefit of the top offensive line, with Seattle and San Francisco rolling up behind them. Arizona? Well, they're working on it.
So there you have it: a breakdown of each of the key ingredients for a winning football team. And after that 10-cent analysis you know what we've learned about who is going to win this division? Nothing. But what I do know is that this division is going to be pummeled by the physical play of the AFC North and the NFC East, the two divisions that it must go up against. Beyond that, we'll just have to play it by ear.
Here's Doc's 2007 NFC West Preview:
1) ST. LOUIS RAMS
2006 Record: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 9-7 (4-4 home, 5-3 road); 8-7-1 vs. total (5-2-1 h, 3-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 6th offense (4th pass, 17th rush); 23rd defense (8th pass, 31st rush)
2007 Odds: 40/1 to win SB, 18/1 to win AFC, 11/5 to win NFC West, 8.0 wins O/U
Outlook: The Rams have always been my Lolita. They are a temptress, and more than once they've seduced me into a ridiculous and bank-busting bet. So my endorsement of them as NFC West champions should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Gibraltar. Besides, I've already admitted that I have no idea what's going on in this group.
That being said, the Rams offense is absolutely overwhelming. It was very good last year, ringing in at No. 6 in the NFL. But then add on Pro Bowl talents like Drew Bennett and Randy McMichael, along with the multifaceted Brian Leonard, and you're looking at the No. 1 group in the league. The question marks lie on the defensive side of the ball, and in particular with the linebackers. Pisa Tinoisamoa and Will Witherspoon get sideline-to-sideline, but they're undersized. There's also a serious lack of depth throughout the D, and if any injuries crop to any of the key players then this unit will sink like a stone.
Here's a key stat about playing the Rams against the spread: St. Louis is 3-12 ATS in their second trip through the divisional circuit. Meaning that after they've played each of their NFC West brethren once, they cover the spread just 20 percent of the time. Money in the bank. That includes a 1-5 ATS at San Francisco and 1-5 ATS at home against Arizona.
2) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
2006 Record: 10-8 (6-3 home, 4-5 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-10-1 (4-5 home, 8-2 road); 10-8 vs. total (4-5 h, 6-3 r)
2006 Rankings: 19th offense (20th pass, 14th rush); 19th defense (16th pass, 22nd rush)
2007 Odds: 15/1 to win SB, 11/2 to win AFC, 10/11 to win NFC West, 9.0 wins O/U
Outlook: The Seahawks could be primed for a solid bounceback year. They're healthy and focused, and I think that everyone, from the top down, realizes that the window is almost closed. The veterans are exiting their prime and the rest of the division is getting younger, faster, and better. But there's a problem: before their Super Bowl season, which, like Chicago last year, was aided heavily by a cupcake schedule, the Seahawks were a good-but-not-great squad. Excluding that one Super season, the Seahawks have won an average of nine games per year, with 10 being the highest and seven being the fewest. Good, but not great.
The offense still executes as well as any in the league. And with Deion Branch there for a full season I think they'll be even better. They still haven't recovered from the loss of Steve Hutchinson in free agency two years ago, and that one move will keep them from being an elite unit. The primary problem with this team is the defense, where a lack of pass rush leaves the secondary exposed. The good news is that they do have the corners and safeties to keep up with the pass-happy division. But the bad news is that if they can't get to the quarterback they will have a hard time stopping their three rivals.
3) SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
2006 Record: 7-9 (3-5 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 9-7 (4-4 home, 5-3 road); 9-7 vs. total (5-3 h, 4-4 r)
2006 Rankings: 26th offense (29th pass, 6th rush); 26th defense (26th pass, 19th rush)
2007 Odds: 45/1 to win SB, 18/1 to win AFC, 4/1 to win NFC West, 8.0 wins O/U
Outlook: Let's take a step back before we go ahead and crown the 49ers as the new "It" Team in the NFL. They certainly have improved, building the roster both through the draft and through free agency. But this is a team that, with the exception of Bryant Young and Larry Allen, is not used to winning. They do have all the pieces, but this is a marked team and one that isn't going to sneak up on linesmakers at all this year because of The Hype.
In fitting with the mold of the prototype NFC West squad, the Niners defense is suspect and offense is potentially explosive. They added some nice pieces in the offseason to bolster their D, but watching them in the preseason I've noticed that they are having trouble tackling one-on-one and haven't been swarming to the ball. Even with the shiny new names, this is still the same system that surrendered the most yards in the league in 2005 and the most points in the league in 2006. I also worry about knees - specifically the ones belonging to Frank Gore and Larry Allen. They constitute two key pieces of the San Fran puzzle, and both have significant histories of injury.
The schedule also doesn't do the 49ers any favors. After their bye week in Week 5 - following a tough Pittsburgh-Seattle-Baltimore trifecta - San Francisco plays six of its next eight games on the road, including three East Coast trips. I think that even if they get off to a hot start you should look to start fading them right in the middle of that stretch.
4) ARIZONA CARDINALS
2006 Record: 5-11 (3-5 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road); 11-5 vs. total (5-3 h, 6-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 18th offense (10th pass, 30th rush); 29th defense (30th pass, 16th rush)
2007 Odds: 75/1 to win SB, 28/1 to win AFC, 5/1 to win NFC West, 7.5 wins O/U
Outlook: Do you think that Regis Philbin will anoint the Cardinals as his "sleeper" NFL team again this year? Yup, for about the fifth year in a row the one-time Phoenix franchise is supposed to rise from the ashes of its miserable history and stun the NFL World with it's ability. Sorry, but I wasn't buying last year and I'm not buying this year. Arizona has some championship pieces - if that championship is in your fantasy league - but from top-to-bottom this is not a playoff team.
The main problem is that they lack depth at every key position except wide receiver and linebacker. Problem No. 2 is that they are one of the weakest teams in the league along the offensive and defensive line. And problem No. 3 is that in a division with one established system (Seattle) and two others that are in their second or third years, the Cards have to break in a new coaching staff.
The area that I'm going to look for value is on totals plays. It's obvious to say that the Cards should score some points. But when you consider that after Week 6 they face just one defense that ranked inside the top 17 last year it is pretty clear that they'll be involved in some monster shootouts. And my fantasy football team will thank them for it.
Questions or comments for Robert? E-mail him at email@example.com or check out his Insider Page here.