Thanks in large part to the resurgent 49ers, the NFC West lost its distinction last year as the worst Division in the NFL. Thanks in large part to the catastrophic collapse of the Colts, the AFC South assumed that dunce cap.
Arizona and the Seahawks both finished the season strong behind tough defenses, and look poised to make 2012 a three way dog fight. But are they for real? As we learned in the Mike Nolan years, teams that are eliminated by the Bye Week, then play like a riser to close the season, don’t always translate that promise to the following year.
Jeff Fisher played his cards right and made a lot of money this offseason, in a year with no big name coaching candidates lurking over the landscape. Smart guy. But he’s a second tier coach who once again will be working for a second tier, midwest franchise. He’ll make the Rams respectable again, and tough, which will certainly play well in St. Louis for a few years. But he’s not going to build a Super Bowl caliber team.
Ken Whisenhunt looks overmatched in the NFC West. He squeezed out a couple of titles when the division was ultra-putrid, thanks almost entirely to Kurt Warner. Whisenhunt was such a poor judge of QB talent, that only Matt Leinhart’s ineptitude and injuries pushed Warner into the starter’s role, which allowed Whiz to bask in the afterglow for two years, before crashing to earth the past two seasons. Last year, he resurrected his Leinhart folly by squandering millions on Kevin Kolb, who was completely useless in 2011. Now he’s one Larry Fitzgerald hamstring injury away from bottom feeder. He won’t be able to keep up in the West.
Pete Carroll’s a charmer, but he’s lost four straight games to Jim Harbaugh, produced two straight 7-9 seasons, and doesn’t have a QB. He thought Charlie Whitehurst was a good QB and graciously gave a third round pick to San Diego for him, even though the Chargers had no room on their roster and were likely to cut him. Carroll also did not recruit Robert Griffin III out of high school. Not because he didn’t like him, but because he didn’t even know about him. Harbaugh recruited him, though. But RGIII didn’t want to share time with Andrew Luck and went elsewhere. People scoffed at Carroll’s “I had no idea” alibi when the NCAA sent in the black suits at USC, but maybe he was telling the truth. Maybe Carroll is just better at the microphone than on the field.
It’s hard to envision any of these three coaches hanging in there against Harbaugh. Bill Belichick has owned the NFC East for ten years, Bill Walsh owned the NFC West for ten years, and Jim Harbaugh is going to own the NFC West for the next ten years, too.
Still, 2012 will not be the cakewalk 2011 was. The schedule makers could have a big say in things. They handed the Rams such a brutal opening stretch last year that the team favored to win the West completely imploded by the Bye Week. Good, solid teams don’t get derailed by tough schedules, but marginally good teams do. The only non-marginal team in the West is the 49ers.