The NFC West is starting to make a comeback. After five weeks of the 2012 NFL season, the division which gave us a 7-9 champion just two years ago now has all four teams above .500. The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals are 4-1. The Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams are 3-2.
The 49ers success is expected. They won the West with a 13-3 record in 2011. The Cardinals were expected to be pretty good also, as they won five of their last six games in 2011 and finished 8-8. It is the Rams and Seahawks who are somewhat of a surprise. Seattle finished 7-9 last year, while the Rams were 2-14.
That said, the Seahawks and Rams should not be that much of a surprise. It was Seattle that won the West with that 7-9 record in 2010. St. Louis finished second that season. Though this did not make either a great team, it did show signs that they may be on the rise.
What are the differences this season in the NFC West compared to the last two? They are coaching, defense and quarterback play. Three elements that usually play a part in teams improving.
The NFC West has added three new coaches in the last three years. Pete Carroll took over the Seahawks in 2010. Jim Harbaugh was hired by the 49ers in 2011. Jeff Fisher took over the Rams this season. Ken Whisenhunt of the Cardinals was hired in 2007.
Carroll is in his third stint as an NFL head coach, having led the New York Jets in 1994 and the New England Patriots from 1997 to 1999. The 49ers job is Harbaugh’s first. He was the head coach at Stanford University before taking the San Francisco job. Fisher coached the Tennessee Titans for 17 years before stepping down after the 2010 season. Along with Whisenhunt, who was an offensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers, each man came after having a measure of coaching success.
The one thing that they have all stressed is defense. Carroll and Fisher are former defensive coaches, so this is not a surprise. Harbaugh played for the Chicago Bears during the 1980’s and ’90’s, and knows how important defense is. Whisenhunt watched the Steelers defense take over games for years. At the moment, all four teams in the NFC West are ranked in the top half of the league in total defense, with the Seahawks and Niners at one and two respectively.
In the last two years, the division has been in transition at the quarterback position. It still is. Seattle is led by rookie Russell Wilson. The Rams have third year man Sam Bradford at the helm. Arizona is being led by Kevin Kolb, who has less than two years of starting quarterback experience. Alex Smith of the 49ers is the veteran – he was drafted in 2005.
These quarterbacks have not exactly burned up the NFL, but they have done what it takes to win games. Wilson has defeated the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. Bradford led St. Louis to victory over Arizona. Kolb defeated the Philadelphia Eagles. Smith took the Niners into Green Bay and defeated the Packers.
There is still a lot of football to play. The teams in the NFC West will knock each other off and bring their records down. They will also lose to teams outside of the division.
This is all true, but right now the West is the best.