NFC West tired of being 'NFC Worst'

Posted Jan. 24, 2011 @ 5:33 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

Put simply, the NFC West is as bad as hell — but it really does appear as if it's not going to take it anymore.

Start with the Niners' dogged pursuit of Jim Harbaugh, arguably the hottest name on the head-coaching grapevine. Two weeks after his extremely well-received hiring in the Bay Area, Harbaugh's coaching staff is nearly set, with three assistants who worked under him at Stanford (defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and offensive line coach Tim Drevno) headlining an experienced group with a much better overall track record than the staff under the departed Mike Singletary.

Move on to the Rams, who raised eyebrows with their Jan. 18 hiring of Josh McDaniels as their new offensive coordinator to replace the departed Pat Shurmur. It was an uncharacteristically bold move by a brain trust that had developed a reputation for playing it safe and avoiding players and coaches with baggage, which McDaniels, who lost his head-coaching gig with the Broncos three-quarters of the way through the season, certainly has his share of.

Then there are the Seahawks, fresh off a season that included a mind-boggling 284 transactions. They wasted no time dramatically revising their coaching staff after their playoff loss to the Bears with the firing of offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and the hiring of former Raiders head coach Tom Cable as assistant head coach/offensive line coach.

The cellar-dwelling Cardinals have been relatively quiet, but the way we hear it, head coach Ken Whisenhunt will move fast to catch up to his NFC West cohorts in due time — or, more specifically, as soon as the Steelers' season is over, when he makes a play for either Pittsburgh LB coach Keith Butler or secondary coach Ray Horton to become Arizona's new defensive coordinator replacing Billy Davis.

Taking into account all this activity, PFW canvassed sources around the league with close connections to the NFC West for their takes on a division that was widely perceived as an NFL wasteland this past season, producing the first sub-.500 division winner in league history.

The way we're hearing it, the Rams appear to be in the best shape moving forward with the most stable QB position, thanks to Sam Bradford, who had a strong rookie campaign.

But Harbaugh and the Niners are not far behind — despite huge questions at quarterback, a situation they share with the Cardinals and, to a lesser extent, the Seahawks.

"I kind of like the Rams heading into the offseason, even though changing (offensive) coordinators will not be an easy process," said one longtime NFC West insider. "They are not there yet in terms of being a serious contender by any means, but they certainly have the best quarterback situation with Bradford, and (head coach Steve) Spagnuolo seems to know what he's doing.

"With all the other teams in the West, it's a question of who the quarterback will be. I think you can group the other three teams very closely together."

The consensus seems to be that the Rams' hiring of McDaniels, the offensive coordinator of one of the all-time offensive juggernauts in the 2007 Patriots, bodes quite well for Bradford.

"It's an interesting hire," said a Niners insider looking in from the outside at the Rams' hiring of McDaniels. He (McDaniels) is obviously a creative guy. Maybe he can get the offense moving a little bit more. But changing an offensive coordinator is not always a good thing. Obviously, it's been very disruptive here (with the Niners), with nine different coordinators in nine years."

But Spagnuolo's explanation for hiring McDaniels makes decent sense.

"I just did a little study of the toughest schemes, the people that gave us problems in defending, and it led me directly to Josh," Spagnuolo said shortly after making the hire. "I thought that was the right way to do it. Who gives you trouble? Who drives you nuts in preparing for them? And he does that. He's creative.

"In sitting and talking to him, he sees things kind of the same way I do. He's come from a great place when he was up at New England and learning from a real quality coaching mind, is the way I'm going to say it, because Coach (Bill) Belichick is not a defensive mind, he's a football mind, and he knows how to put it together. So, I think it's great for me to get a feel of that, too, through Josh. So there were a lot of things there. I think it's good."

There are some NFC West observers we talked to, however, who think things will be better for the Niners, who moved quickly to revitalize a franchise that had become increasingly embarrassing in the eyes of many around the league.

"It seems funny to go back there, but doesn't (the best team in the NFC West) have to be the Niners?" said another NFC West insider. "I mean, everybody thought they had the best talent before, and now they have the new head coach."

And, according to one league personnel expert, a great new arsenal of assistants, to boot.

"The Niners finally have a strong group of matchup coaches," the personnel expert told PFW. "It's a 180-degree turn from the last group. Harbaugh does his best work with quarterbacks. They don't need Peyton Manning or Tom Brady to win the division, but if there is a guy who can create a Brady, it's Harbaugh. Regardless of who the quarterback is, he will have a lot more support around him and more stability above him than the position has ever had before.

" 'Harbs' will run the offense, and Fangio and Brad Seeley (the new special-teams coach) are both highly regarded as coordinators to handle their areas. They have a deep roster of talent to work with. Harbaugh was the one college coach that owned Pete Carroll at USC. It's going to take a lot more than seven wins to win this division moving forward.

"The Niners are stocked and reloaded. The table is set to dominate the division, but the rest of the division is not sitting back and eating popcorn watching. They are all making changes and addressing deficiencies on their staffs."

Which brings us to Seattle, where the winds of change continue to blow briskly.

"Seattle set a record for transactions last year — a sign of a very wishy-washy front office," the personnel expert said. "Releasing Jeremy Bates was a good and necessary move. He was a scheme coach who did not understand matchups. (New offensive coordinator Darrell) Bevell will help, but the strongest hire they made was Tom Cable. He'll get more out of the running game and could help do for the offensive line what Alex Gibbs intended."

In any event, Carroll remains intent on perpetuating an environment in which constant competition is the prevailing factor.

"Everybody on the team knows they have to fight for their starting job," Carroll said in his press conference announcing the moves involving Bates and Cable. "They can't come back feeling comfortable, that they've got it made. We will make it so they have to keep pushing to new heights, and then we will just let the dust settle.

"That's at the core of what we believe in."

Carroll apparently still believes 35-year-old veteran Matt Hasselbeck, one of 25 possible Seahawks free agents, will be his starting QB for the foreseeable future after performing well in the postseason with an impressive 7-1 TD-interception ratio.

"I don't think there's any way else to look at it," Carroll said of Hasselbeck. "He's our starter. ... But we're gonna push the heck out of Matty! He's going to have to battle."

And then there are the Cardinals, who, the sources we talk to agree, face the biggest battle in terms of returning to respectability.

"Give Arizona a Marc Bulger or a Donovan McNabb and watch out — Whisenhunt could do some damage," said one league observer. "But I still don't know if they can overcome losing the talent they did on both sides of the ball. (FS Antrel) Rolle, (LB Karlos) Dansby and (WR Anquan) Boldin were big losses this past season."

Added a Cardinals daily team observer: "Just a capable quarterback would solve a lot of the problems in Arizona."

That's an interesting observation, when you compare it to what Harbaugh said recently when asked in a get-together with the local media whether the Niners needed a top-flight quarterback.

"Do we need a top-flight quarterback?" said Harbaugh with emphasis, doing his best Jim Mora Sr. imitation. "Do human beings need air to breathe?"

At the very least, Harbaugh provides a breath of fresh air to a division that is expected to be not nearly as bad next season as it was in 2010.