Third of an eight-part series
Overview: Coming off successive division titles, the Cardinals hit the skids big-time, dropping into the NFC West basement in their first losing season in four years under head coach Ken Whisenhunt. The offense finished last both in rushing and third-down efficiency and next to last in total yards. The defense, which often looked like it was going through the motions, finished 30th in both scoring and rushing and 29th in total yards allowed.
Team MVP: Kerry Rhodes, one of five new starters on defense, did an admirable job replacing the departed Antrel Rolle at free safety. Obtained in a trade with the Jets, Rhodes tied a single-season league record by returning two fumble recoveries for TDs (in back-to-back weeks). He was the league's only player in 2010 to register at least four interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Biggest surprises: One would naturally assume the Cardinals would have had a successful season based on the fact they collected a franchise-record 12 TD returns. But those scores accounted for almost 40 percent of the team's total TDs. Another surprise was ILB Paris Lenon, another new defensive starter who had a team-high 125 tackles and displayed consistent toughness and leadership.
Biggest disappointment: It has to be quarterback, where the Cardinals had a very tough time replacing the retired Kurt Warner. Beginning with Matt Leinart, who was released before the start of the season, the Cardinals ended up going through five different signalcallers. Free-agent addition Derek Anderson, who replaced Leinart, was at times an embarrassment, both on and off the field.
Offseason outlook: All of a sudden relegated to bottom-feeder status in the NFC West in the eyes of most league observers, the Cardinals certainly have their work cut out for them. In addition to finding at least a serviceable starting quarterback and more players on both sides of the ball capable of making big plays in key situations, the Cardinals' defense will be attempting to rebound under Ray Horton, the team's third defensive coordinator in four seasons.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Overview: The Rams made major strides in their second season under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, finishing 7-9 and being edged out for a division title in the final regular-season game after having managed only one victory the previous season. The offense, under the direction of Sam Bradford, the first overall selection in the 2010 draft, scored 114 more points than in the previous season — the second-biggest improvement in the league. The defense went from 31st to 12th in points allowed and finished second in third-down efficiency after having finished 29th in that category the previous season.
Team MVP: Bradford got off to a strong start as the new face of the franchise, setting league rookie records for completions (354) and pass attempts (590) and throwing for 3,512 yards, the second-most for a rookie in league history behind the Colts' Peyton Manning. Bradford showed the poise of a seasoned veteran and put a dagger in the widely held perception that he would not be durable enough at the pro level, playing every snap in every game.
Biggest surprises: Take your pick between the surprisingly stellar efforts of veteran D-linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins, who emphatically showed that they still had a lot of gas left in the tank with a combined 16.5 sacks, or second-round draft pick Rodger Saffold, who was inserted at left tackle in training camp after initially starting on the right side and ended up making 16 starts and allowing only 3.5 sacks.
Biggest disappointment: Although hardly anyone thought they would get anywhere close to actually having a shot at a playoff berth, the Rams' terribly flat effort in their season-ending loss to the Seahawks in Seattle left a pretty sour taste. The offense was particularly disappointing, as RB Steven Jackson inexplicably ran only 11 times, and Bradford's longest completion was just 20 yards.
Offseason outlook: After making an uncharacteristically bold move with the hiring of Josh McDaniels as the new offensive coordinator to replace Pat Shurmur, who left to become the head coach in Cleveland, the top priority for Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney will be to surround Bradford with more big-play weapons.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Overview: Widely predicted to win the NFC West, the Niners were one of the more disappointing teams in the league. After getting killed on the road in their season opener at Seattle, the Niners saw things go from bad to worse. They dropped their first five games while dealing with one soap opera after another under the shaky direction of combustible head coach Mike Singletary. As poorly as they performed, the Niners still had a decent shot at a playoff spot if they could have beaten the division-rival Rams in Week 16. But the Niners imploded in embarrassing fashion in a second half lowlighted by an animated sideline spat between QB Troy Smith and Singletary, who was mercifully given his walking papers later that night.
Team MVP: DT Justin Smith more than justified his selection to the Pro Bowl with a three-sack performance in the season-finale rout of the Cardinals. Relentless and durable — his 155 consecutive starts rank first among active NFL defensive linemen — Smith led the team in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (13), QB pressures (73) and QB hits (48), according to the team.
Biggest surprise: Refusing to take a backseat to Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, veteran ILB Takeo Spikes, who many thought could be on his last legs entering the season, surprised everybody with his high level of play, both against the pass and the run. According to the 49ers, Spikes ranked second on the team in tackles behind Willis with 125 and shared the team lead in interceptions with three.
Biggest disappointment: With an endless array of possibilities from which to choose, probably the biggest disappointment was the gradual realization of how incapable Singletary was of handling the all-encompassing aspects of his job. His often rash decisions confused his players, particularly the quarterbacks, and he was increasingly difficult with the media.
Offseason outlook: To their credit, Niners owner Jed York and newly promoted GM Trent Baalke wasted no time changing the team's sagging public perception with the heavy-buzz hiring of hot commodity Jim Harbaugh as the team's 18th head coach five days after the season ended. The top priority is to decide on a quarterback to run a West Coast offense expected to be much like the one that was so successful at Stanford under Harbaugh the past four seasons.
Overview: New head coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider made a mind- boggling 284 roster moves in a season full of ups and downs. After getting off to a surprising 4-2 start, the Seahawks lost seven of their next nine games but still managed to win their first division title in three seasons, despite a mediocre 7-9 record and a minus-97 point differential. Nobody was doubting their playoff credentials, though, after their stunning 41-36 wild-card upset of the defending Super Bowl-champion Saints before losing to the Bears eight days later in the divisional playoff round.
Team MVP: After being out of the league the previous two seasons, former first-round draft pick Mike Williams established himself as the team's No. 1 wide receiver and offensive centerpiece with a team-high 65 catches. Williams, whose rare combination of size and speed created consistent mismatches on the perimeter, is being counted on as a core player after signing a new long-term contract just before the playoffs.
Biggest surprise: Williams certainly qualifies. So does Red Bryant, who proved to be an instant revelation at right end before he suffered a season-ending injury after being converted from the DT position in training camp. But they both lose out to the Seahawks' wild-and-crazy wild-card upset of the Saints. Veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck (four TD passes) and RB Marshawn Lynch (highlight-reel 67-yard TD run) picked a perfect time for the games of their lives.
Biggest disappointment: Carroll said his team was never the same in terms of toughness and maintaining a physical edge after offensive line coach Alex Gibbs — who was apparently worn out both physically and mentally — abruptly quit one week before the start of the regular season. Carroll hopes the hiring of former Raiders head coach and Gibbs protégé Tom Cable as assistant head coach/offensive line coach will re-establish the tough, physical environment that Gibbs had manifested.
Offseason outlook: The firing of offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and the hiring of Cable just two days after the Seahawks had been eliminated by the Bears was a clear indication that Carroll was far from satisfied and remained committed to the feverishly aggressive approach he and Schneider displayed in their first season together. Their top priority would appear to be a new contract for Hasselbeck, one of 27 possible free agents on the team. After struggling mightily during the regular season, Hasselbeck earned a reprieve with his excellent postseason play.
Monday: AFC North team reports