Never say never in the NFC West

Posted April 17, 2012 @ 1:06 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

Fool me once, and I can live with looking like a dunce.

Fool me twice? Well, that’s not very nice, but I mean, what are you going to do?

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do: Try like hell not to be fooled for a third straight year by the NFC West, a division that leads the NFL in painting very deceiving preseason pictures.

A quick look back at recent NFC West history is in order.

Two years ago around this time, you might remember that the Mike Singletary-led Niners were the hot pick to win the NFC West after finishing the previous season strong to get to .500, including an impressive 5-1 record within the division. The popular pick to finish last were the Steve Spagnuolo-led Rams after an abysmal, injury-plagued 1-15 campaign in which the offense scored only 16 touchdowns the entire season, and the defense ranked No. 29 in total yards allowed and No. 31 in points allowed.

So what ends up happening in 2010?

The Niners crash and burn in a 4-12 disaster under Singletary, who painfully implodes before our eyes before giving way to Stanford hot shot Jim Harbaugh. The Rams make major strides, finishing 7-9 and falling just short of a division title, as Sam Bradford looks quite worthy of the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, and the defense improves from 31st to 12th in points allowed and registers 18 more sacks than the previous season.

A year ago around this time, you also might remember, the Rams received top billing from most NFC West prognosticators, each of whom believed Bradford could blossom into a full-blown Pro Bowler under new coordinator Josh McDaniels, who had coordinated a Patriots offense in 2007 that scored a league record-setting 589 points. The Niners, meanwhile, were making the vast majority of so-called experts that picked them last look like they knew what they were talking about with RB Frank Gore staging a brief contract holdout, WR Michael Crabtree hobbling around with a foot injury for the second straight offseason and the team losing its starting center (David Baas) and four defensive starters to free agency.

So what ends up happening in 2011?

The Rams crash and burn in a 2-14 disaster under the overwhelmed Spagnuolo, who gives way to former Titans hot shot Jeff Fisher. The Niners not only respond immediately to Harbaugh and steamroll to a division title with a 13-3 record that absolutely nobody saw coming. They continue to command everybody’s attention with a 36-32 classic comeback divisional playoff victory over the Saints before falling just short in overtime to the Giants in the NFC title game.

So here we are in the here and now, ready — but not completely willing — to offer an early NFC West forecast.

Can there be any question that the Niners — suddenly looking incredibly stable with 20 of their projected 22 starters under contract beyond 2012, according to the San Francisco Chronicle — appear to be the cream of the crop, while the Rams, presently sporting more holes than Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the climax of “Bonnie and Clyde,” look like a lock for the NFC West cellar?

Not on paper, there can’t.

But this is the NFC West we’re talking about, where startling transformations during the course of a season are as common as a Jon Gruden embellishment.

Does my brain tell me that the Niners should finish first and possibly win the next Super Bowl, and the Rams should have all kinds of problems making ends meet?

Yes-and-yes.

But the often hard-to-believe facts the last few years tell me that it would be a big mistake to count on mere appearances in the NFC West, which is why I’m choosing to complete this column in the following manner:

FIVE REASONS WHY THE NINERS JUST MIGHT FALL ON THEIR FACES

(1) Can the Niners count on Alex Smith under center? After raising eyebrows by flirting with Peyton Manning, the team finally decided to re-sign Smith to a new three-year deal after he had career-highs in completion percentage (61.3), yards passing (3,144) and passer rating (90.7) and threw a league-low five interceptions. Smith looked like Joe Montana directing TD drives of 80 and 85 yards in the final 4:02 of the Niners’ stirring playoff win over the Saints. Overall, he threw for 299 yards and three TDs with zero interceptions, and he scored on a great third-down TD run. But his uneven effort one week later vs. the Giants in the NFC title game left a sour taste (12-of-26 completions, with the Niners converting just 1-of-13 third downs). Smith could struggle if he continues his knack for avoiding wide-open receivers and holding onto the ball too long.

(2) The Niners’ wide receivers also continue to raise their share of red flags after all but disappearing when it counted most in the playoffs. Former Pro Bowler Braylon Edwards was a major bust last season who was released after failing to provide a badly needed downfield dimension. Six-time Pro Bowler and single-season receiving TD record-holder Randy Moss has been added to the mix along with Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham. But it very much remains to be seen whether the 35-year-old Moss has any gas left in the tank after a one-year layoff, and Manningham was greatly overshadowed by Giants WRs Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz much of last season.  Crabtree, who dropped three catchable passes in the playoff win over the Saints and managed only one catch for three yards in the playoff loss to the Giants, might be no more than a No. 2 wideout on a team starving for a legitimate No. 1 pass catcher.

(3) An offensive line that broke down on occasion last season enters offseason activities with a hole at right guard due to the departure of Adam Snyder, who signed with the division-rival Cardinals. The Niners are excited about working with Daniel Kilgore for an entire offseason, but his only playing time as a rookie was one snap as an extra blocker in the Monday-night game vs. the Steelers.

(4) Unlike the Rams, who got killed by injuries from beginning to end last season, the Niners enjoyed a great deal of luck on the injury front. The defense was particularly durable, with 11 starters combining to miss only eight games. The odds that the Niners will stay as healthy as they did last season are not great. One player definitely worth keeping a careful eye on is featured back Frank Gore. Gore played in all 16 games for the second time in his seven-year career and posted the second-highest rushing total of his career with 1,211 yards. But he had ankle and knee injuries suffered in back-to-back games in November that limited him in some games and did not have a 100-yard rushing performance in his final 10 games (including playoffs), his longest drought since his rookie season.

(5) The Niners’ pass defense received a major boost from free-agent pickups Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner last season but still ranked a so-so No. 16 in passing yards allowed. Having to face Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford, among other QBs this coming season, the secondary will be under a lot more pressure to succeed.

FIVE REASONS WHY THE RAMS JUST MIGHT RISE FROM THE ASHES

(1) Fisher and new GM Les Snead know what they’re doing. In his 17-year head-coaching career, Fisher, who was also pursued hard by Miami this offseason, has won three division championships, appeared in two conference championships and made one Super Bowl trip. He has had only six losing seasons as a head coach and is now the third-winningest active coach in the league behind only Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan. Snead, previously the Falcons’ director of player personnel, looks like a solid hire; 20 of the Falcons’ 21 selections in the last three drafts are still on the team.

(2) Fisher’s teams are known for playing physical, in-your-face football with an undeniable edge. If they get down, they don’t stay down for long. Before even playing a down in offseason scrimmages, this Rams team seems to have established a scrappy, aggressive identity that should serve it well. One week after the NFL revealed that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was the ringleader of a bounty system as the Saints’ defensive coordinator that financially rewarded defenders for injuring opponents, the Rams picked themselves up and pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Redskins that rocked the league, trading the second overall pick in the 2012 draft to the Redskins for Washington’s first-round picks each of the next three seasons, as well as the Skins’ No. 2 pick this year. The Rams didn’t stop there, becoming one of the league’s most aggressive teams in free agency, signing quality players such as CB Cortland Finnegan and C Scott Wells after reportedly clearing nearly $20 million in salary cap space with the release of five starters (C Jason Brown, CB Ron Bartell, DTs Fred Robbins and Justin Bannan and DE James Hall).

(3) A Pro Bowler for the first time in his eight-year career in 2011, Wells is a top-five center that adds stability to a young, developing O-line dogged by injuries last season. Finnegan, the Rams’ top target in free agency who played for Fisher in Tennessee, is a complete corner with great cover skills that should provide a great example for the younger players and serve as a tempo-setting hitter. He’s also been very durable despite his physical playing style, a quality worth noting considering the Rams’ problems keeping cornerbacks on the field last season (six of the Rams’ 16 players on I.R. were corners). Steve Smith, who earned a Pro Bowl berth with the Giants in 2009 when he caught a franchise-record 107 passes for 1,220 yards and seven TDs, is another potentially solid pickup, provided he can fully recover from the knee problems that have derailed him the last two seasons.

(4) Fisher's offensive m.o. is a power running game that sets up an efficient play-action passing game — a style that sets up well for three-time Pro Bowl RB Steven Jackson and Bradford, who should benefit from a system that won't be as complicated as the one McDaniels employed. Daily team observers believe Bradford really was hurt by not having a QB coach under McDaniels. Enter Frank Cignetti, who figures to help Bradford grasp his third different system in three seasons.

(5) Despite the absence of Williams, who has been suspended indefinitely by the league, the defense has some very solid parts in Finnegan, steadily improving double-digit sack artist Chris Long, hard-working MLB James Laurinaitis and decent safeties in Quintin Mikell and Darian Stewart.