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INDIANAPOLIS – It was during Jeff Fisher’s season of unemployment as a NFL coach that he had a chance to decipher just what was going on in the NFC West.
That was 2011, between Fisher’s stints as coach of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams and while the four teams in the division he now calls home where going from laughing stock to getting the last laugh.
“I had taken a year off and I started watching ball probably in early November and you could see it coming together,” Fisher said this week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “Obviously the outstanding job that Jim Harbaugh did, and then anytime you give Pete Carroll just a little bit of time to put something together he’s going to make something happen.
The division has come a long way. It was in 2010 that the Seahawks became the first team to win their division with a losing record (7-9) in that first season under Carroll. It was in 2011 that Harbaugh was hired to coach the San Francisco 49ers and led them to back-to-back division titles and a Super Bowl berth after the 2012 season. Fisher joined the Rams in 2012, and in 2013 the Arizona Cardinals hired Bruce Arians as their coach.
In 2013, the four NFC West teams compiled a 30-10 record outside the division, which was the best of the NFL’s eight divisions. The Seahawks went 13-3 during the regular season and then won the Super Bowl. The 49ers went 12-4 and lost the NFC Championship game to the Seahawks, but only when All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman deflected a pass in the end zone that linebacker Malcolm Smith intercepted on San Francisco’s final play. The Cardinals finished 10-6 and just missed the playoffs. The Rams went 7-9, two wins better than any other last-place team in the conference.
“Where the defenses in this division have come from in a short period of time is a great accomplishment,” said Fisher, who knows a little something about defense because he played on the 1985 Chicago Bears team that used it to win a Super Bowl.
|NFC WEST: BY THE NUMBERS|
A look at how the four teams in the NFC West ranked in key categories during the 2013 regular season:
And the strength of the NFL’s strongest division are the defenses – as the Seahawks led the league in average points, yards and passing yards allowed, as well as interceptions and turnovers, during the regular season and then held a Denver Broncos offense that had scored the most points in the 94-year history over the league to eight in the Super Bowl; the 49ers finished third in points and fifth in yards allowed; the Cardinals were sixth in yards allowed and became the only team in the past two seasons to beat the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field; and the Rams were No. 15 in yards allowed.
The division also had 10 defensive players voted to the Pro Bowl: safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor as well as Sherman for the Seahawks; defensive lineman Justin Smith and linebackers Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis for the 49ers; cornerback Patrick Peterson and linebacker John Abraham for the Cardinals; and defensive end Robert Quinn for the Rams. There also were eight All-Pro defenders: Sherman, Thomas, Bowman, Peterson and Quinn on the first team; Chancellor, Smith and Brooks on the second team.
The division featured the NFL leader in interceptions, Sherman with eight; and the runner-up in sacks, Quinn with 19.
They don’t just play defense in the NFC West, they dominate opponents with it. But it’s also a division that is much more than defense.
There are the quarterbacks – Russell Wilson in Seattle, Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, Carson Palmer in Arizona and, when healthy, Sam Bradford in St. Louis. There are the running games, paced by the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch and the 49ers’ Frank Gore but also including the Rams’ Zac Stacy and the Cardinals’ 1-2 punch of Andre Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall. There are talented receivers – from the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, to the 49ers’ Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, to the Seahawks’ underrated trio of Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. There are quality linemen on both sides of the line.
“You have to be on you’re A-game at all times playing in our division,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “Obviously, all three teams we’re facing are very, very good defensively. So you have to keep pace and it leaves very little room for error – not only in the draft but free agency as well.
“You have to be physical on both sides, the offensive and defense lines. You’ve got to have really good depth.”
“It has been a remarkable change from when people didn’t even want to admit that we were in the playoffs,” he said. “Matter of fact, I was just talking to coach Harbaugh about that. We have watched this thing happen pretty quickly and it’s pretty impressive. There is no question about it; this is a very difficult division.
“We know it. We have to play in it. Defenses are loaded up, they have an attack mentality. The commitment to the running game is there. And then just terrific athletes and the quarterbacks playing in the division really make it a great one.”
And this doesn’t look to be a one-season anomaly, or even three or four.
“I don’t think anything is going to change much with that. I think we are going to keep that up,” Carroll said. “Everybody is getting better. The Rams are getting better, and they have a tremendous draft opportunity coming up (with the second and 13th picks in the first round). The Cardinals are just getting started; Bruce did a tremendous job in his first year. And we are going to slug it out with the Niners, too.
“So the division is really, obviously, a great strength in the league right now.”
Ah, the Niners. For their take, we turn to Harbaugh, as only he can provide it.
Q: Can you discuss the level of competition within the division?
A: “Yeah, it’s obvious. A-plus-plus in our division.”
Q: How about the way all the teams play such good defense and it’s just so competitive six times a year?
A: “Yes, yes. I agree. I agree with you.”
As Keim said, “It’s a great litmus test to play those teams in the division because it helps expose where your limitations are.”