“Lord, the NFC West is going to be a bear of a division in 2013.”
The first paragraph of Peter King’s latest “Monday Morning Quarterback” at SI.com seems to say it all. But not quite. The once-ridiculed division that features the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers and Seahawks and also includes the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals already was a bear of a division.
One week into free agency, the division’s bear hug on that distinction has gone gotten more foreboding.
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For a complete look at what the NFC West has been up to this offseason, check out our NFC West Free-Agent Tracker.
Just look at what the Seahawks have done. First, they acquired
The Rams just signed four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long, which will allow them to move Rodger Saffold to the right side in an effort to reduce the wear and tear on quarterback Sam Bradford, who has been sacked 105 times since being the first pick overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. Sure, they also lost leading rusher Steven Jackson and leading receivers Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson in free agency.
But in Jeff Fisher’s first season as head coach the Rams improved from 2-14 in 2011 to 7-8-1, primarily because they went 4-1-1 in the division – defeating and tying the 49ers and losing only to the red-hot Seahawks in their season finale at CenturyLink Field. And with Fisher in control, the Rams will continue to play even better defense.
“We assessed it before I started last year, and we were very, very impressed with it,” Fisher said last month at the NFL Scouting Combine when asked about the division. “I have a great deal of respect for the talent level, for the coaching and those teams being very competitive.”
In Arizona, the Cardinals are starting over this offseason, just as the Rams did when they hired Fisher last year. They can only hope for similar results, after going 5-11 last season; including a 1-11 finish that proved to be the end of coach Ken Whisenhunt. He has been replaced by Bruce Arians, who inherits the same quarterback quandary that proved to be Whisenhunt’s undoing.
The Cardinals also have parted ways with safety Adrian Wilson, a perennial Pro Bowl performer, and Kevin Kolb, the quarterback who never played to his expected promise after being acquired in a costly trade with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011.
Arians is well aware of just what the NFC West brings because he faced each team in the division in 2011 while the offensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers – winning against the Seahawks and Cardinals and losing to the 49ers.
“We are in a division with two really good young quarterbacks,” Arians said the Combine, referring to the Seahawks’
“St. Louis, Jeff is doing a fantastic job. It’s an outstanding division. Reminds me of the AFC North (home to the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, as well as the Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns), the way the teams are running the football and playing defense. Each division is extremely difficult, but right now the West is really tough.”
Make that extremely tough at the top. The 49ers went 11-4-1 last season en route to reaching the Super Bowl and were 13-3 in 2011, when they also advanced to the NFC Championship game in Jim Harbaugh’s first season as coach.
The 49ers lost All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson in free agency, but also added more toughness in wide receiver Anquan Boldin, no stranger to the division after playing his first seven seasons with the Cardinals before signing with the Ravens in 2010.
“It’s an awfully good division,” 49ers GM Trent Baalke said at the Combine. “It’s a competitive division, it’s a physical division. All four teams play a physical brand of football. They play very well on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, there are a lot of playmakers within the division. It’s a well-coached division.
“In order to stay on top in that division, we’ve got to get better. We can’t stay the same and we certainly can’t take a step back because those other teams are coming.”
Starting with the Seahawks. Has any team improved itself more in the first week of free agency? Harvin’s skills as a receiver and runner play perfectly into the way the Seahawks like to throw and run the ball. His prowess as a kickoff returner allowed the club to release Pro Bowl kick returner Leon Washington. Carroll wanted – and needed – pass-rush help on the edge and from the middle in the nickel line. That’s where Avril and Bennett fit after combining for 18.5 sacks last season and 33.5 the past two seasons.
“It’s turned into a great rivalry,” Seattle GM John Schneider said of the twice-a-season matchups with the 49ers – a team the Seahawks throttled 42-13 in Week 16 at CenturyLink Field after dropping a 13-6 decision in San Francisco in Week 7.
“I think it’s two of the more physical teams in the NFL. Really, I just feel that we need to keep working our system and trying to get better every single day. That sounds like a cliché, but we’re trying to get better at every single position.”
Just like they got better at several positions with the additions of Harvin, Avril and Bennett in what was a very bullish first week of free agency for a team that inhabits a division that is even more of a bear than it was before the league year began last Tuesday.