INDIANAPOLIS — Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay was asked this week at the NFL Scouting Combine if he buys into the idea of a budding Rams vs. 49ers rivalry. Both teams have young head coaches, McVay and Kyle Shanahan, who are viewed as two of the best offensive minds in the game, and with the 49ers adding quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and finishing strong with him under center, he and L.A.'s Jared Goff figure to be holding down that position for their teams for years to come.
McVay acknowledged that yes, he enjoys competing against the 49ers, but wasn't ready to declare that the new rivalry of the NFC West.
"You look at the consistency of coach (Pete) Carroll and what Russell Wilson's done leading them. I think a lot of people forget that with two games left we're really playing them almost for the division, so Seattle's still a force to be reckoned with," McVay said. "They're an excellent team well-coached by coach Carroll, and really, I'm impressed with coach (Steve) Wilks and what he'll bring to that (Arizona Cardinals) organization.
"So I think for our division as a whole, you're excited about the competitiveness. I don't know that I really can say I'm excited, but it's going to be a great challenge for us going against those three teams again next year."
As McVay alluded to, the Cardinals have a new head coach following Bruce Arians' retirement, and they need a new quarterback as well with Carson Palmer also retiring, but Arizona did still finish 8-8 last year despite numerous significant injuries, including Palmer missing nine games, so there's still plenty of talent there despite a question mark at the game's most important position.
In other words, all four teams in the NFC West have good reason to head into 2018 with high expectations, meaning it should be one of the league's toughest divisions.
"It's exciting from the fact, San Francisco is getting better, L.A. had a great year and coach McVay has done a great job," Arizona general manager Steve Keim said. "Seattle is going to be a very good football team. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I enjoy the challenge. To be able to have a division so competitive."
Wilks, who is coming from the NFC South, where three teams made the postseason last year, expects the NFC West to be similarly competitive.
"Very competitive," he said. "I just left a division that I thought was very competitive, probably the most competitive division in the National Football League, the NFC South. And now I'm embarking on the NFC West, it's the same thing. You look at the 49ers, signing Jimmy I thought was a plus for those guys. You look at what the Rams are doing, this past year, the playoffs, trading for (Marcus) Peters. Everybody is evolving, everybody is getting better. I feel like we're right there in the mix as well."
Here are some of the biggest offseason topics for each of Seattle's NFC West rivals:
Arizona Cardinals: It's all about finding a quarterback.
The Cardinals have the talent on both sides of the ball to contend for the playoffs, but there's one glaring hole on their roster at the moment, namely that they don't have a quarterback. With Palmer retiring, the Cardinals plan to pursue every avenue possible to find their next starting quarterback.
"One of the things we talked about from day one is really being aggressive," Wilks said when asked about acquiring quarterbacks. "Steve Keim and I have been on the same page since day one. The one thing we're looking at right now is whether it's through trade, whether it's through free agency, or most importantly, whether it's through the draft, if not all three. We're going to be very aggressive in our approach and get the right fit."
When Keim was asked about that "being aggressive" comment, he said, "When you don't have one, there is no other way. We will have plans in place for free agency, but again, a trade option potentially, and the draft, it's all three because we don't have any on the roster currently. Whether we are going to keep two or three, we're going to have to have someone that's experienced, and you'd like to be able to take a young guy and develop him."
San Francisco 49ers: It's all about Jimmy.
After starting their season with an 0-9 record, the 49ers went 6-1 the rest of the way, including a five-game winning streak to end the season after Garoppolo moved into the starting job. As San Francisco coach 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan joked, if you're going to go 6-10, that's a pretty good way to do it for your team's confidence going forward.
"It's always nice to end the year on a positive stretch," Shanahan said. "I've said this to a number of people, I learned the way to get people to feel good about 6-10 is just to start 0-9. Glad we didn't do it the other way around. It'd probably be a totally different feeling."
The biggest reason the 49ers feel good about their team going forward is the way Garoppolo, a midseason trade acquisition, played after taking over the starting job late in the season.
"He was there for about a month before he played, so I think as soon as he got there, everyone was excited," Shanahan said. "He got to the practice field, and players don't always study guys coming out of college, so they don't know him exactly, and then they see him on the field, I think everyone could see his arm talent right away. There was a lot of buzz about that right when we got him. His personality, I think everyone gravitated to. I think our team started to get better in that month, even before he started playing, and got our first win in a couple weeks before he got his start. Once he got in, I think everyone knows he played very well and the team started to get better each week after that."
Having a long-term solution at quarterback—the 49ers signed Garoppolo to an extension this offseason—obviously changes the feel of this offseason for the team.
"Last year, that was a primary focus, finding our guy," 49ers general manager John Lynch said. "It was one of the first things after Kyle and I got together, we talked about the culture we want to set and all that, but we agreed that you have to find the guy at that position. It's such a premium and importance. It didn't happen in the draft process last year, but some fortuitous things broke our way during the season and I really commend Kyle for his patience, once we got Jimmy, allowing him to learn the system as best he could. Everybody was saying play him. Hey, you traded for this guy, play him. He made sure he was in a spot where we were setting him up for success. And then he went in, and we like to say, he balled out. He played really well and made our team better. Then it became a focus of let's get him locked up. I think it was a deal that worked out for everyone and I think we're very appreciative to Jimmy and (his agent) Don Yee and his team that we were able to do it so swiftly. I think that's a huge bonus for us that we have him locked up going into free agency. I think it makes it a place where a lot of people want to be, and we're excited about that… We didn't have a quarterback on our roster at one point. I'm always an optimist and I was trying to be one there. But the idea was that we could shape it the way we wanted, and we were able to do that. What's even more liberating is having Jimmy under contract."
Others around the NFC West have noticed the difference in the 49ers with Garoppolo under center, even if they aren't thrilled to see their division get that much more competitive.
"He looked great," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. "He looked phenomenal. I was kind of bummed out they got him."
Added Seahawks coach Pete Carroll: "He certainly did some good things. They had a great finish to the season. He obviously added a spark to them, even in our game. Unfortunately, he had to throw a touchdown pass the last play of the game or whatever it was, so he got some juice. But I think it's a great get for them. It's going to be good for the division, for sure. It's going to make it more challenging. They certainly had a feel for what he can do late in the year. So good for them."
Los Angeles Rams: It's all about building off last year's success.
A year ago, the Rams were a team with a new head coach and a 12-year postseason drought. Now they're the NFC West champs and McVay was the 2017 NFL Coach of the Year. So yes, a lot has changed for the Rams, who now will try to transition from being a team on the rise to one that can sustain success.
"It's interesting that there's a difference," Rams GM Les Snead said. "Obviously, we're division champs, so that's different, but you still have the same motivation because you moved the needle per se. You got to this level of the video game but you want to go farther. So whether you were here last year trying to get to this level, or here this year trying to get to that next level, it's the same. The same desire to wake up every day and go 'OK, how do we get better?' Because yesterday was successful but not where we want to be."
Talking about going into his second year as a head coach, McVay said, "It's all about surrounding yourself with great people. Certainly the year provides a great opportunity to look inward and feel like, you know, there's a lot of things that even though you might think you did a lot of things well, if you're really being honest with yourself, you can improve. Just being more organized, a better play-caller, a better way of continuing to be consistent with the messaging for our players. So, that's what you're excited about going into Year 2, is looking at how you can improve specifically as a head coach, but there were definitely some challenges. But the great people kind of allow you to handle it in a manner that's conducive for us to be able to have a little bit of success."
Take a look back through the years at photos of current Seahawks players participating in the annual NFL Combine.