NFL 2009 – NFC West preview
The NFC West couldn't even have been classed as mediocre last season so, when the St Louis Cardinals came within seconds of landing a Super Bowl, everybody could have been forgiven for being a little bit surprised.
The Cards had been the class of the West division throughout the regular season but few thought that counted for much given the sheer awfulness of the San Francisco Giants, Seattle Seahawks and St Louis Rams.
As we now know though it counted for a whole lot as Kurt Warner and co crept up on the conference big boys and gave them a perfect lesson in how to play the under-dog card.
Although the West division title never looked in doubt for the Cards in 2008, their 9-7 record was hardly the stuff Super Bowl's are made of. However, when it got to play-off time, Ken Whisenhunt's side didn't just step up a gear, they seemed to be a whole new model as they wiped out the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles without breaking a sweat. The Steelers may have won out in Super Bowl XLIII but the Cards' remarkable run still left a lasting memory of the dangers of ruling anyone out in post-season play.
Whether they can progress quite that far again this time now the under-dog tag has been removed is the big issue now. We've all heard about the Super Bowl curse and the Cards unfortunately seem to fill all the credentials for becoming the next in that long line. The players that contributed to their brilliant aerial threat, at least, are all back after Warner signed a new contract - so Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin should be great again.
Defensively, things were very poor in the 08 regular season, as points were leaked as quickly as the offence put them on the board. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie looked exceptional in his rookie season but there's only so much a corner can do when the inconsistent defensive line gives so little help to the secondary. Bill Davis' promotion to defensive co-ordinator needs to provide instant results or the Cards may struggle through what should, in theory, be a relatively simple follow up season.
Prediction: 2nd - the curse strikes again
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers 2008 season actually consisted of two halves; an unsuccessful one under Mike Nolan and a much improved one under Mike Singletary. Both campaigns were hindered by QB problems meaning that Frank Gore was unable to shine against defences' set-up to stop the rush. At least under Singletary rapid improvements were made on the defensive side of things, and the fact he's coming back for the 09 season could spell a more consistent year in San Francisco.
The one big problem still remains at QB with Sean Hill having to make do for the second straight season. A new offensive co-ordinator in Jimmy Raye may make a big difference though if Hill can quickly adapt to the new system. Michael Crabtree, if fit and healthy, looks a great first round draft pick-up for Hill to aim at and he should ensure Gore and Glen Coffee have more space in the middle to run into.
I'm expecting big things of the new defence as well if Singletary's intense pre-season training regime is anything to go by. They'll be well drilled, fit and tough which is even more impressive when you consider the defence is inspired by linebackers like Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes. If only they had a genuine chance of establishing a fearsome pass rush then Candlestick Park could make for a terrible place for higher ranked visitors.
Prediction: 1st if anyone can turn the 49ers around then Singletary can
A respectable play-off run in 2007 was followed up with a disastrous 2008 season as the Seahawks fell to third in the NFC West with a miserable 4-12 performance. It was never going to be a great year with Matt Hasselbeck's season being wrecked by injury but it wasn't only with the ball that the 49ers struggled, with a previously strong defence failing to execute virtually every week.
Mike Holmgren's successful era in Seattle was brought to an end after last year's woeful showing and it's now up to former Falcons' man Jim Mora to get things ticking once again. This should mean a more run heavy offence is on the cards with Julius Jones getting a chance to prove himself worthy of his arrival in Seattle. Hasselbeck should have far more joy this year as well with the acquisition of TJ Houshmandzadeh - although he isn't exactly the greatest number one receiver around.
Some big moves were made over the off-season, improving the defence that ranked dead last against the pass in 2008, and they will be far tougher in that area this year. Colin Cole always impressed me in Green Bay while Aaron Curry should add some much needed muscle to the linebacking unit, however, the key to real success lies with Patrick Kerney at left tackle. If he can regain his 2007 form then the whole defensive unit should thrive; if he doesn't impress then it could all fall flat once again.
Prediction: 3rd better than last season, but not by much
St Louis Rams
'The Greatest Show on Turf' seems so long ago in St Louis now after yet another shocking season in 08. Pre-season expectations that the only way up proved to be wrong as their 3-13 record in 2007 fell to 2-14 last year but it can honestly only get better now Steve Spagnulo has been given the job of steadying the ship. He was highly thought of in San Francisco and he looks adequate enough to stop the downslide, to a degree.
It's not going to be an easy task for Spagnulo though with a former Pro-Bowl quarterback who must have forgotten what winning feels like. Marc Bulger has been so badly banged up over the past two years that it's hard to see him ever getting back to his best. He should benefit from a few decent pick-ups in Jason Brown and Jason Smith but they seem more likely to help out Steven Jackson, who has emerged as the Rams' star man.
Chris Long and Adam Carriker are the best the Rams have on defence but they could have looked more intimidating if the likes of Aaron Curry had been drafted. Instead they still look a little light and not quite up to the level required to consistently defend against the rush. One man that I will be watching intently is James Laurinaitis who should be impressive in his first season out of Ohio State.
Prediction: 4th - heading back in the right direction though