NFC West Preview
THE NFL'S MYSTERY CONFERENCE: SAN FRANCISCO AND THE NFC NORTH
We've been thinking of the NFC West as a division of doormats for so long that it's hard to know what to make of last year's surge to respectability. San Francisco ended up a few plays away from the Super Bowl, with a clearly awesome defense and a new head coach who knows how to win. But, even Arizona and Seattle made runs at respectability with final records of 8-8 (Cards) and 7-9 (Seahawks) against representative schedules.
Is this an up-and-coming division, with young quarterbacks ready to mature for smart head coaches? Don't forget that the worst team, St. Louis, brought in proven veteran Jeff Fisher to run the show and save their investment in Sam Bradford. Or, was last year a temporary mirage and everything's about to go up in a puff of smoke?
Get a read on this before everyone else, and you'll be in position to make good money all season long!
Let's first look back at last year. The data is probably better than you remember it for the teams in the middle.
2011 FINAL NFC WEST STANDINGS
San Francisco: 13-3 (+28 turnovers, 19th rated schedule)
Arizona: 8-8 (-13 turnovers, 15th rated schedule)
Seattle: 7-9 (+8 turnovers, 11th rated schedule)
St. Louis: 2-14 (-5 turnovers, 2nd rated schedule)
Notebook: You could argue that the market saw the top three teams as about 2-3 wins worse than those final records. San Francisco was a playoff team to be sure, but more like a 10-6 type team that was getting lucky with turnovers in terms of the way Vegas was pricing them. Arizona? With their quarterback issues? They were priced much worse than an 8-8 team. Yet, they did manage a winning record against a league average schedule while turning the ball over. Doesn't that deserve respect? Seattle played a tougher than average schedule and made a run at .500 while dealing with QB issues of their own. The market probably saw them as a 5-6 win team in terms of Power Ratings.
Obviously St. Louis was a disaster. The coach had to be fired. A lot of housecleaning was needed because that experiment just wasn't working. Just remember that the Rams played the second toughest schedule in the league according to Jeff Sagarin's numbers at USA today (which we've been using throughout our previews this year). Were the Rams a 4-5 win team victimized by a killer schedule?
What a mess!
Clearly, you have to dock San Francisco because it's very hard to reach +28 in turnover differential "on purpose" even if you have a great defense and an extremely conservative offense. Our studies show something in the +14 to +16 range is the best you can do with your own influence based on NFL history. Anything over that is good luck. San Francisco needed some good luck to finish 13-3.
How do you handle Arizona and Seattle though? If you believe that turnovers regress toward zero...then the Cards may be a few games better than the Seahawks this season. And, if you believe that tall quarterback John Skelton is showing signs of learning the ropes, that only solidifies the assertion. Pay attention to this division!
Here's what happened in our key indicator stats last year...
San Francisco: 5.0
St. Louis: 4.5
Notebook: Horrible numbers. This was still a division of doormats in terms of moving the ball. Every other NFC division had at least two teams that cracked 6.0. What you see above represents the three LEAST productive offenses in the whole conference (the bottom three listed) and four of the worst five in the 16-team NFC (Chicago was at 5.1). You have conservatism. You have unproductive quarterbacks. You have limited weaponry. Those numbers are nasty. And, remember...this isn't a division that has horrible weather. St. Louis and Arizona play indoors. San Francisco weather is typically nice in the Fall. Only Seattle has to occasionally deal with moisture. HORRIBLE offensive numbers.
YARDS-PER-PLAY ALLOWED DEFENSIVELY
San Francisco: 5.1
St. Louis: 5.6
Notebook: Naturally, the defenses will grade out well if the offenses are grading out badly given that six of each team's 16 games are within the division. We do think that San Francisco is a legitimately strong defense, even if 5.1 overstates the case a smidge. Seattle is a team you have to pay attention to on defense. They deserve more respect than they got last year on that side of the ball. They matched San Francisco's 5.1 while playing a tougher schedule. Arizona is in the same boat. This is probably the one area where the market missed the boat on those two teams. Everyone saw the inexperience and sluggishness at quarterback, while missing out what the defenses were doing. Let's say it this way...the top three probably aren't as good as those numbers suggest...but they're good enough for you to give them respect! St. Louis...not so much. That's a poor number for a defensive-minded (former) head coach in a division with crap quarterbacks.
OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
San Francisco: 29%
St. Louis: 28%
Notebook: Well, you fantasy players know where to look for punters! Many coaches here preferred to punt on offense and try to win with defense in this group. San Francisco LIVED to punt and kick field goals. We've mentioned often that experience at quarterback means knowing how to convert third downs. Here's what happens at the bottom of the scale. Inexperienced quarterbacks DON'T know how to do that, and are even less likely to pull it off when their coaches are forcing them to play it safe. The first team that learns this skill in the NFC West is likely to take a big step forward very quickly.
DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
San Francisco: 35%
St. Louis: 38%
Notebook: Arizona actually graded out as best in the whole NFC and the whole NFL, which will surprise many of you. Even if you account for the bad quarterbacks they faced, this is still a good team on third downs. A bunch of minor twists off the same general themes in this group in 2011.
Let's see what the markets are expecting for 2012 in terms of projected regular season victories...
NFC West Regular Season Win Projections
San Francisco 9.5 of 10
Seattle 7 or 7.5
Arizona 6.5 or 7
St. Louis 6
This is consistent with how the teams were rated in Power Rankings last year rather than with the final standings. We can't argue with that. There are still too many questions at quarterback for Seattle and Arizona to assume they can match last year's output. St. Louis has a chance to become relevant quickly because of Jeff Fisher. Vegas has priced a jump from two to six wins into the mix already. Clearly the market assumes a regression for the Niners off that huge turnover margin.
This year's schedule has the NFC West playing the NFC North, with Green Bay, Detroit, and Chicago on everyone's slate. But, the AFC East is also there...which may or may not be tough. You never know with Miami and Buffalo...and the Jets may be two weeks away from an implosion at any given time. We'll sum it up this way:
If San Francisco can keep Alex Smith from giving games away as they get more aggressive down the field, the Niners are still a Super Bowl threat even if they're not really a 13-3 caliber team. Defense wins championships.
Either Seattle or Arizona could surprise their way into the Wildcard picture. Seattle now has Green Bay's former backup quarterback...which might be a significant upgrade to a team that was closer to relevancy than people realized last year. Arizona's head coach has been exploiting the lack of respect from opponents for years.
St. Louis is likely to take a big step forward just because they're finally being led by a man who knows how to be a head coach. Sam Bradford will either improve or get benched...a benching that is long overdue based on his lethargic performances and lack of growth.
We're optimistic in general about the NFC West, at least in terms of staying out of the cellar in division competitions. It's the AFC South that's destined for worst unless Andrew Luck really is the IMMEDIATE second coming of Peyton Manning.
We finish off our summer series of NFL divisional previews Thursday with a look at the NFC South. We saved that for last because Atlanta of that division is hosting Cincinnati in a national TV game on FOX Thursday night. If you've missed the earlier reports, we strongly suggest you go through the archives and print out all eight rundowns. While you're at it, do that for the colleges too! We pick up again with the colleges Saturday and Sunday with the Pac 12 North and South. Then it's the SEC the following weekend, and the Big 10 in the days before Michigan State hosts Boise State and Michigan battles Alabama in big first week TV games.
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See you Thursday for the finale. There's no better way to get ready for this year than to review what REALLY happened last year!
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