NFC West Preview

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

ARE 49ERS READY TO SURPASS ARIZONA IN THE WOEFUL NFC WEST?

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

The Arizona Cardinals have helped patch up the reputation of the NFC West with decent playoff performances the last two seasons. They didn't exactly knock the socks off the football world with a pair of divisional crowns. But, they STUNNED the nation with a Super Bowl run two years ago, then took out popular darkhorse Green Bay in the first round last year.

That was with Kurt Warner at quarterback. Warner retired in the offseason. So, about the only think about the NFC West that wasn't woeful is now gone!

Many pundits expect San Francisco to take a step forward this year and win the division. We can't disagree with that. But, before going too much further, we want to provide some added context about where this division really stands in the big picture. This group is arguably many steps behind the rest of the NFL. Fitting that we end our gauntlet of divisional previews with the group that should be worst in all of football. We promised you several days ago an answer to the question about who played the weakest schedule in 2009. That would be...you guessed it...the lousy NFC West...

2009 FINAL NFC WEST STANDINGS
Arizona...........10-6....-7 turnover differential....28th ranked schedule
San Francisco...8-8...+9 turnover differential.....31st ranked schedule
Seattle............5-11...-8 turnover differential.....30th ranked schedule
St. Louis.........1-15...-13 turnover differential....24th ranked schedule

Let that sink in for a second. This quartet was 16 games under .500 for the season despite playing the easiest schedules as a group of any division. There are only 32 teams in the NFL. San Francisco and Seattle played two of the three easiest schedules in the league, yet could only combine for a 13-21 record. St. Louis never had the luxury of playing themselves, yet still only finished 24th in strength of schedule.

Note that the rankings are influenced by the six games divisional teams play head to head...but weren't caused by that. These teams had relatively easy non-divisional schedules by league standards, and ALSO got to play each other a lot!

So, Arizona was worse than your typical 10-6 team, even with Kurt Warner running the show. Turnovers were a big problem for the team. Shouldn't they be more mistake prone THIS year with a new QB and a tougher schedule?

San Francisco wasn't really a .500 caliber team. They may have gone 6-10 or worse vs. a league average slate.

Seattle was more like a 3-13 team, which is why a coaching change was made to Pete Carroll out of Southern Cal.

St. Louis was a special kind of terrible, and will now be trying to win with an injury-prone rookie quarterback.

UGLY!

This is our last look at the 2009 numbers for DRIVE POINTS and third down conversions. We hope you've been printing out these reports and saving them so you can have all 32 teams handy for your Preseason and September handicapping. As we go through the numbers, remember that EVERYONE played easy schedules while compiling this unimpressive data.

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OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
Arizona 11.5
San Francisco 11.2
Seattle 8.3
St. Louis 6.4

NOTEBOOK: Scoring has been jumping way up since the holding rules were liberalized. The NFC West has missed out on that. St. Louis literally has no idea how to move the ball, with a defensive-minded head coach probably being the last guy in the world who can fix that. Seattle was lame. San Francisco actually did better than you might have expected given their reputation for great defense. This is a good sign for taking over the top spot of the division with Warner's retirement. San Francisco almost matched Arizona last year in this key offensive indicator stat when Warner was playing. Of course, Warner found that extra gear in the playoffs. It's very hard to see right now which NFC West quarterback could have something like that in their pocket in 2010.

DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
San Francisco 7.9
Arizona 12.7
Seattle 13.1
St. Louis 16.6

NOTEBOOK: Okay...some explanation here. In a division with poor offenses, three of the four defenses still graded out at 12.7 or worse defensively! Against a weak schedule, with poor divisional quarterbacks...the bottom three teams were playing like they were blindfolded. It's a horrible performance in context. And, it's a reason you should be pessimistic about Arizona, Seattle, or St. Louis offering pointspread value out of the gate this year. Quality opponents will score on them easily.

San Francisco is obviously strong defensively. But, that did come against a weak schedule. Be careful thinking about them as a West Coast version of the New York Jets or something. They are above average...and best in the division by a mile. Mike Singletary's group may not impress you as much against outside competition.

OFFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Arizona 36%
Seattle 33%
St. Louis 32%
San Francisco 30%

NOTEBOOK: Oh man is this bad! Even Arizona, with a veteran quarterback who knows how to make decisions, couldn't approach respectability in this stat. And, it's not like Seattle was being led by nobodies. Don't let anyone tell you Alex Smith of San Francisco is about to take the league by storm. When you see quality performances on third downs from Smith, THEN start thinking about him as a potential impact player.

Again, these NON-performances came against weak schedules! What's going to happen against quality opposition from outsiders? How is St. Louis going to get much better with a rookie running the show? How is San Francisco going to get better with a conservative head coach who wants his defense on the field? How is Seattle going to get better with a college head coach whose success at that level may have been driven by a star system that ignored too many rules? How is Arizona going to get better by switching to rusty and unsure Matt Leinart? Moving the chains is the heart of modern football. Nobody here has much of a pulse yet.

DEFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Arizona 35%
San Francisco 37%
Seattle 39%
St. Louis 44%

NOTEBOOK: Mostly good news, but you have to adjust for context. Once you do that, the news is just"okay." And, with St. Louis, it's actually a disaster. They were fourth worst in all of pro football even though they were led by a supposed defensive genius...and even though they were playing a weak schedule.

San Francisco has a defense that can win a division. Arizona has a defense that can soften the transition from Warner to Leinart at least in terms of the possession plays like third down conversions. We're struggling to say nice things about this group. That's about it unless you want to bend over backwards with undue optimism.

2010 NFC WEST OUTLOOK:

Well, not a lot needs to be said here based on what you've already read. It's possible that somebody could break through with a surprise season. Let's look on the bright side and outline those:

  • ARIZONA could find out that Matt Leinart learned a lot from his apprenticeship, and is ready to have an Aaron Rodgers kind of season. The Cardinals would take that in a heartbeat, and would probably win the division with it.
  • SAN FRANCISCO could have finally found the sweet spot for what Alex Smith can do, which lifts them up to a 9-7 or 10-6 team against a league average schedule. We're skeptical it can get getter than that, but there's certainly a chance that it could.
  • SEATTLE could get an emotional lift from the rah-rah head coach that brings them back to respectability quicker than anyone expected. You do that in a weak division, and you're a playoff contender.
  • ST. LOUIS could see that Sam Bradford really is the next big thing in the NFL at the quarterback position, and make a run at 5-6 victories as a result. Their preseason opener vs. Minnesota sure didn't show any signs of that. Rookies take awhile to get that"deer in the headlights" look out of their eyes. If Bradford is seeing clearly by October, this franchise could soon be relevant again.

Without the rose colored glasses...we're looking at the"best" squads in the division really being 7-9 type teams vs. average schedules (Arizona and San Francisco), with Seattle stuck down at 4-12 caliber...and St. Louis trying once again to avoid going winless.

You regulars know we're pessimists by nature. The rose colored glasses will stay on the coffee table until on-field results suggest we need to try them on again.

That wraps up our look at the NFC West...and all eight divisions in the NFL. If you missed an earlier report, please check the archives. Again, we strongly encourage you to print out and save each divisional rundown. These key indicator stats have a proven reliability that you just won't find in the newsstand magazines.

NFL Preseason action resumes TONIGHT with a pair of games (New England at Atlanta on FOX and Indianapolis at Buffalo). JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK is ready to take you day-by-day through the exhibition slate as we continue to build our bankrolls for September. You can purchase game-day releases online, or sign up for longer term packages. If you'd like more information on our service (or how to add baseball so you can maximize your profits) call 1-800-323-4453.

We hope you enjoyed our series of previews. Be sure you read our handicapping NOTEBOOK every day so you know what's really happening in the world of sports!

23
Nov

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