Monday, July 22, 2013

Fourth & Forever: Previewing the NFC West

Johnny J

Rain or sun. Sun or rain. The NFC West is a division that is known for both. With two of the teams already projected to be at the NFC Championship game. Those teams are the San Fransico 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. Talk about a one-two punch! The Seahwaks are ranked first and the 49ers are next in line at number two. I'll tell you which one of these sophomore quarterbacks will help their team win the division. Also in the NFC West, are the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals. These two teams are in the rebuilding stages and are missing key components to even think about the playoffs.  One is missing a good quarterback and the other one is missing a lead back. One of these teams will come in last place and it's my job to tell you which one.

When you think of the 49ers, names like Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice comes to mind. Heck I'll even throw Terrell Owens in there, just because he might sue if I don't. Colin Kaepernick was just added to that list after leading his team to Super Bowl XLVII last year. Not bad for someone who took over the starting job in the middle of the season in only his second year. Now in his third year, he is looking to the future. No I'm not talking about him signing with the Miami Dolphins. But him getting a full season underneath that 49ers' helmet. Mobile quarterbacks are more vulnerable to getting hurt than pocket quarterbacks. They're running right toward the defense, while pocket quarterbacks sit in the pocket and picks the defense apart. Kaepernick needs to be good at both. We know he can run, but what about being a good passer? With two of their top receivers starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform-list (Pup-list)--Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham--others will have to step up. Players like Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. Boldin is old and inconsistent and Davis, I heard, might move to wide receiver. Yes he is a mismatch with size, but he is mismatched with speed. So there is no help for Kaepernick, but old faithful, Frank Gore is still on the team. Another year is added for the nine-year veteran. He has to average more than 70 yards a game for this team to help Kaepernick or else the QB could find himself on the ground a lot--a coach's worst nightmare.Gore has only averaged approximately 70 yards per game the past three seasons.

The Seahawks have a solid squad. They have all three phases locked: Offense, defense, and special teams. Not to mention one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. Loud is an understatement as they've always been at the top of the league in forcing false starts at home.The Seahawks have great, young talent in second-year quarterback Russell Wilson. He beat out projected starter Matt Flynn, who was shipped down the coast to Oakland. Wilson is also a mobile quarterback, but unlike Kap, Wilson has pocket awareness. His strength is knowing how much time he has before the pocket collapses and then committing to tucking the ball and running it or letting it fly. Oh, he has another weapon in versatile receiver, Percy Harvin, who can set up as a receiver or in the backfield. Did I mention he runs back kick and punt returns? He can put up enticing yards from scrimmage every year. Russell also has a beast running back. "Beast Mode," Marshawn Lynch, if healthy, can steam roll over people with his brute strength. Who hasn't heard of him yet? Then he is rewarded with a bag of skittles for his efforts. On the other side of the ball, the Seahawks have three people in the starting secondary over 6-3: Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, and Kam Chancellor. More like "Ball-hawks!" They either pick off the pass, bat it down, or draw a flag ("Fail-Mary" refs, where are you?). The flag rarely comes out. They were sixth in INTs. The Seahawks will win this division.

St. Louis might be the best third place team in the NFL. With a struggling quarterback in Sam Bradford and a running back who is not starter material, the Rams are playing for third place. Darryl Richardson has the job of filling former running back, Steven Jackson's shoes. Congratulation kid, you have been promoted. All you have to do is run the ball down the opponent's throat. Oh wait, you're not a power runner, you are more like a sprinter/open-field runner. A seventh round pick, he weights under 200 pounds. He will be hit and tackled for a loss at the line of scrimmage, consistently. That will continue to chew on Bradford's confidence, who I believe lost it when he signed his contract. Since he came into the league in 2010, he has been sacked a total of 105 times and has had 17 fumbles. Either the offensive line is terrible or the quarterback holds the ball for too long. I think both sides play a part. Receiver Danny Amendola was Bradford's best option until he broke his collarbone. After that he didn't have any other playmakers with good hands. When you lack confidence, you tend to hold on to the ball a second or two later, then you end up on the ground. Then they kept giving the ball to Jackson to try and figure something out. He did get over 1000 yards, but not because of the line. He used his strength and heart to help push the line. Draft pick receiver Tavon Austin should be a playmaker. He had 29 touchdowns and over 3000 yards receiving at West Virgina. I give this team third place, just because Jeff Fisher is a god coach with good instincts. A third place ribbon for your squad coach.

Do you remember when the Cardinals reached the Super Bowl in 2008, with aging quarterback wonder Kurt Warner? It doesn't seem that long ago, although with the Cardinals not reaching the playoffs since Warner retired in 2009, it does feel like a lifetime ago. They never recovered.  They tried to replenish the team by trying out seven quarterbacks since then. The've become the first team to lose 700 total games as a franchise last season. Carson Palmer will be the eighth quarterback starting for the red and white deserted--err--sorry, I mean't "desert team." Palmer has a good arm, but bad awareness for secondary defenders downfield. In other words, he throws a lot of INTs. He already had a change of scenery, so a fresh start isn't his problem, but it's his desire to play. Remember, he quit on the Bengals. Once a quitter always a quitter. He's not dedicated, although he does have a elite receiver in Larry Fitzgerald who rarely drops passes. In 2011 he dropped one pass in 150 targets. The man with the golden hands. Now with Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield. The Cardinals have a power runner who should help their 31st ranked offense this year. Mendenhall is not a flashy guy, but he does the dirty work that needs to be done. A number two receiver in sight? I don't see one, so this trigger happy turnover guy should be targeting Fitzgerald like Jay Cutler does Brandon Marshall. On the other side, their defense is decent. They have Pro Bowler, Darnell Dockett on the line. He is 31, but can still play at a high level. Then you have cheater violating the league substance abuse policy in Darryl Washington. When he comes back, he will definitely give that defense a spark. Oh the secondary is fully loaded. Cornerback Patrick Peterson and third round pick Tyrann Mathieu on the corners and Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes super safety duo at the end of the defense. A lot of INTs, I say. Just stay away from the paraphernalia Mathieu.

So I expect to see the Seahawks back in the fold of going deep in the playoffs, unless they meet the Packers, which will result in a loss. I'm not really a big Pete Carroll fan, but he has a solid grip on this team. The team feeds off his energy and they produce. They run, run, until you stop the beast, then when you  look up it's  play-action time. That's how they get opponents to bite the run every time. Then comes the long bomb to receiver Sidney Rice. The 49ers will be fighting for a wild-card spot, just because they are going to get off to a slow start with no receivers. It will be great to see how these mobile quarterbacks will avoid injuries throughout the season. The Rams need to put playmakers around Bradford. He doesn't have anybody but rookie "I-need-to-prove-myself" Austin. I expect him to be sacked even more this season. Richardson is not the guy to replace Jackson. Their running game will go nowhere. The Cardinals' defense will keep them in games. Palmer is not the answer. Having a guy prone to turnovers is a slight upgrade over Kevin Kolb, who threw a total of 28 touchdowns and 25 INTs in two seasons for Arizona. That sounds like Palmer's numbers. Rain or sun. Sun or rain. The NFC West will be a battle of two teams.

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