TEMPE, Ariz. — After years of humiliation as the league’s doormat, the NFC West finally enjoyed some time in the sun, with most analysts proclaiming it the best division in football following the 2013 season.
Seattle won the Super Bowl. San Francisco advanced to its third consecutive NFC Championship game. Arizona narrowly missed the playoffs despite a 10-6 record that was better than some of the qualifiers, and Sam Bradford-less St. Louis still managed a respectable 7-9 record.
The 2014 season promised even better with Arizona and St. Louis both adding pieces and gaining a year of experience– the Cardinals with new systems; the Rams with a youth-laden roster. This would be the reincarnation of the old NFC East; a perennially dominant division predicated on defense and physical play.
But the offseason and preseason have been unkind to those aspirations. So much so that as the 2014 season begins, it’s fair to wonder: Is the NFC West overrated?
"I’m not as bullish on the division as a whole as I was in the offseason because of how the three contenders to Seattle have been affected," FOXSports.com senior NFL reporter Alex Marvez said. "Arizona had three huge losses to their front seven, St. Louis lost Sam Bradford again, and I’ve had a bad feeling about San Francisco all season."
Let’s recap the carnage.
Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was lost for the season with a knee injury during training camp.
Cardinals GM Steve Keim thought he would be able to re-sign free-agent inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, who led the team with 122 tackles (114 solos) in 2013. He also added 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and four interceptions, but at age 32, the Cardinals weren’t willing to offer him a long-term deal. Cleveland was, so Dansby departed, signing a four-year deal with the Browns.
Arizona had planned for Dansby’s eventual departure by drafting Kevin Minter in the second round in 2013, but the Cardinals didn’t plan for a season-long suspension to their other Pro Bowl-caliber inside linebacker, Daryl Washington, for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse. And they didn’t plan to lose star defensive tackle Darnell Dockett to a season-ending ACL tear during training camp.
Arizona still has reasons for optimism. The secondary has been revamped with the addition of Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie and safety Deone Bucannon, the team’s top pick in 2014.
The offense also has a load of new weapons in left tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson and speed receivers Ted Ginn and John Brown, who should help open things up underneath for receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and running back Andre Ellington.
But the loss of three mammoth playmakers cannot be underestimated.
The Rams lost quarterback Sam Bradford to a torn ACL in a preseason game against the Cleveland Browns.
"On defense, they’re going to have to play to their strengths; maybe put a little more stress on that secondary because they can’t rely on their inside linebackers anymore," Marvez said. "On offense, their success will be contingent on whether (QB) Carson Palmer can become a better decision maker and reduce the number of interceptions from last season (22)."
The Rams defense should take a step forward with a talented front seven that added defensive tackle Aaron Donald to the likes of Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree.
Will it matter after Bradford tore his ACL again and was lost for the season, handing the reins to veteran backup Shaun Hill?
"I think Hill’s a bit underrated. You’re talking about a guy who has played behind quarterbacks who have stayed healthy," Marvez said. "He doesn’t have to be spectacular; just hit a couple plays and they will gladly win games 17-14.
"But even if they can get Tavon Austin more involved and get significant contributions from their special teams, I think what once was a 10-win Rams team will be fighting to go 8-8 this season."
There’s that rift between coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke over a new contract and control over the roster.
There’s the nine-game suspension of pass-rushing linebacker Aldon Smith for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse and personal-conduct policies.
There’s injured standout linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who could miss at least half a season after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee during last season’s loss at Seattle in the NFC championship game.
There’s defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey’s torn biceps, which will sideline him for the season.
And there’s Ray McDonald’s recent arrest on suspicion of felony domestic violence involving his reportedly pregnant fiancée, bringing the 49ers arrest total to a league-leading 10 in the past 32 months.
"The sad part about it is that the front office doesn’t seem to care. They just want to win, and that was embodied by the decision to play Aldon Smith two days after his arrest," Marvez said. "One has to wonder: If you have enough rotten apples in the locker, does it eventually affect your play on Sunday?"
The Seahawks lost a few key contributors from last season’s Super Bowl winner, but most of those moves were intentional.
"The players they re-signed are very much in their prime, and some of the guys that left, I think some teams are overrating those players," Marvez said. "They’re still very deep; they’re cutting draft picks."
The main concern for the Seahawks is the Super Bowl hangover. In the past 15 seasons, seven of the Super Bowl winners failed to make the playoffs, and only three teams (New England twice, New York Giants) managed to advance past the first round. It’s not some mythical curse. There are real reasons teams don’t repeat including: Luck, injuries, the wear and tear of a longer season, an inability to match the competitive drive from the previous season and the reality that almost every opponent brings its A-game when facing the champs.
But the Seahawks still have an enviable depth of talent and the benefit of playing in a smaller market outside the national spotlight. The rest of the division is on much thinner ice.
"It’s important to remember that everyone in the NFC West can still play defense pretty well," Marvez said. "It’s still a dangerous division, but as a whole, it’s taken a step back, and that opens things up for teams like Carolina, Washington and Chicago."