TEMPE, Ariz. – Early Doucet remembers when achieving mediocrity gave you a good chance to win the NFC West. Since the Cardinals joined the division before the 2002 season, four of the 10 division winners have had a 9-7 record or worse — capped by Seattle’s 7-9 mark in 2010 — and only three division winners over that stretch have managed more than 10 wins.
The NFC West hasn’t produced two playoff teams in the same season since 2004, and the division hasn’t produced a Super Bowl champ with its current alignment; the AFC West is the only other division without a Super Bowl champ over that 10-year time period.
Both of those facts may be altered this season, with the 49ers a legitimate contender for the title and the Seahawks currently sitting in the NFC’s final wild-card spot.
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“Times have changed,” said Doucet, now in his fifth season with the Cardinals. “We knew that this division was only going to continue to get betterm and that’s what you’re seeing this season. We’re not a division to overlook anymore. You even got St. Louis beating San Francisco. Anything can happen.”
Defense has certainly played a role in the division’s sudden uptick. All four NFC West clubs are currently ranked among the NFL’s top 12 in total defense. But Arizona is proof that defense alone can’t do much.
At the risk of repeating ourselves, the common denominator for the 49ers’, Rams’ and Seahawks’ improved standing is quarterback play. The 49ers are perhaps the only club in the NFL with two legitimate options at QB — Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith — and they are in first place. The Rams’ Sam Bradford struggled earlier in the season, as did his club, but his improved play of late has St. Louis within a half-game of .500 and still in the wild-card chase.
Then there’s Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson, whom Seattle drafted in the third round — five picks before the Cardinals chose cornerback Jamell Fleming. While Smith still has the NFL’s third-highest QB rating at 104.1, and Kaepernick’s 96 rating would be ranked seventh if he had taken enough snaps, Wilson is just a shade behind him at 95.2, the seventh-best rating in the league among qualifiers.
Wilson owns a 63.4 completion percentage with 19 TDs and eight interceptions this season. But in his last four games, Wilson has nine TDs and zero interceptions with 778 passing yards and 170 rushing yards. How much has that meant to the Seahawks’ resurgence?
“I think it’s everything,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “Last year, they had a mobile, athletic quarterback in (Tarvaris) Jackson, but they didn’t go far. I’d put it all on (Wilson)… the quarterback position is so important that he gets the lion’s share of it.”
A lot of teams passed on Wilson despite a sensational senior season at Wisconsin in which he threw for 3,175 yards with a 72.8 completion percentage, 33 TDs and just four interceptions. Unfortunately for the fan base, the Cardinals were one of those teams (although it should be noted the club did not have a second-round pick, and there’s no telling how Wilson would have meshed with the Cardinals’ system and personnel).
“With Russell playing so well at quarterback for us, it gives us the hopes that we can really build on this young group of guys,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We hoped that we would have the dynamic football player — that the terrific kid as a leader would show up, and it has.
“I have always looked for guys that are unusually gifted and talented, and I didn’t care what size they were when they were that unique.”
It’s impossible to predict career arcs for Wilson and Kaepernick. Neither has played enough games to declare their selections an unmitigated success for their clubs. But the NFL is all about the now, and the depressing reality therein is that three NFC West teams have varying degrees of stability at quarterback and one does not.
You don’t need to guess who’s who. It’s reflected in the standings. The truth is, every team in the NFC West is now ahead of the Cardinals in terms of development because every team in the NFC West has a better situation at quarterback than the Cardinals.
Feeling depressed? Well, take heart. Things could be worse. You could be rooting for the Jaguars.
In that same 2012 draft in which Wilson went in the third round, Jacksonville selected its third player of the draft five spots before the Seahawks. The Jags’ selection: Bryan Anger. He’s a punter.