Mike Sando’s NFC West blog on ESPN has become a great daily check-in for keeping tabs on the division. Recently, Sando posted a link to a Seattle Times blog, listing the “Power Rankings” for the Seahawks heading into the season. Since then, similar rankings have been blogged up for the 49ers and Rams.
Now there’s nothing more that we love more than a good Power Ranking, if only because it gives us something to argue about. But what’s interesting is that each of these is only focused on players. And, except for the defending NFC champion Cardinals, each team in the division is looking at major changes in coaching personnel.
With that in mind, here’s part 1 of my NFC West-wide set of Power Rankings: the 12 biggest single influencers of how this division will shake out, along with my overeducated guesses of just how important these people are.
#1: Kurt Warner (+/- 5 Wins)
There’s no question that had Kurt not elevated his play back to Pro Bowl levels last season, the Cardinals would have stumbled further back into mediocrity, and it’s even conceivable that the 7-9 49ers might have won the NFC West. Yes, the true strength of the team is their outstanding triple-threat of receivers, but Kurt got them the ball quickly, accurately, and often in stride. And whether you think Matt Leinert has untapped reservoirs as a pro QB, the Cardinals do not play well with him under center.
Now Kurt has demanded and received a healthy contract extension ($19 mil guaranteed over the next 2 years) from Arizona, and he seemingly has job security and a still-improving talent base with the addition of Beanie Wells. However, in his years in a Rams uniform, the big money came saddled with serious injury problems. He played for peanuts from his dream 1999 season through 2001. In the 2002 offseason, his salary tripled to $6 mil per season, but his busted hand just couldn’t grip the football, or deliver it on target. Meanwhile, Coach Martz dreamed up more and more exotic (and long-developing) pass plays with less and less protection for his suddenly fragile QB. Warner started just seven (!) games over the next two contract years, and tossed 12 INTs against only 4 TDs. The Rams lost all seven games.
The difference between good Kurt and bad Kurt can wreck a team. Plain as that. And Leinert has yet to earn his savior stripes.
#2: Mike Singletary (+/- 4 wins)
We don’t want to downplay the success that Singletary had last season. The record of interim coaches is absolutely lousy, across the board. But there are these outliers, these guys who come in and actually succeed in motivating a bunch of losers. Think Goldie Hawn in Wildcats. So the fact that Singletary got 5 wins in eight games after the bye week with this team is pretty impressive.
Even though none of the teams the Niners beat went to the playoffs, or even came close.
Even though two of those wins came against the self-immolating Rams, and one of those was by a single point.
Even though they still don’t have a starting quarterback, or an offensive line to protect him.
The one thing you can’t say, though, is that this 49ers team was bursting with talent and just needed the right motivation to succeed. No, it’s fair to say that this is still very much a rebuilding team, and credit the former linebacker for squeezing 7 wins out of this team, one that had “3-13″ written all over it.
So now Singletary has the chance to truly put his conservative run-first, power-football stamp on the organization, and he has done so, albeit with some curious decisions along the way: firing Mike Martz (we’re okay with that) but then heavily recruiting locker room failure Scott Linehan to be his offensive coordinator? That’s a head-scratcher. Then on draft day, they land superdiva Michael Crabtree in the first round, rather than rebuild the offensive line … it works if the ballcoach can keep the youngster’s head pointed downfield, and can establish him as a legitimate threat on the field. It forces defenses to ease off the run ever so much, to have to respect a true deep threat. But that’s only if they can keep their mystery QB upright.
Unlike the Rams, the 49ers have not cleaned house upstairs — it is still a poisonous, back-biting front office that often lets family politics get in the way of good football decisions. They are more than happy to give Singletary — a man with very little NFL coaching experience — full rein over the team, because if the 49ers fail, the front office can place all the blame on him. Meanwhile, last year’s uproarious finish has fans thinking delusionally about making a deep playoff run this season, following in the Cardinals’ unlikely footsteps. No other coach in this division is on the hot seat like Singletary.
#3: Steven Jackson (+/- 3.5 wins)
Normally, I don’t point to a running back and say “this is the player that wins games.” The run game in the modern NFL has evolved away from the dominant single-back, now acting as more of a foil for the passing game, and doubling as the outlet for short passes. Twenty years ago, third-and-3 is a running down. Not now. The teams that win games on the ground feature two or even three backs in tandem — the Giants, Broncos, Dolphins, Panthers, Jaguars and Titans being notable examples.
But the Rams are a different case, because they simply play at a much higher level with SJ on the field. Defenses have to respect Jackson, unlike any other member of last year’s Rams offense. His (healthy) presence on the field makes the play-fake more potent (if Bulger can sell it), and his ability to rip a long run and drag would-be tacklers along for the ride gives a boost to the entire team. Moreover, his unnaturally soft hands make him as potent a receiving threat among running backs as there is in the game. His one weakness has been in providing that last line of protection for Bulger, but as an outlet back, that really isn’t his role.
Last year, Jackson was seldom healthy or in shape, due in part to his decision to skip the preseason, while holding out for his contract extension. Now that he’s got his commitment from the organization, and the organization itself has recommitted itself to winning football, he has been a dedicated participant in offseason workouts, and has spoken of taking more of a vocal leadership role in the locker room. Given how the team responds to him on the field, this should only make Jackson more potent.
#4: Bill Davis (+/- 3 wins)
I know, you’re thinking “Who the eff is Bill Davis?” Believe me, even people who know that Bill Davis was hired to be the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator this year are thinking the same thing.
The Cardinals won the division last season on the strength of their offense — they had to, since their defense gave up more points than all but four teams in the league. For this reason, many pundits predicted a quick exit in the playoffs. But the Cardinals’ defense in January stiffened up dramatically, most notably in a complete shut-down of the Carolina Panthers’ powerful rushing attack. The desert birds’ defense got them three wins in the postseason that, by all rights, they probably shouldn’t have had.
With Karlos Dansby and Antonio Rogers-Cromartie, the Cardinals have a couple of upper-tier playmakers on defense. However, judging from this article at azcentral.com, it isn’t clear whether Davis knows what he’s going to do with them.
The good news: Davis was promoted from within, from the linebackers’ coach position, so he has familiarity with the weapons at his disposal. The bad news: Davis’ only previous experience as a D-coordinator came in San Francisco, from 2005-06, under Mike Nolan. The 49ers gave up 840 points those two years, by far the most in the league.
Yes, the Cardinals’ defense wasn’t good last season, but there’s room for it to get worse. And that puts even more pressure on #1 on this list.