Last year at this time, I wrote up a new type of power rankings for the division, focused on the ten individuals — players, coaches, or other — who would have the single greatest impact on their team’s win/loss total for the year. (2009 Rankings: Part 1, Part 2).
Topping my list last year was Kurt Warner. The lion in winter had an unbelievable year, seemingly at his peak both mentally and physically as he steered the team clear of the so-called Super Bowl Loser’s Curse, and led them to a 10-6 record and back into the depths of the playoffs. Without him under center, it’s very doubtful that the desert birds would have been able to hold off the charging 49ers for primacy in the division. He alone came close to making the five-win difference that we predicted.
Of course, the rankings weren’t infallible, as I listed Steven Jackson as being single-handedly able to deliver 3.5 wins to the Rams. And did he not do everything that was humanly possible for a running back to do? Did he not lift up this team and carry it as far as he could? And yet, we got only one W on the record books. (Though it’s very safe to say that we would not have had that one win but for his effort in the Detroit game.)
Another quarterback tops the list this season, one with the potential to be the best in the division.
#1: Sam Bradford (+/- 5 wins)
The Rams are capable of profound offensive improvement this season — a very good thing, considering that they struggled to put up a measly 10.5 points per game on the board. And the locus of that improvement wears #8 for the Rams. How quickly will the rookie get up to NFL game speed? How much of the vaunted pass-heavy Philadelphia playbook will Pat Shurmur entrust him with?
The schedule-making gods have been very kind, giving the Rams what looks like at least 10 opportunities for very competitive games — a staggering total for a team coming off a one-win season. Of course, the Rams were competitive late in nearly half their games last season as well, but shoddy quarterback play held them back from crossing that threshold to victory. If Bradford plays even up to his rookie potential — to say nothing of his pro potential — the Rams will find themselves five wins richer on the season.
#2: Alex Gibbs, Seattle Seahawks (+/- 3 wins)
The Seahawks have made a lot of noise in the offseason, with the firing of Tim Ruskell, the hiring of camera-friendly coach Carroll from USC, and a blizzard of moves during the draft season. However, much of this team remains the same four-win trainwreck it was a season ago, helmed by a warrior quarterback long past his prime. However, it will be the quietest move that ends up potentially paying the biggest dividends for this team: the hiring of the modern master of zone-blocking, Alex Gibbs.
Gibbs’s scheme was the driving force that turned the Denver Broncos into a factory of powerhouse running backs, and he has since worked his magic in Atlanta — coaxing 3,600 yards out of Warrick Dunn’s old bones in three seasons — and Houston. With a mostly broken pass offense, the Seahawks will be looking to a trio of backs led by the shifty Justin Forsett to carry the load. If Gibbs’ schemes take in Seattle, they’ll get the job done. If not, we might be looking at the division’s next one-win team.
#3: Alan Faneca (+/- 2 wins)
Faneca is that rare difference-maker at guard, who brings a track record of offensive improvement with him wherever he goes. However, he was a casualty of a bold makeover in New York that saw the Jets dump their leading rusher (Thomas Jones) and most famous run-blocker (Faneca). His arrival in Arizona comes just in time to help transform their offense from a downfield aerial attack to a grind-it-out run game built around bellcow Beanie Wells and third-down threat Tim Hightower.
Matt Leinert is essentially a known commodity — a middling and rusty quarterback who is not a very good decision maker on or off the field. The team’s receiving corps is still led by Larry Fitzgerald, whose talent can erase more mistakes than perhaps any other player on the field, but the departure of Anquan Boldin takes away a very reliable target for the shaky-armed quarterback. They’ll need to rely on their run game like never before to stabilize their offense and keep the pressure off #7. That run game is now run through their powerful veteran presence at left guard. If he holds up.
#4: Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers (+/- 1.5 wins)
Crabtree’s prolonged holdout last season robbed him of having the kind of full impact we had predicted for him last year — with a full offseason working to build chemistry with the finally emerging Alex Smith, the dynamic receiver will have the chance to fully realize that potential. Ten touchdowns are not out of reach as Smith become more trusting of his young pass-catcher, especially in the red zone where he was so dangerous during his Texas Tech years.
The 49er offense is more than ready for him. During Crabtree’s ill-advised absence last season, Vernon Davis stepped in and had a huge breakout season. Look for Davis and Crabtree’s aerial exploits to make the running even easier for Frank Gore, and already powerful-enough threat with the additions of run-blocking monsters Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. Add that to a scary-good defense, and we’re looking at the new monsters of the division. But the difference between holding at the 8-9 win range and getting to the 10-11 wins it will take to make the playoffs could very well ride on the playmaking shoulders of #15.