The much maligned NFC West has been the butt of many jokes over the past decade, and despite recent history providing us with a Superbowl runner-up Arizona in 2008 and last year's 13-3 San Francisco team, the general consensus is that the NFC West is still the weakest division in the NFL (cough cough *AFC South*). Even with the draft and free agency firmly in the rear view mirror, the NFC West is still an enigma. The Arizona Cardinals are quality quarterback production away from contending for the division title, but they are relying on Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. Seattle possess a scary ground n' pound game led by Marshawn Lynch and a criminally underrated defence, but have also underachieved in a poor division. St Louis are only two years removed from just missing the playoffs with Rookie of the Year quarterback Sam Bradford, but he has proven to be 95% glass. San Francisco come into this season with an unchanged defence that nearly led to a Superbowl, but questions remain of Alex Smith's ability to take them to the next level. You could ask John Madden and a four year old child for their NFC West predictions, and truthfully the correct answer may not come from the videogame mogul we all know and love. Such is the mystery of the NFC West. That being said, beyond all the confusion are some important keys that could very well decide who comes out of the West with the division crown.
Quarterback PlayYes, I know, the importance of quarterback play can apply to any football team, in any country, on any planet, in any universe. [caption id="attachment_15822" align="alignright" width="220" caption="Can Alex Smith develop into a big play quarterback?"][/caption] However, there is no division in football with a murkier quarterback situation than the NFC West. Seattle were meant to have solved their quarterback quandary with the free agency acquisition of Matt Flynn, but Pete Carroll's competitively mentality got the better of him and now we have a three man open competition between Flynn, Tavaris Jackson and 3rd round pick Russell Wilson. Arizona have had four starters in two years with Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton and Kevin Kolb all taking regular season snaps. This quartet combined for 26 td's and 36 interceptions over this two year period. For the Cardinals to be competitive they need to make use of perennial All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald as well as immensely talented rookie Michael Floyd, and step one is getting the football in their hands. In St Louis, it is of grave importance that Sam Bradford shakes off the injury prone tag he received during his tenure at Oklahoma as this team is going no where without him on the field. As for the defending NFC West champion 49ers, Alex Smith must prove that last season was not an anomaly and that he deserved his contract extension. Following up a 13-3 season as well as San Francisco making a concerted effort to improve firepower in their wide receiving corps has added extra pressure to a quarterback who so far in his career has shown a penchant to struggle with prosperity.
Development of Left TacklesAmong the NFC West teams, only the 49ers possess a true elite Left Tackle, that being 2012 Pro Bowler Joe Staley. To say that the other teams have question marks at the position is an understatement. Arizona tackle Levi Brown has underachieved after being drafted 5th overall in 2007, to such an extent that he was released and the re-signed at a lower price this past off season. St Louis' Roger Saffold is a reputable hard worker, having beaten out former number two pick Jason Smith for the starting spot, however there are questions about where his ceiling is as a player. Seattle's Russell Okung could well wind up being the best left tackle in the league in a couple years time. Okung has freakish size, speed and lateral movement but has been unable to remain healthy and will be returning from a torn pectoral muscle, a notoriously difficult injury for a position so dependant on short range explosive power. Against NFC West pass rushers such as Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Chris Clemons, Jason Jones as well as 2012 pro bowlers Justin and Aldon Smith, the development of these young tackles is crucial to the outcome of the division as it directly affects already shaky quarterback situations.
Special TeamsPersonally, I dont see the NFC West being overly powerful offensive division. [caption id="attachment_15823" align="alignright" width="243" caption="Peterson provided the Cardinals with a much needed spark in 2011."][/caption] I think the quarterback play will still prove underwhelming and result in an over reliance of the running game going against underrated NFC West defences. Subsequently, these low scoring games could very well come down to what is achieved on kick and punt returns. Last season, Cardinals cornerback and kick returner Patrick Peterson achieved a record four punt return touchdowns en route to being named in the 2012 Pro Bowl. 49ers returner Ted Ginn Jr. single handedly dismantled the Seahawks in week one, last season by returning both a 102 yard kickoff and 55 yard punt for touchdowns. Seahawk Leon Washington has seven return touchdowns to his career, three of which came in debut season with Seattle in 2010. Having such dangerous return specialists in the division means that games can be turned on their head within a matter of seconds.
The team that can consistently perform in these three areas will have the best chance to play football at home come early January. And that, is how the West will be won.