Last week, we kicked off our Water Cooler series with the East divisions of the NFC and AFC. Today we shift our gaze to the West Coast and review the stories of the teams in the NFC West.
Back in February, I placed the Arizona Cardinals in the “Stormy Seas” category in my review of each team’s quarterback situation. Not much has changed in the last six months, as there is no clear winner in the starting QB battle. Starter Kevin Kolb, who needs to prove his worth after getting a $65 million contract in 2010, left the Hall of Fame game (the preseason opener) with a rib injury. Unfortunately, the play on which he got hurt was his only highlight—that is, it was the only completion he made. Kolb completed only one pass in four attempts, and threw an interception on the Cardinals’ first possession (so, technically, he had two completions).
Part of the blame for Kolb's performance, however, can be placed on the shoulders of the offensive line, who forced Kolb to scramble on the play that resulted in him being driven to the ground by the Saints’ Sedrick Ellis (left). John Skelton, who he led the Cardinals to a 5-2 record while Kolb was out with injuries in 2011, performed well, completing four of six passes for 32 total yards. In the second preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs, however, neither QB outperformed the other; combined, they completed four out of eleven passes for a total of fifty-six yards.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The Niners, under freshman coach Jim Harbaugh, came achingly close to the Super Bowl last season—they lost to ultimate SB winners New York Giants in overtime in the NFC Championship Game. This year, the reports from camp indicate that everyone is serious about continuing their momentum from last year; even Super Bowl aspirations seem realistic. The big news this offseason is the team’s expansion of its wide receiver corps, including veterans Mario Manningham and Randy Moss (above), the latter of which has been looking for a forever home ever since he first parted ways with the Minnesota Vikings in 2004. Whereas accusations of a me-first attitude and lack of work ethic had followed Moss* around the league, Harbaugh and the Niners players have had nothing but positive things to say about their new teammate: not only has he been a hard worker, but he has also been willing to mentor the team's younger players, like draft pick A.J. Jenkins. Whether this new Moss attitude will translate to on-the-field performance is a question that won’t really be answered until the regular season gets underway.
In other down-but-not-quite-out news, the Seattle Seahawks, in what some might call a desperation move, recently signed beleaguered receiver Terrell Owens, who last played in the NFL in 2010. The Seahawks have some confidence issues at the other skill positions on offense: nearly their entire group wide receivers is new to the team (Sidney Rice, who was with the team last year, is still getting over a shoulder injury, so he might as well be new); never mind that Pro Bowler running back Marshawn Lynch (#24, with head coach Pete Carroll) has a DUI accusation (that he is fighting) handing over his head.
Many believed that newly-hired Matt Flynn (from the Green Bay Packers) would easily win the starting quarterback position from incumbent QB Tavaris Jackson. However, his performance in the 'Hawks first preseason game, against the Titans, brings the idea of a quarterback competition back into play. Flynn played the entire first half and only threw for 71 yards, including one interception. Rookie Russell Wilson (#3, above) performed well when he took over in the second half; not only did he throw the ball well (once for a touchdown), but he also ran for 59 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown play. Tavaris Jackson did not play.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Even after going the last six seasons without a playoff win, and only amassing fifteen wins with sixty-five losses in the last five seasons, Rams fans and observers have new hope for 2012, embodied in the form of new Head Coach Jeff Fisher (below). In his sixteen years with Tennessee Oilers/Titans, Fisher only had five losing seasons; his teams won three division titles and made it to one Super Bowl (a heartbreaking loss to—guess who?—the Rams!). Even without the arrival of Jeff Fisher, though, Rams fans could say that things could only get better after a 2-14 season last year.
Just like last year, though, St. Louis will continue to look to third-year quarterback Sam Bradford for salvation. Bradford, the Rams’ #1 overall pick of the 2010 draft, has already proven he has the skill set to succeed in the NFL. The issue to follow through the preseason, and into the regular season, is whether the Rams offensive line has made necessary improvements. This unit has let Bradford experience a bone-rattling 159 knockdowns (that’s sacks plus hits) in the last two seasons. If the Rams’ O-line can keep Bradford off the turf long enough, expect good things from the Rams offense.
The defensive side is showing signs of improvement as well, with the addition of veteran Cortland Finnegan (left) at cornerback. Finnegan, who played under Fisher as a Titan, has only missed three games in the last six seasons, so he will hopefully bring some much-needed consistency to the cornerback position, which was lacking last year with an injury-prone roster. Also keep an eye on the younger guys on defense, like James Laurinaitis at middle linebacker (in his third year) and Robert Quinn at defensive end (in his second year), to see if they have come into their own.
*Which may explain why Randy Moss has been a favorite subject of numerous rap artists, as discussed in guest contributor Gary Hailey’s post, “Rapping Up: Football and Hip-Hop.”