The NFL is revving up again and there are fantasy drafts and office pools to be conducted and futures lines from online books to be consulted.
This is the beginning of an eight-part series on the league's divisions (don't call them previews!), featuring a look at each team's roster changes, 2011 statistics, and 2012 schedule occurrences to consider.
Everyone knows that this is a league where things can change drastically in a hurry for some teams — for nine straight years at least one team has gone from worst to first in their division — but it's still important to keep last season's stats in mind in many cases.
We begin with the NFC West, which appears to be comprised of an emerging power and three heavily flawed teams. The schedule has these four facing squads from the AFC East and NFC North. Which means all four teams will face Green Bay, New England and Detroit, who were a combined 38-10 in 2011.
Statistics refer to 2011 regular season games unless otherwise noted. Close games refer to games decided by seven or less points.
- Average wins, past 5 years: 8
- 2011 record: 8-8
- Record in close games: 8-5
- Avg. loss margin: 4.25 points
- Avg. win margin: 8.75 points
- Games with 20 or more points: 10
- Games with 20 or less allowed: 6
- End of season trend: 7-2
Good vibes: The fact they scored over 20 on 10 occasions would seem to indicate an offence that doesn't need a huge overhaul … The trend doesn't always hold into another season, but defence made big strides in second half of 2011 … Terrific return game last season … Best red zone defence in the NFC last year … Spent their top pick on a receiver, Michael Floyd, to take some heat off the great Larry Fitzgerald … Running back Beanie Wells is joined by Ryan Williams, a second round pick last year who didn't play due to a knee injury … Favourable, home-heavy first half of the schedule; wouldn't be a shocker to see them at 5-3 … Relatedly, play consecutive road games just once.
Caution signs: Uncertainty at quarterback … Won their 2011 games by average of just 4.25 points; only Cleveland was worse … Not only that, needed a fourth quarter comeback in six of their wins … Ranked 28th in sacks allowed on a per play basis … One of seven teams who never scored over 30 points last season … Were the quintessential "bend" defence: Didn't force many turnovers and gave up a lot of yards until stiffening inside their 20.
Who knows: Made a big to-do over relatively unproven ex-Eagle Kevin Kolb just a year ago. Will he rebound or will big John Skelton, 6-2 last year, get the call? Can tight end Todd Heap bounce back to provide more depth on offence? They played a whopping 13 close games last season: Did they learn to win, as the cliché goes, or did it mask a team just battling hard to be in the ballgame?
St. Louis Rams
- Average wins, past 5 years: 6.6
- 2011 record: 2-14
- Record in close games: 1-5
- Avg. loss margin: 15.8 points
- Avg. win margin: 5.5 points
- Games with 20 or more points: 3
- Games with 20 or less allowed: 4
- End of season trend: 0-7
Good vibes: Ditched the newbie coach approach of the last two hires to ink fiery Jeff Fisher, who's averaged nine wins per season in a long career … Thanks to the Redskins desperately wanting Robert Griffin, Rams had five picks in first three rounds in April, and also grabbed Washington's firsts in 2013 and 2014 … Sam Bradford says he's healthy and says goodbye to ill-suited OC Josh McDaniels … Drafted two rookie running backs to help spell Steven Jackson, who's averaged 285 carries last seven seasons … Made some unsexy but solid veteran pickups to help a young core group: cornerback Cortland Finnegan, 2011 Pro Bowl centre Scott Wells and linebacker Mario Haggan … Going from Gregg Williams to Dave McGinnis as DC may be a slight downgrade, but at least the Rams won't have players suspended for 2013!
Caution signs: Bradford is on the Alex Smith plan, working with his third offensive coordinator in three seasons … That coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer, who worked well with Drew Brees as QB coach in San Diego, but was OC in New York for Mark Sanchez, who had mixed results … Rams in 2011 were terrible against the run and terrible on special teams defence … Of the 20 or so receivers and tight ends listed on their summer roster, Steve Smith (little used last year in Philly) is the senior man with six years of experience … First six games of schedule overall not onerous and could provide a little bit of positivity, but the next six are brutal: Green Bay and New England back to back — albeit at home — plus both of their Niners games … Just a very young team overall, and recently Tampa Bay and San Francisco (until 2011) have shown what growing pains there can be … Even their kicker and punter are expected to be rookies.
Who knows: Really, just about everything is open to question except Fisher, Jackson and promising young defenders Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, a good reason not to expect the franchise's first winning season since 2003.
San Francisco 49ers
- Average wins, past 5 years: 7.8
- 2011 record: 13-3
- Record in close games: 6-2
- Avg. loss margin: 5 points
- Avg. win margin: 12.8 points
- Games with 20 or more points: 11
- Games with 20 or less allowed: 14
- End of season trend: 6-2
Good vibes: Alex Smith returns to work with the same coordinator (Greg Roman) as previous season. Finally! … More weapons for Smith to work with: veterans Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs, and high draft picks A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James … Best linebacker corps in the NFL, and they're all young … Defence held teams to under 20 in 12 games and under 10 in five, both tops in NFC … Huge turnover hawks last year and ranked fourth overall in red zone defence… Division mates still don't appear to be quite there yet.
Caution signs: Enjoyed a level of health that is unlikely to hold two years running … Smith threw only five interceptions, but Josh Freeman and David Garrard, among others, have shown that level of ball control usually isn't sustained the next year … Scored over 30 only three times last year … Only St. Louis was worse in the NFC in converting red zone plays into touchdowns … In addition to games against New England Green Bay, they also travel to New Orleans and host the Super Bowl champ N.Y. Giants … Begin the season with 1-2 games against 2011 playoff teams the Packers and fDetroit … For what it's worth, ESPN stats team says the NFC Championship runner-up hasn't won a playoff game the following season for eight years running.
Who knows? Can Smith and the offensive line cut down on a sack total that, per total plays, was 26th in the NFL … Smith doesn't have the new coordinator excuse to fall back on this time. The team had a dalliance with Peyton Manning, and Smith is due lots of money in April 2013 if retained.
- Average wins, past 5 years: 6.6
- 2011 record: 7-9
- Record in close games: 2-5
- Avg. loss margin: 9.8 points
- Avg. win margin: 13.4 points
- Games with 20 or more points: 10
- Games with 20 or less allowed: 8
- End of season trend: 5-3
Good vibes: Added Kellen Winslow, who's averaged 73 catches last six seasons … Whether they choose Matt Flynn or Russell Wilson at quarterback, most observers believe it's an upgrade over Tarvaris Jackson … Secondary group had goodly amount of interceptions, including some late season pick-6's that helped Seahawks average 27 points over last five games … Despite an offence that ranked just 28th in yards and kept them on the field a fair amount, defence was no worse than middle of the pack in most categories.
Caution signs: Thin receiver corps … Linebacker group not imposing … Gave up a lot of big special teams plays in 2011 … First half of the schedule looks a lot more imposing than second, with games against Green Bay, New England, San Fran, Detroit.
Who knows: Matt Flynn was signed after an awfully small NFL sample size and Wilson is a rookie, though both played in high pressure college games … While San Francisco and Arizona each play New England and Green Bay on the road, Seattle gets to host those two teams. Will it make a difference? Haven't changed coordinators on either side of the ball — will that provide needed stability or keep the group treading water?