The NFC West was universally considered the weakest division in the NFL last season. The Seahawks, Cardinals, 49ers and Rams combined to go 6-26 on the road and 25-39 overall. It was so bad that there was discussion at the league level that a division winner with a losing record (Seattle "won" the West at 7-9) might not automatically get a home playoff game.
Although that issue was tabled, it could very well be a point of contention again, as things continue to look bleak. Here are three reasons why the NFC West could be even worse in 2011:
1. A number of solid performers are no longer in the division. Most notably, former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who led Seattle to a stunning wild-card win over New Orleans, now plays for the Tennessee Titans. Seattle also released one of its defensive leaders, linebacker Lofa Tatupu. In San Francisco, gone are defenders Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements, who combined for 191 tackles, six interceptions and 19 passes defended last season. The Cardinals watched former All-Pro guard Alan Faneca retire and traded away cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the deal for Kevin Kolb. The Rams didn't re-sign safety O.J. Atogwe, who now starts for the Redskins.
Players leave teams in every division, sure, but the NFC West couldn't afford to lose any good players. In fact, the teams needed to add a significant number of quality players. On top of the departures, injuries have been an issue. Cardinals rookie running back Ryan Williams is on IR, 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree has been slowed by a foot issue and Seahawks offensive tackle Russell Okung hurt his ankle.
2. The schedule is even tougher. All four teams have to face the NFC East and the AFC North. Of the eight teams in those two stacked divisions, the only one that had a losing record in non-conference games last season was the Bengals. Every NFC West team will now face the Steelers, Ravens, Eagles and Giants, who had a combined record of 44-20 last year.
3. The travel looks brutal. On paper, travel issues make things look bleak for the NFC West. The four teams make the three-time-zone, west-to-east trip 16 times and play at 1 p.m. ET in 13 of those games. That is a recipe for disaster.
The one team with the manpower to break the ugly cycle of misfortune in the NFC West appears to be the Rams. Sam Bradford is under center and getting better by the game. In the first four weeks of the season, the Rams get the Eagles, Ravens and Redskins at home, with their only road game at the Giants on Monday night. An 8-8 or 9-7 record isn't out of the question in St. Louis. With San Francisco and Seattle dealing with quarterback issues and Kolb needing time to adjust in Arizona, the NFC West could be the Rams' to lose.