For a few years now the NFC West has been considered the weakest division in the NFL, even though the Arizona Cardinals almost won a Super Bowl in 2008. It looks like 2011 could be a struggle just like 2010 when the entire division went 6-26 on the road, and a combined 25-39 overall. It was a point of discussion at the league level that a division winner with a losing record (Seattle at 7-9) might be considered for not getting a home playoff game. It was tabled for now but who knows in the future. This year there are even more compounding issues to deal with, as the division doesn't look like it's headed in the right direction.
A number of solid performers are no longer in the division. Former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who threw seven postseason touchdowns to just one interception and led his team to a win over the Saints, now plays for the Tennessee Titans, and former Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu was released. Also gone from the division are 49ers defenders Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements. They combined for 191 tackles, 6 interceptions, and 19 passes defended last season. The Cardinals watched former All-Pro guard Alan Faneca retire and traded away cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Rams didn't re-sign safety O.J. Atogwe, who now starts for the Redskins. Players leave teams in every division, but the NFC West couldn't afford to lose any good players, and in fact needed to add a significant number of quality players. On top of the departures are injuries to Cardinals rookie running back Ryan Williams, 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree and Seahawks offensive tackle Russell Okung. This division needs all hands on deck.
Now the division faces even a bigger hurdle than last year when it comes to scheduling, as all four teams have to face the NFC East and the AFC North. The only team of the eight in those two divisions with a losing record last year in nonconference games was the Cincinnati Bengals. Every NFC West team will now face the Steelers, Ravens, Eagles and Giants, who had a combined record of 44-20 last year and a 23-9 road record.
On paper, travel issues make things look bleak for the NFC West especially since the four teams make the three-time-zone, west-to-east trip 16 times and play at 1 p.m. eastern time in 13 of those games. That is a recipe for disaster.
After my camp tour the one team that appears to have the manpower to break the ugly cycle of misfortune in the NFC West appears to be the St. Louis Rams. Sam Bradford is under center and getting better by the game. In the first four weeks of the season they get the Eagles, Redskins and Ravens at home, and their only road game is a MNF game at the Giants. At the end of the season they may be 8-8 or with a little luck 9-7 but with the 49ers and Seahawks dealing with quarterback issues and with Arizona trying to get Kevin Kolb up and running, it could be the year of the Rams, with fewer people taking shots at the NFC West.