Grading offense in the NFC West

This week, I reconvened with the NFC West bloggers for a look at the big picture of each offense. The only team in the division, right now, with an offense that is ready to charge out of the gate is the Cardinals. The rest of the teams, including our own Rams, have big question marks that won't be answered fully until the season starts. San Fran dramatically overvalues their QBs and Vernon Davis, and I wouldn't put too much faith in Housh, Branch and Hasselbeck in Seattle. I gave the Rams a D, which I think is a bit under the mark, but until we see the o-line gel and Bulger get back to respectability, they don't get the benefit of the doubt. That said, I think both things will happen for the Rams. Grades and analysis after the jump.

 

Arizona Cardinals
Blogger: cgolden

The Arizona Cardinals offense could simply be described as night and day. In the dark is the league's worst rushing attack from one year ago but standing right next to the 'ugly sister' is the second best passing attack. The two units combine to form an offense that ranked fourth in yards per game and third in points per game. The Cardinals also have the advantage of nine returning starters on the offensive side of the ball, with the only exceptions coming at running back and fullback, and the average age of starters is under 28 years old. 

Running Game: When you look at the group as a whole, the only significant change is a running back where they basically traded a highly accomplished running on the downside of his career (if not completely washed up) for a highly unproven back with loads of potential. Whether or not that ends up being an upgrade is almost irrelevant in my mind because the league's worst rushing attack can't get worse, at least by definition. There is a glimmer of hope that the running game will improve based on the fact that the same offensive line is returning with another year of experience. With slightly better blocking from the line, a bigger potential to break off longer runs and play calling that leans closer to 'balanced' there's a greater than zero chance that the running game could crawl out of the cellar and approach respectability, but make no mistake about the fact that the offense will go through the right arm of Kurt Warner as long as he's under center. 

Passing Game: Ah the bread of butter of the Redbirds offense. If the Cardinals are successful in 2009, it'll be because Kurt Warner and his host of standout receivers had another great year. Warner's age and complete lack of mobility will always be a concern but when he's able to stand upright in a well formed pocket and sling it down the field, there are few better. The talent at receiver (Larry FitzgeraldAnquan Boldin,Steve BreastonJerheme Urban and Early Doucet) is the best in the NFL and the group can excel in every aspect of the passing game. They've got the guys who can move the chains (Boldin), stretch the field (Breaston) and guys who are capable of both (Fitzgerald). If the Cardinals can get any production out of the tight end position, there's no reason to think this passing game couldn't be top five, if not much better, again this season. 

Play Calling: I include this aspect of the offense because many Cardinals fans will point to the play calling as a big reason why the running game was so ineffective last season. The Cardinals too often ran in predictable situations and formations that were tailored to the passing game instead of success on the ground.  By season's end most of us were completely fed up with draw plays out of the shotgun formation, but it's a fine line between what's good for the ground game versus what's good for the passing game. One thing that we'll all have to accept is that any offense led by Kurt Warner will be pass first pass second, regardless of how often head coach Ken Whisenhunt talks about a balance offense, but there are some ways that the play calling can help put the running game in better situations. 

Overall I think this offense will do more than it's fair share to put the Arizona Cardinals in a position to win most of the games that they play. Regardless of whatever balance they end up with at season's end, this group is going to put up it's fair share of points and the short passing game does a decent job of bleeding the clock most of the time. In an ideal situation, I'd like to think that the running game could creap up to around 20th in the league (an increase of about 34 yards per game) and the passing game would still stay in the top five. The net effect would be an offense that is downright deadly, but only time will tell. As for a grade, I'd like to think that a unit that is top five in yards per game and points per game would be considered an A, but the league's worst rushing attack has to be factored in so I'll stick with a B.

 

Seattle Seahawks
Blogger: John Morgan

Mike Holmgren is one of the great all-time evaluators of offensive talent. Nevertheless, many believe his departure will be good for Seattle’s offense. As general manager Tim Ruskell began to remake the Seahawks roster in his image, the discord between Ruskell’s talent and Holmgren’s scheme became increasingly pronounced. Last season, Holmgren’s team was losing with Ruskell’s roster. Ruskell signed Greg Knapp and for the first time in his administration, there is harmony between the offensive coaching staff and the front office. That works if anyone knows what they’re doing.

Running Game:
 Seattle is installing a zone blocking system. Players have gushed over how it fits their skills and will take them to the next level, and maybe it does. I don’t expect a professional athlete to say otherwise. The key to any system working is fit and talent. A zone blocking system can take many shapes, and until we see how Seattle executes it, much less who executes it, it’s hard to say how well it will fit the team’s personnel. If Seattle sticks with Mike Wahle at left guard and Chris Spencer at center, it has a core of athletic blockers that are good in space. If Unger wins out at left all the better, especially for the pass offense.

I thought Julius Jones was a better fit for Holmgren’s man-blocking, cutback heavy style. Both systems emphasize vision. Jones should do well finding holes and picking his way to positive yards in a zone blocking scheme, but I do not expect a breakout or mid-career renaissance. T.J. Duckett has good vision for a power back, almost looking picky at times, and should more than adjust in Knapp’s system. He should flourish.

Passing Game:
 It all comes down to Matt Hasselbeck, doesn’t it? Passing offense correlates better with wins than any other single component of football. Seneca Wallace, a Charlie Frye sighting and a broken Hasselbeck doomed Seattle to its worst season since 1992. If Hasselbeck is healthy, stays healthy, and hasn’t grown old overnight, Seattle has a worthy shot of fielding a top ten passing offense. It did as recently as 2007. This season, its skill position players are much improved. In fact, every position except fullback has a better receiving option than Seattle had in 2007.

Play Calling: Play calling is pretty hard to qualify with any confidence. There was a sense that in some way the NFL had passed Holmgren by, but it’s possible he just couldn’t work with the players he was given. It’s possible the players he was given just sucked.

The Seahawks are lousy with accomplished players, and should it collapse it will be because accomplishment requires age and Seattle's offense is old. But it takes some kind of pessimist to ignore the great potential. Hasselbeck can still be a very good quarterback. T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deion Branch form a very good starting wide receiver duo. There’s talent at slot. John Carlson is one of the best young tight ends in football. Jones and Duckett are both young and healthy. The risk is enough to force me to call Seattle only an average offense, but the potential is enough to makethis "C" look very foolish come January.

 

San Francisco 49ers
Blogger: Fooch

The San Francisco 49ers offense is viewed by most as anemic at best.  They're on their seventh offensive coordinator in an as many seasons and still trying to figure out which quarterback is the answer.  Or at least which is the answer for 2009.  The lone bright spot on this offense has been Frank Gore, who has seen his rushing totals decrease the last two seasons after setting the franchise record in 2006.  Shaun Hill and Alex Smith continue to leave fans either frustrated or defensive about the QB situation, and the offensive line went from stellar in 2006, to sort of blah more recently.

Running Game: The rushing game has been the highlight for the 49ers since drafting Frank Gore.  This will play an even bigger role in the offense of new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye.  Coach Singletary has stated that he wants a bruising running game, as opposed to a light 'em up passing attack.  Most fans are hoping the offensive line has been solidified with recent additions because Frank the tank most definitely cannot make it happen all by himself.  One quiet offseason move that has made Gore quite happy is the return of fullback Moran Norris.  Norris was exiled with the entrance of Mike Martz, but a return to a strong rushing attack requires the fullback skills Norris brings to the table.  Aside from the offensive line, the big question is whether Glen Coffee will provide a sufficient alternative to keep Gore fresh and keep defenses off balance.  Nobody can say for sure so we'll just have to wait for the season to get going.

Passing Game: I really don't think I need to say much about the 49ers QBs.  Non-49ers fans (and even a group of 49ers fans) think the Hill/Smith combo is a joke.  However, again, if the offensive line can keep up its end of the bargain, the passing attack only needs to complement the rushing attack.  The 49ers do not need to have Shaun Hill throw for 4,000+ yards to make the playoffs.  As long as Hill can avoid stupid the mind-numbing mistakes of J.T. O'Mulligan, this offense should be in "good enough" shape.  The receiving corps is extremely young, aside from Isaac Bruce, but improvement will be seen.  I realize I'm basing this more on potential than production, but guys like Morgan, Hill and Davis bring serious talent to the table.  I think the odds are higher that they improve rather than stagnate or regress.  I know my fans at Field Gulls will disagree, but that's the glory of debate.

Play Calling: This is an issue for the 49ers simply because of the new offensive coordinator....again.  Under Jimmy Raye, what kind of play-calling will we see?  Coach Singletary wants a smash mouth running game, but will he and Raye force that kind of game even if it's clearly not working?  Will Jimmy Raye truly use Vernon Davis as a more traditional receiving tight end, rather than a receiver?  Every offensive coordinator speaks of the talent of Davis, but then proceeds to under-utilize him.  Jimmy Raye and the play-calling becoming the ultimate question mark for this offense in 2009.  The right play-calling will put Hill/Smith in a position to be successful.  Maybe not Pro Bowl successful, but again, this team does not need that from their quarterback.

Although there are a lot of question marks, suggesting the performance in 2009 requires making guesses on the answers to those questions.  I won't suggest that this offense is going to explode like nobody would believe and leave the 49ers ranked at the top of the league.  It is simply not built to be that kind of offense and I am fine with that.  I think there's a good chance we'll see a good to very good rushing attack and a middle of the road passing attack.  If that comes to fruition, the 49ers will be in good shape.  Accordingly, I'll give them a grade of C.  It might not quite jive with my individual grades, but that's life.

 

Turf Show Times
Blogger: VanRam


Like everything else in the dawn of this rebuilding era, the Rams offense is marked by...question marks, what else. The Greatest Show on Turf era died a slow and torturous death over the last few seasons as players got old and injured, coaches came and went, and past drafts failed to restock the talent pool. The front office tried a "win-now" strategy with those rusty parts, and now they're enjoying a forced retirement in the team's original sunny SoCal home. 

Running Game: With Steven Jackson, the Rams have the main ingredient for a top notch running game. The new regime knows that, and has spent considerable effort and dollars to make the blocking game more physical and aggressive as part of a new offensive system that will make Jackson the point from which all offense flows. The question mark here is health. Jackson missed time in each of the last two seasons. That has fantasy drafters worried, but the handful of people who watched the Rams last year know that much of SJ's injury problems came about as a result of the offensive line, or lack thereof, which forced him to shoulder more of the load. He still topped 1,000 yards in 12 games for one of the two worst offenses in the league. If Jackson stays healthy, additions like C Jason Brown and FB Mike Karney will be remembered as masterstrokes. 

Passing Game: Here's where it gets really complicated. The Rams have (some would say had) an accurate QB with a good arm, a guy who has proven himself...before he got sacked over and over again. In the last two seasons, Bulger has made poor throws and poor decisions in the pocket, some of which can be blamed on the line, some on the QB. His accuracy got better last year, back in line with career norms, and if he can adjust to the new offense and get comfortable behind a rebuilt o-line he should get back to respectability. Of course, he'll still need someone to throw to. Jackson and TE Randy McMichael will be the main targets in the new West Coast offense. The receivers, led by second year man Donnie Avery, are the next big question mark. Can they produce with such limited experience? Avery will be used as more of a playmaking type, while Keenan Burton and the guys behind him are expected to fall into the all important chain-mover possession role. 

Play calling: It's a new offensive system under Pat Shurmur, one that will look a lot like what the Eagles have been using. It success  will depend on, in addition to the things mentioned above, how well the players pick it up. If they can establish the running game with Jackson, things should fall into place. Regardless, it may be another season before it hits on all cylinders. 

Even with so many dangling plots sewn into it, the Rams offense, at last, has a vision to strive for and a pattern to guide it. How far it gets this season remains to be seen, but at least the team and fans will learn what they have and what they need as a new era unfolds. Grade D

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