The battle of the NFC West is coming. Record crowds are gathering for their team's NFL training camps. Strategies for winning within the toughest division in the league are forming. The air is electrified, the skin of fans tingling with every catch, every hit, every pinpoint throw...
Make no mistake, this is something the NFC West hasn't seen since the division was realigned in 2002. All four teams can reasonably tout a potential Top 10 defense. Each has an offense on the verge of powerful, featuring integral players who haven't been in the league very long at all. Rookies and second year players hold the keys to driving this division; not long ago maligned as the worst in the NFL. If there's ever been a more exciting time to be a fan of the St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals or Seattle Seahawks as a group, let me know.
What makes this coming season so remarkable is the "unknowns". Even the division's Super Bowl representative from last season - the San Francisco 49ers - is rife with both promise and "what if-s". Seattle has the NFL media drooling over them, and rightly so. But fate's cruel hand reached out in an effort to remove any perceived certainty, removing Michael Crabtree and Percy Harvin from the board. The St. Louis Rams held sway within the division in 2012, and second year head coach Jeff Fisher appears to be going all-in with the youngest team in the NFL. Small and fast are the watchwords for the Rams, while Arizona is banking on a first time head coach in Bruce Arians to continue his post-Indianapolis winning ways.
There's been a great deal of discounting the Arizona Cardinals from the coming NFC West fray. Don't believe it for a second. Arians showed he could build an experienced coaching staff, and has made some of the best moves of any NFL team this off season. While I doubt Carson Palmer is Arians' long term ideal of a quarterback, he's definitely capable of throwing to one of the best receiving corps in the league. Everything - and I do mean EVERYTHING - will hinge on the Cardinals' offensive line. If they can block for the aging former first overall draft pick, Palmer could surprise the sporting world.
In San Francisco, head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will be the focal points. The 49ers' defensive is a solid mainstay, but their offense is bubbling with portent. Just how will they make up for the loss of Crabtree, and how prescient is the signing of free agent Anquan Bolden going to look at season's end? Bolden - a forgotten star in the media world - has shown he has the ability to rise to any winning occasion. Will he be enough though? Can Mario Manningham make it back in time to keep the 49ers' outside passing game from being a "one trick pony"? To my mind, the key to the 49ers passing game will rest on the shoulders of tight end/turned wide receiver Vernon Davis. While New England's Rob Gronkowski and "he who must not be named" Aaron Hernandez garnered most of the tight end headlines, Davis is - to me - the best at the position in the entire NFL. His shift to the outside - if successful - will create one of the great mismatch stories in the coming league year.
Why can't the Seattle Seahawks find a #1 wide receiver who'll stay healthy, and who isn't a former Minnesota Viking? They threw money - and draft picks - at the Vikings to rip away Harvin from the frozen north, all to see him fall to a potentially season ending hip injury at the start of training camp. Shades of the Sidney Rice acquisition? Could be, or it may be just a way-point to the team having a special group at wide receiver. Rice, Harvin, Golden Tate, and Doug Balwin - all healthy - would send shivers down the spine of any opposing team's defensive coordinator. Don't discount the remaining group though. Even without Harvin, this wide receiver corp will be better than they were in 2012. With a year under their Russell Wilson belts, odds are we'll see a more wide open passing attack with the Seahawks this year. Coupled with a solid - and "beastly" - Marshawn Lynch in the ground game, Seattle will be the team to beat in the NFC West.
The St. Louis Rams are going with the "lightning in a bottle" offense, and why not? They proved small, fast, "mite-sized" wide receivers were the Achilles heal of Seattle, Arizona and San Francisco in 2012. They'll be attacking with hard on the break-flash passes to set up the long ball, and quarterback Sam Bradford is raring to go. Well versed in his first EVER second year offensive scheme, the learning curve training wheels are off. While he'll miss security blanket receiver Danny Amendola, and the stout presence of running back Steven Jackson, no one can doubt there's an air of both expectancy and promise building in St. Louis. If the Rams settle their concerns at Safety, and tight end Jared Cook finds his potential, this team can be counted on to stay in the thick of the division hunt throughout 2013.
My prediction for the NFC West champ? A four way tie, with each team splitting their double meeting in 2013.
So fans of teams in the NFC West, put away your doubts and past dreads. Get ready to be rocked n' tilted each and every week this season. There's DEFINITELY: "Something happening here..."