I remember the good old days when we used to laugh with disdain at the AFC West. One time, when I was an undergrad at an undisclosed Mountain West school, I was listening to a sports radio show in Denver with Alfred Williams as the featured guest, when a listener called in to proclaim the AFC West to be the WAC Conference of the NFL. It was no small insult as the WAC's biggest schools - Colorado State, Wyoming, BYU - had just pulled out of the conference, leaving them with powerhouses such as...well, the kind of school you don't even remember. Needless to say, Alfred Williams got a little bent out of shape and walked right into the caller's astute jabs. It was hilarious.
Times change; what comes around, goes around, etc., etc. etc. The AFC West has come a long way, and Alfred Williams might find some recourse (if only he had the guy's number) to switch the caller's comparison to the NFC West. In a Monday article, Football Outsiders looked at the NFC West of 2006 as part of their assessment of the worst divisions in league history (based on team DVOA).
The NFC West features prominently in the study, appearing three times in the overall bottom five, 2006 (4th), 2005 (3rd), and 2004 (1st). I wouldn't blame you if you passed on this; after all, do we really want to remember the 2005 Rams? However, you should definitely give this your time as it's a pretty insight look back at some interesting football and league parity.
Interesting note about last year's Rams though. In the opening graphs of the article, the author reminds us again that the Rams were a better team than last year's division winning Seahawks, at least in terms of DVOA. The Seahawks sweep of the Rams can partly be credited to luck and a poor play here and there (i.e. the SEA punt return in the second game).
But it's a new year now, and, on paper at least, the NFC West teams have stepped up. The Rams added offensive talent, and hopefully made enough moves on defense to be mediocre. Additions such as Todd Johnson and Dante Hall should make our special teams units, on both sides of the ball, greatly improved as well. The Niners also underwent a substantial upgrade, and the growth of players like Alex Smith and Frank Gore should make them a pretty formidable opponent. The Cardinals made some moves and also have some young talent, namely Leinart and a WR troup of Fitzgerald and Bouldin, which should only be getting better. Seattle could well be the odd man out in the division this season. At the very least, the NFC West shouldn't be the worst division in the league again this season. Right?
Parity's become the hallmark of the NFL, and scouring the list of divisions, I don't think there's really a truly weak one this season, like the NFC West of seasons past. The NFC South looks the worst on paper, except for what should be a really good New Orleans team.
Teams can fall from grace pretty quickly, over the course of a season or two really, and the climb back to respectability takes a few season, on average, if a team's managed well. This offseason, we've spent most of our time discussing the actual players on the field, but we can't emphasize enough that the real turn around for this team was starting a new chapter in its history with Linehan AND a run of good management decisions. It's definitely a new era for the Rams, and that should mean a new era for the NFC West too.