You can call it east coast bias if you want. Hell, if you want to be geographically accurate, you can call it midwest bias. Jim Morrison clearly did not watch much football, or he would have never said that the west is the best.
1. San Francisco 49ers OTC Projected Record: 9-7
Calling Card: Toughness
Franchise Player: Frank Gore
Every year it seems like the 49ers are finally going to make that push to become a team to be reckoned with out west. Every year they get off to a great start. Every year they implode. Is this year different? If so why? Can Alex Smith take advantage of Ted Ginn Jr.’s speed out wide or was that a bad pickup? Can Frank Gore stay healthy enough to be the focal point of the offense every week? Can Michael Crabtree continue to progress entering his first full year? Can the defense keep improving and make enough progress to keep the offense in games? All these are legitimate questions about the 49ers, but after looking through it, there are just enough “yes” answers to win the 49ers the division.
Mike Singletary made it very clear last year that his team would be a physical team that would ram it down your throat. This year, Singletary claims that the offense will be much more balanced between the pass and the run. Forgive me for not believing him. Alex Smith can be just fine as a west coast type quarterback who can make short, accurate throws, but he is not going to go out there and sling it 25 times on the way to a 49ers win. This team was built on the running game, and while mixing in the pass is a good idea, this offense will still be a run-first unit. Frank Gore has had a hard time carrying that load, but the addition of Brian Westbrook (another guy with injury issues) helps out a lot. He is a great receiver, and carrying a backup’s share should mean fewer injuries for the versatile Westbrook. Ted Ginn was probably not the right idea for a quarterback with as weak an arm as Smith, but I like the thought. The 49ers do not really have a deep threat, and Ginn is that if nothing else. He should help stretch defenses and keep safeties occupied, but I would not expect to much out of him as far as statistics are concerned. Crabtree, however, should have a pretty solid season as he is the possession and explosion type guy that Smith can get the ball to without having to throw it 30 yards downfield. Vernon Davis will also be excellent this year as he remains Alex Smith’s favorite option. I think this offense, while it may not show up statistically, will be one of the more effective units around.
I also have to once again tip my cap to Mike Singletary for picking 2 offensive linemen (Anthony Davis at 11 and Mike Iupati at 17) in the first round of the draft. There is no better and safer investment than an offensive lineman. More holes for Gore to run through, more time for Smith, more toughness. Love it.
This is another unit I am high on, especially within the division. They are nowhere near the level of some of the best defenses in the league, but they do not have the toughest schedule, and are actually pretty good. The secondary underperformed last year, but there were also some injury problems that made things difficult. Patrick Willis is one of, if not the, best linebackers in the league, and the front 7 is just very good in general. I think that the secondary can tighten up just enough to keep opposing offenses from feasting and provide some help in the running game (via Taylor Mays) to let the front 7 go get the QB more instead of worrying about run-stuffing. Not a great unit, but a very solid bunch of guys who will not be tested too strenuously too often.
This is an area that was already solid for the 49ers, but got better with the addition of Ted Ginn Jr. Special Teams. will play a big part if they are to be successful this season.
Not an elite team by any means, but the best out west. Singletary will keep his guys focused and they will be playoff bound for the first time in a while.
2. Seattle Seahawks OTC Projected Record: 7-9
Calling Card: Questionable
Franchise Player: Matt Hasselbeck
The big issue I face when trying to project the Seahawks is whether or not I can trust Pete Carroll. Will he figure it out this time around? Is his quality drafting a sign he is ready? Is his game plan at USC (a strong running game accompanied by a strong passing game) going to be put in place at the pro level? Can he keep Golden Tate out of doughnut shops? All these questions are legitimate ones, and just like the 49ers, there are a lot of answers that are affirmative. Just not enough.
I am going to assume Matt Hasselbeck stays healthy for a good portion of the year, because if he doesn’t all bets are off with Charlie Whitehurst. Why do I think he will be healthy after failing to stay healthy so many times in teh recent past? Because Carroll will ask less of him than Jim More Jr. or Mike Holmgren did. Carroll loves to run the football, and more running game means more time int he pocket (generally speaking) and fewer hits. With that being said, however, there is a definite question of who will take over in the backfield. Justin Forsett has shown promise, but not consistency. Julius Jones is well past his prime but still listed as RB1 on the depth cahrt. Leon Washington can be explosive, but not necessarily dependable. Who takes over and keeps Carroll’s offense moving the sticks? If I had to pick one, I would bet on Forsett, but I am not altogether sold that any one of them can step up and be the horse that drags this offense down the field.
While Carroll likes to run it, and made additions to the offensive line in the draft to help that (Russell Okung), there is still talent out wide. TJ Houshmandzzadeh is still solid despite having seen better days, and Golden Tate, to me looks like a combination between Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith, just not quite as good as either at this point. As far as I am concerned, Deion Branch is done, but he could still be a solid slot option if Tate is able to move out wide. The offense will not always be pretty as they are probably still working some of the kinks out, but I think it can be at least decent and able to put more points on the board than the Sounders (yes, that was an MLS reference. No, I can’t believe I made it either).
This defense needed help in the passing game, and voila Earl Thomas. The young playmaking safety out of Texas should give the secondary some immediate help as Lofa Tatupu returns from injury and the front 7 look to return to their usually-solid form. I think this defense, like the offense, can be pretty respectable this year, and while it will not be a top 10 unit, it can do just enough to win some games. I cannot get too high or low on the Seahawks since they had so many injuries last year and a new regime is coming in, but I think the record looks about right given the personnel and other factors.
Not great in the return game. Tough conditions to kick in. Not a great unit.
A bounce back year for the Seahawks as they look to rejuvenate a demoralized Seattle. Following in the footsteps of the Storm, the Seahawks should be able to win enough games to give the people hope. Wait did I just make a MLS reference and a WNBA reference in the same section? Oh no. Scroll down before I make a Major League Lacrosse reference. Not that you would get it even if I did… I would have to be pretty Stealthy. I’m sorry. Keep reading, I’m done I promise.
3. Arizona Cardinals OTC Projected Record: 6-10
Calling Card: Defense (sort of)
Franchise Player: Larry Fitzgerald
As I write this, the presumed starter entering camp, Matt Leinart, looks sure to get traded. You think Arizona has QB issues? Everyone expected a drop off when Kurt Warner left, but few expected Derek Anderson to be a sign of the magnitude of the drop off. Even with that being said, the Cardinals have proven to have a solid coaching staff that I think will do the reasonable thing with the offense and run it more, and enough experienced and skilled players that I do not think the Cardinals will disintegrate without Mr. Warner. As it always seems to be in Arizona, this season will really be a test of if the leaders of the team can handle the heat.
I expect a major shift here. Arizona cannot throw the ball 35 times a game with Derek Anderson at QB. If they do, and he is not just incredible, they will be drafting in the top 5 next year. It just will not work. However, the Cardinals have a fairly solid core of backs to turn to, lead by Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower. Some would doubt that a zebra can change its stripes, but I think the more important question is if the Carinals are really a zebra (so to speak). Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt comes from Pittsburgh, the home of the power running game historically. I think he is seeing the same thing that everyone else is and that the Cardinals will become a team that runs first and uses it to set up the pass instead of the other way around. Their offensive line is pretty solid, and Beanie, when healthy, has the tools to be an every-down back capable of putting up serious numbers. I believe the Cards will be a running team, if for no other reason, than the fact that their passing game will not be relevant.
In some senses, Cards fans should be relieved that Derek Anderson is going to be around because at least this keeps the vertical passing game around. Can you imagine Matt Leinart getting it down the field to Fitzgerald consistently? Me either. This is a boost for the vertical passing game, but it is still Derek Anderson.
It will be a change for the Cards, but not necessarily for the worst. Just the thought of a defense biting on play action and Larry Fitzgerald being one-on-one should have them salivating.
I initially had the Cards at 8-8 because their defense could step up and hold opponents in check while the offense took its time to score. However, this is a team losing its leader and leading tackler in Karlos Dansby and one of its highly skilled (and highly paid) safeties in Antrel Rolle. They did draft Dan Williams to go alongside Darnell Dockett, but they also brought in Joey Porter.
Let me be clear when I say this. Joey Porter is a one-trick pony, past his prime, who runs his mouth too much. He is not being asked to replace Karlos Dansby, and that is probably a good thing since he cannot. If it turns out that the Cardinals can fill those holes left by those guys, the defense will be solid, but if not, too much pressure will be placed on guys like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Adrian Wilson and the defense will crack.
Nothing too special here. The kicking game seems to be a year-by-year thing, and while it seems like the Cards are always blocking kicks, their return game is not that great.
A team that is one piece away from probably winning the division is unable to get that piece and falls to 6-10. I think that they are a decent team, but things are just looking very down because of the quarterback.
4. St. Louis Rams OTC Projected Record: 3-13
Calling Card: Steven Jackson
Weakness: Injuries to their limited talent base
Franchise Player: Steven Jackson (for now)
The Rams are in a tough spot. They do not have a great offensive line (though it is not nearly as bad as you would think), their star player misses at least 4 games a year with injury, their new QB has a history of shoulder injuries, and their best receiver injured his knee in the preseason. That is how you welcome a #1 pick QB. While it is unclear how Steve Spagnuolo will handle the many challenges in front of him, it is clear that whatever Sam Bradford does on the field, he will have earned every bit of it. Though not necessarily every bit of his contract…
This offense can be summed up in two words: Steven Jackson. When he is in, things seem to go almost smoothly for the Rams, though the defense does what it can to mess it up. However, he inevitably gets hurt, and the Rams are left in a position like last year where they really have nowhere to turn after he goes down. It really made Sam Bradford the natural pick, and it is looking more and more like he will start from day one in the Lou. He personally has the tools to be successful, but the Rams have not given him too much to work with. Donnie Avery is hurt, Most people would struggle to name two other receivers on the Rams (yes, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are gone). Jackson is a QB’s best friend since he can catch it and take the pressure off, but the question with the Rams is what they will do when he goes down. I don’t know. That is a big part of why they are projected to go 3-13. I have a lot of hope for Bradford down the line, but this will be a little like Stafford’s first year assuming he stays healthy. Not perfect by any means, but a real base to build on.
Here is the issue. James Laurinitis is solid. Oshiomogho Atogwe (OJ for short) is solid. Nai’l Diggs was solid at one point. The rest of the defense looks bad. Chris Long has not worked out like they expected and they seem to get gashed by everyone they play. It is the greatest show on turf, but the show is being put on by the opposition. The Rams have not been known for their defense since Deacon Jones, but this defense has a chance to be really bad even by Rams standards. I like the offense enough to put them on 6 wins (assuming Laurent Robinson and Danny Amendola can step up a little), but I dislike the defense enough to put them on 1 win. Let’s make it a sort of compromise and call it 3. Bad defense.
Pretty solid, but losing Avery doesn’t help. Kicking indoors is another bonus.
A team for the future, just not the immediate future. Maybe the new ownership will inject some enthusiasm back into eastern Missouri once again.