So, you’re a Cardinal fan.
You want to believe that the team’s newest direction is the right direction: A new head coach with a track record as an assistant for winning; a more aggressive offensive plan; a new quarterback; and a bright young general manager who’s already made more shrewd moves in one offseason than the previous regime had in five.
But no matter how excited you want to be for the future of your Arizona Cardinals, wherever you turn some NFL analyst is popping up on radio or television to remind you that the two best teams in the NFC are your division rivals, San Francisco and Seattle. And if that isn’t bad enough, they then remind you how these two teams are only going to get better as young quarterbacks Colin Kapernick and Russell Wilson develop. And if THAT weren’t bad enough, then you have to hear that the St. Louis Rams could have the brightest future of all the teams in the NFC West.
What the hell happened? Three years ago, Seattle won this division with a 7-9 record. Now, finding wins in the NFC West is like finding a comfortable spot for a picnic in Syria.
Ok, so the Niners and Hawks are good. That much is obvious. But the Rams? Surely, they’re not ready to join the league’s elite. Right?
Never underestimate the addition of an elite head coach. During his first season on the job, Jeff Fisher coached one of the youngest teams in football to a 5.5 game improvement. Plus, the Rams finished a division-best 4-1-1 against NFC West opponents.
In one year under Fisher, the Rams improved from 22nd overall defensively to 14th. They went from 31st against the run to 15th. And they improved from 14th in the league in sacks to first. That’s right: First. And they did this with a front four that is so young, 27-year old defensive end Chris Long is the old guy. Now Long knows what Donnie Wahlberg must have felt like for all those years.
Offensively, similar leaps occurred for the Rams in 2012. Total offense — 31st to 23rd. Passing — 30th to 18th. Rushing — 23rd to 19th. And this fall, the team has added rookie sensation Tayvon Austin and a former Pro-Bowl left tackle in Jake Long. No wonder experts are claiming Bradford will finally have his breakout year.
The Rams are now THE youngest team in the NFL, and yet they are expected to be decidedly improved.
Second-year players Michael Brockers (DT) and Janoris Jenkins (CB) are back as starters. Rookies Alec Ogletree (OLB) and TJ McDonald (FS) are in the opening-day lineup. And the dude with the greatest upside on the Rams roster is third-year defensive end Robert Quinn, who has 15.5 career sacks and is still just 22 years old.
Young, hungry and growing. That sums up Jeff Fisher’s St. Louis Rams.
Could they stub their toe in 2013? Absolutely. But most agree that it’s not likely. And then in 2014? Watch out.
I’m not sure what was planted in NFC West soil three years ago, but the division has developed into the most fertile real estate in the league.
The Cardinals may have sniffed out the right direction, but their division rivals have a two-year head start.