The NFC West’s counterinuitive resurgence

By returning to the stone age, the NFC West has returned to respectability.

After a historically humiliating 2010 campaign that saw the 7-9 Seahawks win the division and breach the playoffs, the NFC West rebounded dramatically in 2011 with much thanks to San Francisco’s surprise 13-3 run. The quartet improved from its composite 25-39 mark in 2010 to 30-34.

Epitomizing an apparent NFC West mentality, the one team that’s actually invested a first-rounder at quarterback in recent memory was the team dragging the division down. As I detailed for Sporting News prior to the 2012 NFL Draft, each Super Bowl champion of the past eight years has been built around a quarterback selected within the first 32 picks.

Below are counter-intuitive results in today’s pass-happy, QB-centric league.

NFC West Team: 2010 record—2011 record, 2011 pass offense ranking, opening day starting quarterback

San Francisco: 6-10—13-3, 29th in pass offense in 2011, Alex Smith battled for playing time with Troy Smith the previous year.

Arizona: 5-12—8-8, 17th, Kevin Kolb traded from Philly’s bench. Skelton would fill in erratically and through extreme fortune go 5-2 as starter, and had started the previous season as a backup to frickin’ Derek Anderson,

Seattle: 7-9—7-9, 22nd, Tarvaris Jackson a Minnesota backup the previous year coming off a season-ending injury..

St. Louis: 7-9—2-14, 30th, Sam Bradford a star first-round quarterback on the rise after winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.

….Bradford would go on to miss games with injury in 2011 while getting knocked out of others, and could very well have a bright future if healthy. Still, the most ostensibly secure team at quarterback entering the 2011 year — and I would say that remains the case now — finished a distant last.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks maintained the same record as in 2010 despite going from Matt Hasselbeck (in his 10th season starting for Seattle) to Jackson (in his first season starting for Seattle) at quarterback. Arguably going rom the franchise’s best quarterback ever to a maligned career backup. Yet the exact same record.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, saw a three-win jump despite attempting to band-aid their quarterback woes with a trade that brought in another unproven backup, while the unheralded understudy already on roster ended up starting nearly half the season.

Then there’s San Francisco, which improved by seven wins by basically instituting a game manager at quarterback — or at least that’s best way to describe the role Smith played. This inspires memories of those few futile attempts downfield in last year’s NFC title stalemate.

This is the same league where the Redskins paid a veritable fortune for their quarterback of the future, Drew Brees and his QB-guru coach are credited with saving a franchise, and Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning neutralized pitiful offense lines to win Super Bowls.

So could the recipe for success to some degree be shifting away from the aerial focus that’s seen the Steelers, Packers and Giants win recent Super Bowls, back toward a more hard-nosed, ground-pound-and-punt style from the days of old?

No, it’s just a strange NFC West thing.

If you look at those other offenses lurking around the bottom in pass offense rank, you see only one 2011 playoff team ranked lower than 20 — that being the anomaly named the 2011 Denver Broncos. Meanwhile, each of the teams with top-5 pass offenses reached the postseason and the entire top 10 finished at least .500.

Somehow, the NFC West pulled out of its plummet by crashing through a black hole — a time-vortex where teams win by leaning heavily on hard-nosed runners like Marshawn Lynch, three-down O-line wrecking balls like Calais Campbell, calling it conservative like Jim Harbaugh and bootlegging like Alex Smith.

You think that deep down, these guys wish they could chuck it around like Eli Manning, knife across linebackers like Darren Sproles or go for the jugular like Mike McCarthy. The NFC West’s top three is also likely pleased with its composite 10-win improvement — even Seattle holding at seven wins was surprising to many — and the seemingly obsolete path they took.

NFC West Team: 2011 record, scoring defense rank, giveaway rank, pass attempt rank

San Francisco: 13-3, 2nd SD rank, 1st G rank, 31st PA rank

Arizona: 8-8, 17th (Misleadingly low as the defense really hit another gear Week 9, halting a streak of five straight allowing 30-plus points before never giving up more than 23 in any game thereafter, ending the season on a 7-2 run), 28th, 15th

Seattle: 7-9, 7th, 13th, 25th

St. Louis: 2-14, 26th, 30th, 16th

Arizona’s No. 15 league rank in pass attempts is relatively low considering the typical distribution under Ken Whisenhunt along with Ryan Williams not playing a snap and Beanie Wells being his injury-prone self.

The giveaway ranks for San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle average out to 14th and ostensibly does not support my argument, but think of it this way: a composite giveaway ranking of 14th when the starting quarterbacks involved our Alex Smith, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst.

So yeah, the retro-style helped….But how much longer it can help is another question.

Seattle signed prized free agent quarterback Matt Flynn and drafted Russell Wilson in the third round, though once again bucking early-round-or-bust quarterback logic. Still, couple this with the sense of desperation betrayed by signing Braylon Edwards and Terrell Owens, and it’s clear Pete Carroll wants to ignite this pass offense.

The Niners have drafted a Sproles look-alike in LaMichael James while loading up on deep threats in Randy Moss, A.J. Jenkins and Mario Manningham. The Cardinals, while getting a major backfield boost in a returning Ryan Williams, drafted receiver Michael Floyd in the first round to fill the barren wasteland opposite Larry Fitzgerald.

There’s definitely an acknowledgment of the need to “get with the 21st century” by these teams while the bottom-dwelling Rams reverse direction by bringing in the conservative stylings of Jeff Fischer and Brian Schottenheimer. Not that they necessarily aren’t “with it” but certainly more “I love the ’90s” than most head coach-offensive coordinator combos.

One thing that’s sure is the round-robin between the 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals will appear to be played in the 1970s. Three of the most packed stables of young defensive talent have already slugged it to low-scoring affairs: 1-to-2 offensive touchdowns per team being the norm in their 2011 battles. A brutal day in the trenches, particularly for those on offense.

Considering how terrible each of these offensive lines figure to be (there’s actually a starting position battle between Jason Smith vs. Barry Richardson!) and the terror lurking in the front sevens — a mix of rising stars, quality vets and the league’s best in Patrick Willis, Novorro Bowman, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith (49ers), Darnell Dockett, Calais Cambpell, Daryl Washington (Cardinals), Jason Jones, Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch, Chris Clemons, Red Bryant (Seahawks) along with potential in the Rams’ young core of Chris Long, Robert Quinn, James Laurinaitis and Michael Brockers — it is hard to imagine a highly potent offense bursting from the ground here any time soon.

There will be punts.

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