FOOCH'S NOTE: Very solid article. Thought I'd roll this to the front page.
Every NFL pundit is going to shout this headline between now and the end of the 2009-2010 season. If you've already been watching NFL Network, ESPN NFL Live, or been reading the numerous NFL sources online than I'm sure you've read the answer to this question:
Can the Arizona Cardinals repeat there trip the Super Bowl? (always accompanied with a little chuckle)
Answer: Of course. There are obvious flaws on that team and they benefited from some luck last year. However all they have to do is beat up on their weak division opponents to get themselves back in the playoffs. We know, once you’re in the playoffs anything can happen. Look at the Cardinals last year!
Consider this article a declaration of war. Not on the Cardinals, but every pundit, TV analyst, journalist, beat writer or beatnik who utter this answer again.
Why declare war? I've head this answer for 23 years and counting (I'm confident its origins date back further than my attention span). The NFC West is full of crap teams and one ho-hum group is going to figure out how tie their shoe laces and punch their ticket to the playoffs. Year in and year out I hear this insult and eventual explanation of our division champion. I've heard it attached to the 49ers of 80's and 90's, Greatest Show on Turf Rams, Holmgren's Seahawks and now it's being stuck to the Arizona Cardinals.
According to the pundits we've been the cellar division for the better part three decades, even while switching out and bringing in new teams to the fold. Has the division really been that awful for such a long period of time or just the analysis? I believe it's the later. Football guys for all their acclaimed smarts just don't understand our division.
NFC West has been ruled by dominant champions
Dating back to the mid 1970's (as far as I care to look back for this discussion) the NFC West has been under the control of five teams: Rams late 70's, 49ers 80's-90's, Greatest Show on Turf Rams 99-01, Seahawks 04-07 and believe we are in the midst of a Cardinal era 2008-TBD.
A snarky analyst will say these teams have been boasted by the lackluster teams that comprise the rest of division. A smart analyst will see a trend. Beginning with the 49ers the NFC West has produced some of the NFL's all time great offenses with the tradition being continued by the Cards.
Everyone knows the 1st goal and step of an NFL team is to win their division. To win the West you need a team with a great offense (score 30+ points) along with enough defensive personnel to slow down your rivals great offense (not give up 40+ points) in order to topple the perennial division winner. These aren't the kind of teams you build overnight. It takes years to amass that much talent and teams are usually steam rolled by the division leader in the meantime.
Often the NFC West is grilled for having such hapless teams at the bottom. People have yet to realize that NFC West teams are forced to take a slower, much broader approach to building their teams if they want to compete with the division leader. Quick reloads don't get you anywhere in this division.
Ok, the NFC West always has one good team and the rest are crappy
In a sense you can say the NFC West doesn't produce as many wild card contenders as other divisions but I think there are a few good reasons for this.
Schedule favors the East and detracts from the West
The nerve of the Patriots and rest of the NFL to bellyache about having to travel so often to the West coast and play 1:00PM Pacific time games (4:00 PM Eastern, god forbid they complain about Sunday or Monday night prime time games). They said it cuts into preparation time and the players aren't used to that schedule. Lets all cry! It was such a crime that the rules committee passed a resolution preventing any non NFC/AFC West team from having to play no more than two 1:00 PM Pacific Time zone games a regular season (assuming you play both the NFC/AFC West). Jed York had a right to hit a few people over the head with a chair during that meeting.
It may be lost to the rest of the NFL, but NFC West teams are forced travel east on average of 3/4 times a regular season to play 10:00 AM Pacific Time games. Same travel distance, even less preparation time, and OMG is that an early start! A vast majority of those games end in losses for the road team. Are eastern teams really that much better across the board at home? No, it's a favorable quark in the schedule. Not only does it detract from the NFC West teams’ record, it also pads the record of the remaining NFC teams. Often this one or two game swing is the difference between a 9-7 playoff team and 8-8 or 7-9 team outside looking in. Our 2nd place team is usually outside looking in. Just a little hint, if you don't play in the NFC/AFC West your games start at 10:00 AM our time and their isn’t much difference between traveling to Chicago or
New York New Jersey coming from San Fran.
NFC West teams don't have a great home field advantage
With the exception of Seattle no NFC West team has a great home field advantage to fall back on. Other than the players emerging from the tunnel, teams aren't intimidated or have to take extra preparation time to enter San Francisco, Arizona or St. Louis. The Rams used speed and fast turf to their advantage for awhile but it wasn't an atmosphere advantage, nor can it be counted on season after season. Rarely does an opponent have to deal with the noise level, momentum or intimidation of a rabid, noisy fan base. Not even a notable climate advantage can be seized. Two weather regulated dome teams and the Bay Area weather is absolutely pristine during the fall.
The AFC West is the opposite in this regard. The Raiders have the ever-so intimidating Black Hole. KC has a rabid, noisy fan base sitting on top of the field. Denver plays in the thin air of mile high. Even in sub par years these teams can count on the home field advantage to make themselves more competitive.
What about number of Pro Bowlers? Not so many in the NFC West.
Steve Mariucci has been touting this argument. He should know better and obviously the Emmy people don’t. In the NFL this factor has never been a strong indicator of player talent or roster strength. Winning teams send an inordinate amount of players to the pro bowl and while good players on non playoff teams get passed over. We’ve been over this before. If the 49ers go 9-7 and make a wildcard birth than Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and Andy Lee go to the Pro Bowl. At 7-9 we are lucky if one player gets sent.
To understand the level of competition in the NFC West you need to dig deeper than the records to get a true picture.
1) NFC West is dominated by a powerful, offensive juggernaut leader. Conversely it requires a higher, longer climb to supplant these teams as the division leader.
2) The schedules time zone quark (or fix) is a disadvantage to the NFC West and favors the rest of the NFC. This can be difference between wild card contender and non contender.
3) For the most part, NFC West teams don't have a natural home field advantage. It's easier in our division for a road team to steal a win and harder for our teams to protect the home turf.
What doesn't get brought up enough is how many NFC Champions the NFC West has produced. Dating back to 1970 the NFC West has produced 11 champions with 13 other teams making it to the championship game. That's second only to the NFC East (12 champions + 17 championship game appearances). The Central/North/South conglomerate has been no where near as successful.
In the last 10 years the Rams (twice), Seahawks and Cardinals have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl. For such a terrible division we sure kick a lot of playoff tail.
A big reason for this playoff success has something to do with the factors above. You need a great offensive team while remaining stout on defense. You have to have superior talent to win early road games when your team is half asleep. You have to beat teams on talent and execution without the safety of a home field advantage. These same factors that drive the perception our division being weak also strengthen and make our division champion teams hardier.