Building A Sports Franchise the Correct Way: How the NFC West Was Won


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It wasn’t too long ago that the NFC West was a laughing stock around the NFL community.

At one point late in the 2010 season (December 15 to be exact) this division had started a total of eight quarterbacks between the four teams combined. During that same time, “The NFC Worst” had won a total of six games on the season. That was around Week 15 of the 2010 season, exactly three years ago this week. The San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals ended up being outscored by a combined 322 points on the season. To put that into perspective, that’s an average of nearly 10 points per game outside of the division for the four teams combined.

Nate Silver, then of New York Times fame, had the following to say about the eventual division winning Seahawks.

“…Nor, despite Sunday’s victory, can one really give the Seahawks credit for having peaked at the right time. They went 2-5 over their last seven games, defeating only the Rams and the Carolina Panthers, who finished their year at 2-14.”

For the purpose of full context, the five losses Seattle did accumulate during the final seven regular-season games in 2010 came against teams that finished with a combined 50-30 record. Still, Pete Carroll’s squad represented nothing more than mediocrity in a division that was void of even that over the course of the season, and in previous years as well.

Including 2010, eventual NFC West division winners went a combined 45-33 in the five-year span from 2006-2010.

What exactly went wrong here and how has this division turned it around in such a short period of time?

Back in 2010, the NFC West boasted a few of the worst head coaches in modern history and one guy, Pete Carroll, who had never put up any type of success in the National Football League. San Francisco 49ers head man Mike Singletary finished his troubled tenure by the bay with a 18-22 record and only coached for one entire season. He’s a position coach for the Minnesota Vikings today.

Steve Spagnuolo was tasked with leading the Rams, but won just 10 of his 48 games in St. Louis. He’s now a senior defensive assistant for the Baltimore Ravens. Ken Whisenhunt had the most success of any NFC West head coach during his tenure, leading Arizona to a Super Bowl appearance back in 2008. He, however, fell on hard times and flamed out at the end. Overall, the former tight end finished with a 45-51 record and failed to lead Arizona to a winning record in any of his final three seasons as its head coach. Whisenhunt is now the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers.

For what it is worth, Carroll was nothing more than a NFL retread who seemed to have success with USC at the college level. Prior to the 2012 season, the now popular head man boasted a 47-49 record with the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Seattle.

The guys who were tasked with replacing these mediocre head coaches were anything but mediocre themselves. It could be said that the likes of Jim Harbaugh, Bruce Arians and Jeff Fisher represented the three-best head coaching hires in the NFL over the past decade or so.

How Things Turned Around.

Outside of coaching, which I will focus on throughout this article, things started to turn around for the NFC West during the 2010 playoffs. Seattle won the division by virtue of a Week 17 victory over the St. Louis Rams, but didn’t gain any respect heading into its wildcard matchup with the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, who were 11 points favorite over the home team. Then…




This one play. This one moment in time, the joke that was the NFC West was on top of the football world. Despite talk about them not being deserving of a playoff spot that season, the Seahawks pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the NFL playoffs. When the clock struck zero on that fateful Saturday evening in Seattle, the Seahawks had knocked off the defending champs by a score of 41-36 behind one of the best individual efforts in the history of January football.

The very same day Seattle pulled off that great upset, Jim Harbaugh was officially named the head coach of the 49ers, setting up what would become the greatest divisional rivalry of our era.

Now that we have focused on what got us here, let’s check in on how each team revamped its front office, coaching staff and roster in order to build what has to be considered the best division in football today.


San Francisco 49ers

For an eight-year span from 2003-2010, the 49ers failed to finish a season above .500. They finished in last place multiple times, went through a total of four coaches and had four seasons with a negative point differential in the triple digits. For all intents and purposes the 49ers team that controlled the landscape for the better part of a quarter century from the early 1980’s to the early 2000’s were no longer. They were replaced by a mockery of a front office, a disastrous ownership group, bad head coach after bad head coach and players who didn’t just lack talent, but also failed to buy into the system. In reality, San Francisco became a laughingstock in the NFL. This changed during a fateful January day when the 49ers announced their fifth head coach in an 11-year span.




Fixing the Coaching Problem

When San Francisco announced Harbaugh as the 18th head coach in its history early in the 2011 calendar year, it made the single greatest decision that the franchise has made since trading for Steve Young in the 1980’s. This may seem like a bit of an overreaction on my part, but just look at what Harbaugh has done since he took over as the 49ers head coach. Including the postseason, he possesses a .726 winning percentage in just under three years as the 49ers head man. His 37 wins since taking the job represents the same amount of victories for the 49ers for the six-year span leading up to his hiring.

Harbaugh hasn’t only brought with him to the 49ers consistent and confident coaching to the sideline, he filled out the coaching staff with some of the better assistants in the NFL today.

Vic Fangio, Defensive Coordinator: Fans in The Bayou will remember Fangio as the New Orleans Saints linebackers coach from 1986-1994, where he coached one of the best linebacker groups in the modern history of the NFL. The likes of Pat Swilling, Sam Mills and Rickey Jackson combined for 11 Pro Bowl trips during that nine-year span with Jackson earning a bust in Canton just a few years ago.

Fangio then moved on to a more important role as defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans over the next seven seasons before becoming a defensive assistant for one of the best units in modern NFL history in the form of the Baltimore Ravens for five seasons, from 2006-2010. Fangio’s tenure as Stanford’s defensive coordinator with Harbaugh in 2010 represented the first time that he coached outside of the professional ranks since 1984, and the success was evident. The Cardinal finished that season 21st in the nation in overall defense and 10th in points allowed. Talk about a resume.

Ed Donatell, Secondary Coach: Getting Donatell as a positional coach was an absolute coup here. The veteran coach served as defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers from 2000-2003, leading a unit that ranked in the top half of the NFL in points against all four seasons and in the top two in takeaways two separate times. After leaving Green Bay, Donatell took the same position for the Atlanta Falcons and served there for three seasons from 2004-2006 with less success. The Falcons ranked in the middle of the pack in points against each season Donatell led their defense. Either way, getting someone with seven years of NFL coordinating experience to be a positional coach was a solid move.

Jim Leavitt, Linebackers Coach: Most of you know Leavitt for the unfortunate situation he put himself in as the head coach of South Florida back in 2010. Leavitt was fired following the 2010 season for choking and slapping one of his players on the practice field, per ESPN. He did, however, have a ton of success for the Bulls as their only head coach in program history up to that point. South Florida began its football program in Division I-AA before moving up to what is now called the FBS after just four seasons. Leavitt ended up leading South Florida to a winning record in eight of his 10 seasons as head coach and took them to a bowl game in each of his final five years. He was so respected in the college ranks that Alabama, one of the foremost programs in the nation, expressed interest in him to be their head coach back in 2002. Some even believe that he was offered the coaching job before the Crimson Tide “settled” on Mike Price, who was later replaced by Mike Shula after a strip club incident.

Other Notables: This list could go on for a while, but I think you get the point here. Other solid assistant coaches on the 49ers staff include offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who was considered for the Penn State head coaching vacancy after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who led San Francisco to a 38-7 victory over Arizona in his only game as its interim coach in Week 17 of the 2010 season.

The common theme here for Harbaugh is that he did a splendid job surrounding himself with a bunch of capable assistant coaches. Where San Francisco has had some struggles with offensive scheme this season, it’s readily apparent that it does a bang up job preparing the 49ers for game day during the week. With wins in the final two regular season games, Harbaugh will post the best winning percentage in the history of the NFL for a head coach with a minimum of three years coached (.792). That’s stunning.


 Change of Culture




The minute that San Francisco fired Steve Mariucci to bring in Dennis Erickson back in 2003, it felt like that entire tide of the franchise was changing, and not for the better. This decision threw a lot of people for a loop, including a 20-year old me. Why fire a head coach that had gone 57-39 in six seasons only to replace him with a retread who possessed a 31-33 record with the Seattle Seahawks in his first stint in the NFL? It goes without saying that Mariucci struggled after taking the Detroit Lions job later that spring, but this decision still perplexes me to this day.

Erickson won just nine games in two seasons as the 49ers head coach, fulfilling just $5 million of the $12.5 million he ended up making on the deal. San Francisco’s 2004 team was historically bad, and came pretty darn close to losing all 16 regular season games. Its only two victories came against the Arizona Cardinals, both in overtime. Overall, San Francisco’s average margin of defeat was nearly two full touchdowns that season. The likes of Tim Rattay, Kevan Barlow and Curtis Conway “led” what had to be considered one of the worst offenses in 49ers history.

The strife in San Francisco’s locker room was real during this time, too. Terrell Owens threw multiple tirades on the sideline during the frustrating 2003 season. After his departure from the 49ers, Owens publicly called out quarterback Jeff Garcia. When asked if he thought Garcia was gay, Owens responded “Like my boy tells me: ‘If it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat.”

Unfortunately, it seems like the eight-year span from 2003-2010 was filled with situations like these. From Erickson’s incompetence on the sideline to Mike Nolan’s inability to bring in any sort of reliable offensive mind, San Francisco struggled with what had to be considered a culture that lacked accountability.

Now that we look back to the past and the disastrous years prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, his ability to change the overall landscape at 4949 Centennial BLVD has to be considered one of the enduring successes thus far in his tenure. Though already beginning on the path towards a leadership role under Singletary, tight end Vernon Davis brought accountability for his past actions and was rewarded with captainship. Enigmatic quarterback Alex Smith brought experience and leadership to a locker room that was talented and brought some level of continuity to a team that was forced to head into the 2011 season with a new coaching staff and amid a lockout.

It was, however, Harbaugh’s personality that seemed to take hold in Santa Clara.




From the mantra “whose got it better than us,” to the propping up of personalities on the team, Harbaugh simply knows how to deal with each player on an individual basis while focusing on the “team first” mentality. This is one of the primary reasons that the culture has changed in San Francisco. Remember, he led the 2011 49ers to the cusp of a championship with nearly the same roster that finished with six wins the season before. San Francisco’s success over the past three years has had more to do with a change in culture than what has been an increase in the level of talent.


Drafting Well

One of the most important keys to success in the salary cap era has to be the NFL draft. This is something San Francisco failed to do well during that eight-year span of futility. In fact, its inability to draft predates the 2003 season. From the likes of Mike Rumph, Kwame Harris and Rashaun Woods in the first round over the course of three seasons, to other top-round busts such as Saleem Rasheed, Andrew Williams, Brandon Williams, Kentwan Balmer and Chilo Rachal; San Francisco missed way more often than it hit when it came to the annual event in Radio City Music Hall.

The turnaround, however, began long before Harbaugh and Trent Baalke took leadership of San Francisco’s player personnel department.


Year Round Player Position College
2006 1 Vernon Davis Tight End Maryland
2006 5 Parys Haralson Linebacker Tennessee
2006 6 Delanie Walker Tight End Central Missouri St.
2007 1 Patrick Willis Linebacker Mississippi
2007 1 Joe Staley Tackle Central Michigan
2007 3 Ray McDonald Defensive Line Florida
2007 4 Dashon Goldson Safety Washington
2007 5 Tarell Brown Cornerback Texas
2009 1 Michael Crabtree Wide Receiver Texas Tech


Six players over the course of these six drafts, starting eight years ago, remain important pieces to one of the most talented rosters in the National Football League. Others, such as Delanie Walker and Dashon Goldson, just got too expensive for the 49ers to justify bringing back. There were misses during this span, much like there has been since Baalke and Harbaugh took over the decision-making duties, but that is to be expected for any front office.

It is what those two men have done since that raises some eyebrows and has set rather high standards in San Francisco when it comes to the annual draft.


Year Round Player Position Team
2010 1 Anthony Davis Tackle Rutgers
2010 1 Mike Iupati Guard Idaho
2010 3 NaVorro Bowman Linebacker Penn State
2011 1 Aldon Smith Linebacker Missouri
2011 2 Colin Kaepernick Quarterback Nevada
2011 3 Chris Culliver Cornerback South Carolina
2011 4 Kendall Hunter Running Back Oklahoma State
2011 7 Bruce Miller Fullback Central Florida
2013 1 Eric Reid Safety Louisiana State
2013 2 Tank Carradine Defensive End Florida State
2013 2 Vance McDonald Tight End Rice
2013 3 Corey Lemonier Linebacker Auburn
2013 4 Quinton Patton Wide Receiver Louisiana Tech
2013 4 Marcus Lattimore Running Back South Carolina


While it might be too early to gauge the 2013 draft class, San Francisco went with upside at a ton of positions. An example would be picking up Carradine in the second round despite the fact that he tore his ACL in his last game at Florida State. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had the defensive end as his No. 5 overall prospect, even after the injury. Many questioned San Francisco trading up for Reid, but he is now considered one of the frontrunners for Defensive Rookie of the Year. An injury to Patton early in the season has impacted his ability to see the field, but he dazzled onlookers during the preseason. Meanwhile, Lattimore would have been a top-20 pick if it wasn’t for a severe knee injury last season at South Carolina. With little holes to fill throughout the roster, San Francisco took a chance on talent and it will end up paying off down the road.

With that said, the best two-year draft span in San Francisco’s history since the early 1980’s took place in 2010 and 2011. During that time San Francisco was able to pick up two Pro Bowl-caliber offensive linemen, two All-Pro linebackers, a solid starter in the defensive secondary, a Pro Bowl-caliber fullback and a quarterback of the future. Guys, that’s normally about six years of drafting for most teams.

One of the most under-the-radar aspects of San Francisco success since Baalke took over as general manager was the “trade” for NaVorro Bowman during the 2010 draft. Let me break the deal down here.

San Francisco moved back 13 spots in the third round of the 2010 draft with the San Diego Chargers, who picked up linebacker Donald Butler. With the pick Baalke and Co. acquired from San Diego, they selected a relative unknown in the form of Penn State linebacker NaVorro Bowman. That swap alone favors the 49ers in a huge way three years after the fact, as Bowman is one of the top contenders for Defensive Player of the Year. That said, it is what the 49ers picked up in the deal that is captivating.

San Francisco acquired a sixth-round pick (Anthony Dixon) later in that draft as well as a fourth-rounder from Washington the following season. Seemingly willing to pass on the likes of Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert in the top 10 of the 2011 draft, despite needing a quarterback, San Francisco bet the farm that either Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick would be available in the second round. When Cincinnati took Dalton, the 49ers had to make a quick decision to get the quarterback they graded out as the best in the draft class, Kaepernick. Baalke and Co. found a trade partner in the Denver Broncos and moved up from 45 to 36 in the second round, yielding the fourth they acquired in the Bowman deal as well as a fifth rounder in exchange for the ability to select Kaepernick. Take a step back to realize exactly what happened here. In reality the 49ers traded Rahim Moore (Denver’s pick) and Butler in order to acquire Bowman and trade up for the services of Kaepernick. That’s absolutely stunning.

Where the 49ers dropped the ball in the 2012 draft, they have more than made up for it in other seasons during the “Harbaalke” era. They now have a plethora of picks in this upcoming draft, mainly due to the Alex Smith trade. By virtue of that deal, when all is said and done, the 49ers nabbed two second-round picks and a third-round pick for Smith, thus again proving the genius of the front office.

Sustained success is inevitable in San Francisco. While it will have to re-sign some of its young core, Baalke has done a solid job locking up veterans to team-friendly deals. The 49ers, much like some of the best teams in the NFL, don’t hesitate letting veterans walk. In doing so, they are able to find cheaper and younger alternatives in the draft. This was magnified during the 2013 offseason when the 49ers refused to pay Dashon Goldson top-five safety money. Instead, they took a chance on a rookie, Eric Reid, from LSU. You tell me how that has turned out. Rinse, wash repeat, this is going to be a consistent part of the 49ers’ front office philosophy heading into Levi’s Stadium next season. It’s also going to be one of the primary reasons that they will be contenders for years to come.


Seattle Seahawks

Former Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren had a couple solid seasons in the Pacific Northwest, including a surprise run to the Super Bowl in 2005. It was, however, his inability as coach and general manager to find talent in the draft that caused a dramatic drop off in Seattle in the years following that run to the conference championship. Once it became apparent that Seattle wasn’t going to take the next step under Holmgren and after he went 4-12 in 2008, the franchise decided to move on. The issue here is that it decided to hire former 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. as its next head coach in move that reeked of nepotism. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, they went 5-11 in Mora’s only season as the coach. This brings me to the story of the best team in the NFL and how they got here.


Taking a Chance on Pete Carroll

In January of 2010, Seattle made headlines around the sports world by hiring USC head coach Pete Carroll as its new head man. Carroll, who had a ridiculous amount of success with the Trojans in Southern California, had been long considered a retread in the NFL ranks. He was best known in professional football for being the “guy” New England got rid of to bring in Bill Belichick back in 2000. Overall, Carroll possessed an unflattering 33-31 in four seasons with the Jets and Patriots.

It was his success in the college ranks that led the Seahawks to go all in and take a chance on him after Mora Jr. flamed out. The Trojans had fallen on hard times under the “leadership” of Larry Smith, John Robinson and Paul Hackett prior to Carroll’s arrival on campus. In the decade prior, USC had accumulated a pedestrian .542 winning percentage and put up a total of four non-winning seasons.

To put that into perspective, the Trojans finished over .500 in all but two seasons from 1962-1990. For the program, it was all about returning to legendary status. And this is what Carroll ended up bringing to the table. After earning just one major bowl bid in the decade prior to his hiring, Carroll led the Trojans to seven consecutive major bowls and won two consecutive National Championships.




The first titles for the program since John McKay led it to a Rose Bowl victory in 1972 during the Nixon Administration. Overall, Carroll finished his USC career with a dazzling .836 winning percentage, the best in program history. His recruiting ability was unmatched, as was his ability to connect and communicate with the student-athlete. Carroll’s perception of being a player-friendly head coach really caught the attention of the Seahawks, especially after the Holmgren and Mora eras. It was now all about putting everything in place to build a perennial winner in The Emerald City. 


Schneider’s Story and the Draft

Schneider came to the Seahawks as general manager in 2010 after serving a multitude of roles for the Green Bay Packers over the course of an 15-year career that spanned two decades. He did so after working under such legendary front office men as Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson in Green Bay. Talk about pedigree. It was a rare marriage in Seattle, as Carroll had final say over personnel decisions with Schneider working by his side. This new relationship would help the Seahawks overcome years of disaster in the draft, including a horrid two-year stretch leading up to the hires.


Year Round Player Position Team
2008 1 Lawrence Jackson Defensive End USC
2008 2 John Carlson Tight End Notre Dame
2009 1 Aaron Curry Defensive End Wake Forest
2009 3 Deon Butler Wide Receiver Penn State


It might not look like they missed a whole lot during this two-year stretch, but that’s just on the surface. Only two players, Red Bryant and Max Unger, remain on the roster from those draft classes. Meanwhile, Seattle dropped the ball in the top rounds by selecting players that simply never panned out over others who have had stellar careers at the same positions.

An example here would be the selection of Jackson, who recorded just 6.5 sacks in two seasons, over current Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell. Yet another example is the utterly disastrous pick of Curry in the top-five of the 2009 draft. Michael Crabtree and Brian Orakpo are just a couple of the names that went after him in the top half of the first round that year. Curry recorded just 5.5 sacks in two-plus seasons with Seattle before being shipped to the Oakland Raiders during the 2011 campaign.

What Carroll and Schneider have done since has to be considered nothing short of amazing.


Year Round Player Position Team
2010 1 Russell Okung Offensive Tackle Oklahoma State
2010 1 Earl Thomas Safety Texas
2010 2 Golden Tate Wide Receiver Notre Dame
2010 4 Walter Thurmond Cornerback Oregon
2010 5 Kam Chancellor Safety Virginia Tech
2011 4 K.J. Wright Linebacker Mississippi State
2011 5 Richard Sherman Cornerback Stanford
2011 6 Byron Maxwell Cornerback Clemson
2011 7 Malcolm Smith Linebacker USC
2012 1 Bruce Irvin Linerbacker West Virginia
2012 2 Bobby Wagner Linerbacker Utah State
2012 3 Russell Wilson Quarterback Wisconsin


There you have it, a minimum of 12 starters or regular contributors selected in a three-year span from 2010-2012. The amazing thing here is that Seattle was able to acquire elite players outside of the first round. Richard Sherman was the 23rd cornerback selected in the 2011 draft, behind the likes of Josh Thomas and Rashad Carmichael. Let that sink in for a second, guys. Sherman is now the best corner in the entire NFL, while neither of those players are currently on 53-man rosters.

Carroll and Schneider then turned their focus on finding help in the front seven by selecting one of my personal favorites from the 2012 NFL draft, Bobby Wagner from Utah State. Despite coming from a small school, Wagner appeared to have the “it” factor on tape and Schneider’s previous scouting experience in Green Bay ended up paying off in the end. Drafted to play middle linebacker, Wagner was picked up with the 47th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He has started 27 games in a little under two seasons and should earn his first trip to Hawaii this year. Looking back at the draft for a minute, the second round was loaded with excellent finds at the linebacker position. Such rising stars as Lavonte David, Zach Brown and Mychal Kendricks were picked up there. I may go against popular opinion here, but Wagner is the better player than any of those three, and that’s saying something.

Then the Seahawks decided that it was time to get a franchise quarterback…






Russell Wilson transferred from North Carolina State to Wisconsin following the 2010 season in large part due to the fact that Mike Glennon was seen as the starting quarterback for the Wolfpack. Imagine that. At under 6-feet tall, there were a tremendous amount of questions as it relates to Wilson’s ability to be anything more than a backup quarterback in the NFL. This played out on a national stage leading up to the 2012 draft. gave Wilson a 68.5 grade leading up to the annual draft and had the following write up on its site. 

“Wilson is this year’s big-time question mark at quarterback. Unlike those who have held this title in the past, Wilson is a stellar passer who shows arm strength and accuracy when he is able to deliver the ball without a hitch. The North Carolina State transfer has outstanding football intelligence, as he picked up the Wisconsin offense in a short time and was the opening-day starter.”

The now ridiculous review continued…

“…But teams will have concerns whether Wilson can see over the pocket to make the throws at the next level. He is a mechanical mover who has strong technique and leadership qualities. If Wilson were three inches taller, there would be debate at the top of the draft as to where he fits. But look for teams to take a flier on him in a late round to see if he can develop and outplay his size.”

Late-round pick? Concern over being able to see the field? Looking at it through the “Monday Morning Quarterback” lens, one of the foremost sites in football couldn’t have been more wrong. If the ’12 draft was held all over again, I am pretty sure that Wilson would be selected over both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Doesn’t that tell you something?

I could list off tons of similar scouting reports, but there is no need to turn this into a 10,000-word piece..oh wait. The idea that so many could be so wrong when it came to Wilson is astonishing. What were we missing? Exactly how has Wilson proved us wrong? And is he the best young quarterback in the game? Answers in short form are: not sure, because he’s winning and yes. Hope that helps.




Schneider seemed to share Jon Gruden’s “love affair” with Wilson. The front office executive had the following to say immediate after Seattle made him a third-round pick back in 2012, per CBS Sports Radio.

“He’s (Wilson) just a special guy, and I was hoping we’d have a chance to be able to add him to our club. I didn’t know how everything was going to play out – the combines, the workouts. From what everybody was telling me, I knew he was going to blow away the interview process and just wow everybody with his leadership skills. But yeah, he’s an unbelievable talent and an even better person.”

If you want your palm read to see if you have a shot with Jennifer Lawrence, I recommend emailing Schneider right now. He couldn’t have been more spot on about the quarterback prodigy. Not only did Wilson come in as a rookie and beat out two pedestrian backups, which isn’t really a feat in of itself, he led the Seahawks to an 11-5 record in his rookie season and now possesses the most wins for any quarterback in NFL history over the course of his first two NFL seasons. To put this into perspective, the two quarterbacks selected immediately prior to Wilson in the draft, Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler, have a combined five career NFL wins. Oh, and the Jacksonville Jaguars took a punter five picks before Seattle nabbed its franchise signal caller. Not bad for a third-round pick and former minor league baseball bust that was too short to make it at this level.

More than his statistical success, Wilson has the feel of a grizzled 10-year veteran out there. He is a leader on and off the field, does amazing work within the community in Seattle and seems wise beyond his years. The ceiling for this second-year quarterback is about as high as you can get. It reaches to the Hubble and extends into a completely different solar system. Absolutely amazing for a third-round pick. Heck, amazing for the No. 1 overall pick.

Seattle’s Super Bowl window is just opening up, guys. It might have a ton of youngsters to extend in the coming years, but the success that the front office has had in building one of the most talented overall rosters in the NFL leads me to believe that the Seahawks will be just fine. If K.J. Wright goes down, Malcolm Smith is prepared to take over. When Brandon Browner gets suspended, Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell are more than ready to make their impacts felt. Once Marshawn Lynch starts to show signs of aging, Christine Michael will be ready to play a more important role. It’s the next-man up philosophy that indicates Seattle, and its NFC counterpart San Francisco, are in it for the long haul.


Arizona Cardinals

Now that I have spent over 5,000 words on two teams, we are going to wrap this monstrosity of an article up in short order here. After all, neither Arizona or St. Louis have had anywhere near the success that Seattle and San Francisco have had. In fact, they are in the beginning stages of the contention window, while those two other powerhouses are all about Super Bowl or bust.

With that said, what Bruce Arians and Co. has done in the desert is rather amazing. Coming off a five-win 2012 season that saw former head coach Ken Whisenhunt get the axe, new general manager Steve Keim, who was promoted after over a decade in the Cardinals front office, sought out a combination of experienced head coaches and some new blood. Andy Reid, Russ Grimm and Mike McCoy, among others were considered serious contenders at the time. For his part, Arians was coming off an awe-inspiring performance as the interim head coach for the Indianapolis Colts, who were dealing with Chuck Pagano’s cancer scare. Arians led Andrew Luck and the Colts to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth in that interim role. This was good enough to earn him the Coach of the Year award.

With Keim and Arians firmly entrenched as a solid duo for the Cardinals, they set their eyes on closing the gap between themselves and the two powerhouses in the division.


Courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts Instagram
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts Instagram


Creating “the” Plan, Following Seattle’s and San Francisco’s Path 

One important aspect of Arizona’s success this season is that it didn’t go out there in the 2013 draft and reach for a quarterback. That seems to be the tendency for a new head coach and general manager tandem around the NFL. Instead, Arizona did its due diligence throughout the draft process and came away with some real steals. Despite losing first-round pick Jonathan Cooper to a season-ending injury in camp, this Cardinals draft class has been about as impressive as any in the NFL.

Creating “the” plan doesn’t simply mean looking to add talent that will contribute immediately. It’s more of an overall philosophy that has helped Seattle and San Francisco get to the pinnacle. The idea here is to build for the future and theorize exactly how your roster is going to look one or two years down the road. This is where the selection of a Kevin Minter in the second round last April comes into play. The LSU product hasn’t made an impact on the defensive side of the ball due to the presence of veteran Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker. He will, however, replace Dansby at some point in the not-so-distant future and team up with Daryl Washington to form what might end up being an elite linebacker tandem. This is somewhat similar to what the 49ers did when they selected Bowman in the 2011 draft. Veteran Takeo Spikes started for one season before Bowman took over full time next to Patrick Willis.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Arizona’s 2013 draft class is that for the first time in a long while, the franchise took a shot on a troubled prospect. This came in the form of standout defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who had long been considered an elite draft prospect. Off-field issues led to his dismissal from the LSU football program and caused him to drop a great deal in the draft. Despite tearing his ACL in a Week 15 win over the Tennessee Titans, Mathieu’s future couldn’t possibly be brighter in the desert. In fact, he was one of the top-five leading candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year at the time of the injury.

The list doesn’t stop here. Andre Ellington has provided a spark to a Cardinals rushing attack that was mired in inconsistency, not only in previous seasons, but earlier this year as well. The rookie sixth-round pick is leading all NFL rushers with a 5.9 yards per carry average and is on pace to put up over 1,000 total yards on less than 150 touches. Yeah, that’s pretty good. Overall, Pro Football Focus grades Ellington out as the 11th-best overall running back thus far this season. 

As I mentioned before, Arizona didn’t go all out to get a “franchise” quarterback in the draft. Instead, it remained patient and brought in a veteran in the form of Carson Palmer at nearly zero cost to its draft flexibility moving forward. Coming off down seasons with both the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals, the Cardinals were able to pull Palmer in for pennies on the dollar. They moved down in the 2013 draft from the sixth round to the seventh round and yielded a conditional late-round pick for the veteran. Immediately after acquiring Palmer, the Cardinals signed him to a restructured two-year, $16 million deal that has only $2 million in dead money following the 2014 season, at which time a quarterback will have been groomed to replace him. The pure genius of this move doesn’t even take into account how well Palmer has performed as of late. He has thrown 14 touchdowns compared to four interceptions over the course of the last seven games after throwing 13 interceptions in the first seven games. It’s no coincidence that Arizona is 6-1 in those last seven games after starting out the season 3-4.

This is what we are talking about when we say “with an eye to the future.” Even if Palmer didn’t pan out in the desert, there was very little risk to acquiring him. Arizona knew this full well when it called up Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie to talk about a potential trade.


Building an Elite Defense

Again looking at Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals grade out as the third-best defense in the entire NFL. Interestingly enough, they are behind only Seattle and San Francisco in that category. They also rank eighth in the NFL in scoring defense. Despite coming off a bad performance on the defensive side of the ball against Tennessee, the Cardinals have both the veteran leadership and youthful exuberance that is needed to compete in the NFL today. Just look at who they’ve added to the defense this past year.


Round Player Position Team
2 Kevin Minter Linebacker LSU
3 Tyrann Mathieu Defensive Back LSU
4 Alex Okafor Linebacker Texas


See a pattern here? Arizona has taken note of how the Seahawks and 49ers have built their teams in recent seasons and is attempting to do the exact same thing. It’s the idea that if you have talent on the defensive side of the ball, you can compete on a consistent basis. Those youngsters join the likes of Daryl Washington, Patrick Peterson and Calais Campbell to form what has been a studly unit.

Arizona still has a lot of work to do before being considered in the same class as the 49ers and Seahawks in the NFC West. With that said, it has already taken that next step towards playoff contention in a season that it seemed like everything was pointing in the opposite direction. A rookie head coach, washed-up veteran quarterback and having to go up against two of the four-best teams in the NFL.

Yeah, 2013 wasn’t supposed to be the season that saw Arizona vie for a postseason spot into Week 16. The odds are definitely against this team in the final two weeks of the season, but that’s not really the point. Much like San Francisco in 2011, but to a lesser extent, Arizona’s rebuilding process was what I would consider relatively short. Add in another solid draft class and this team could very well be competing with the big boys in the best division in football. Who would have realistically thought this just a calendar year ago? I don’t think so.


St. Louis Rams

This season hasn’t gone quite as expected for Jeff Fisher and Co. Many expected the Rams to contend for one of the two wildcard spots in the NFC, but an injury to Sam Bradford seven games in really threw a wrench into that plan. While Kellen Clemens has played pretty solid football in Bradford’s stead, he is nowhere near the long-term solution at quarterback. Questions are now starting to be raised about Bradford’s future with the team. He was the last No. 1 overall pick to sign under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, which can cause some salary cap issues moving forward, but I digress.

St. Louis may be behind the curve here a tad because it doesn’t have that true franchise quarterback or a set of reliable starting receivers. What it lacks at the skill positions, St. Louis more than makes up for on the defensive side of the ball. See a theme here, again? Not saying that the two bottom teams in the NFC West have acted as copycats, but even if they are; it’s a damn solid philosophy to have.


Avoiding the Retread Fear

When a talented young team turns to a veteran head coach, people will question it. It seems to be more of a commonality around the league that young teams turn to wide-eyed first-time head coaches, per USA Today. 


Team Avg Age Head Coach Age (*) HC Experience
St. Louis Rams 24.98 Jeff Fisher 53 17 Years
Cleveland Browns 25.24 Rob Chudzinski 45 0 Years
Buffalo Bills 25.31 Doug Marrone 49 0 Years
Seattle Seahawks 25.31 Pete Carroll 59 4 Years
Jacksonville Jaguars 25.41 Gus Bradley 47 0 Years


* Age at time of hire

# Previous head coaching experience

Of the five youngest teams in the NFL right now, three of them just recently hired head coaches with zero head coaching experience. Carroll might be a few years older than Fisher, but the latter has extensive head coaching experience compared to his NFC West counterpart. In fact, Fisher had 13 more years of previous head coaching experience than the other four coaches on this list.

This tells us a story of the Rams going away from the grain and utilizing their own philosophy when determining who the best possible option would be for the franchise moving forward. Fisher’s success in Tennessee with the Titans and before that in Houston with the Oilers is hard to question. He led that once fledgling franchise to six postseason appearances in 17 seasons, including a trip to the Super Bowl against these very same Rams back in 1999. Despite a lack of success towards the end of his tenure in Tennessee, Fisher seemed to be a hot commodity after the two parted ways. Instead of getting right back into the game after the marriage ended in divorce, Fisher decided to take a year off. In the end, he chose the Rams over a plethora of teams in what has to be considered a surprising decision.

The results haven’t been immediate, but it’s obvious that Fisher and his front office ally Les Snead are leading the Rams in the right direction.


Snead’s Plan

Let’s talk about the 500-pound bucking Ram in the room. That would, of course, be the blockbuster Robert Griffin III deal. Before we can even give a context as it relates to that deal, it is important to note that St. Louis actually hired Fisher before it brought in Snead as the general manager. That may be half backwards (for a lack of a better idiom), but it seems to have worked out well. Fisher and Snead, much like the front offices of the other three teams in the NFC West, have a great relationship.

This was evidenced by the aforementioned RGIII deal.

Fresh off a disastrous 2-14 2011 campaign that saw St. Louis get outscored by an average of nearly two touchdowns per game, it acquired the second overall pick in the draft. The issue here is that the consensus top-two prospects played the same position as Sam Bradford, who the Rams were still on the hook for tens of millions in straight cash money. The philosophy in St. Louis’ front office then had to be to get the best possible deal in a move down with a quarterback-needy franchise. Luckily, Mr. Money Pants himself, Daniel Snyder came calling. And the following was the result. Here are the players St. Louis has acquired, in some fashion, in the RGIII deal.


Year Round Player Position Team
2012 1 Michael Brockers Defensive Tackle LSU
2012 2 Janoris Jenkins Cornerback Northern Alabama
2012 2 Isaiah Pead Running Back Cincinnati
2012 5 Rokevious Watkins Offensive Tackle South Carolina
2013 1 Alec Ogletree Linebacker Georgia
2013 3 Stedman Bailey Wide Receiver West Virginia
2013 5 Zac Stacy Running Back Vanderbilt


Now St. Louis did have to give up a pick here and a pick there to move up for a couple of these players, but the selections that it acquired from the Redskins, it was able to get a mighty fine haul for what ended up being the current backup quarterback for the Redskins.

Brockers and Jenkins have made their impacts known on the defensive side of the ball. Both were immediate-impact performers with Jenkins continuing to improve as a cover corner in the NFL. Where as Pead and Watkins can be considered “busts” at this point, the real coup here was getting Stacy in the fifth round of the draft this past April. The Vanderbilt product has taken over as the Rams starting running back as a rookie and is on pace to put up over 1,100 total yards.

Now for the icing on the cake or to take the bull by the horn, St. Louis is going to end up with a top-five selection from Washington in this deal. The Redskins are currently in last place in the NFC East and if the season were to end today, would be handing over the No. 2 overall pick to the Rams. That’s highway robbery in its clearest form.

The plan in St. Louis is rather simple. Build through the draft and supplement in free agency. The acquisitions of veterans Jake Long and Jared Cook this past offseason were a prime example of that. Both cost a pretty penny, but filled positions of need that the Rams had not addressed in the draft. As it relates to Long, he’s a former No. 1 overall pick himself and is one of the top-10 left tackles in the NFL. Much like most of his career, Cook has struggled with consistency, but he continues to be a matchup concern for opposing defenses.


Building a Defense

Building A Sports Franchise the Correct Way: How the
      NFC West Was Won


This has got to be one of the downright scariest defenses in the entire NFL. Veteran leaders molding with talented youngsters has been a recipe for success in San Francisco, and the Rams have only added yet another frightening mix to the division as of late. Just take a gander at the players that they have picked up in the draft on that side of the ball over the past few seasons. Robert Quinn (pictured above), Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Alec Ogletree and T. J. McDonald. That’s a ridiculously large amount of young talent to mesh with veterans such as Chris Long, Cortland Finnegan and James Laurinaitis.

With all this being said, the Rams defense has not yet taken their game to the next level. They rank in the middle of the pack (13th) in scoring defense, 27th in passing defense and 21st in total defense. With so many youngsters ready to hit their prime, it’s not hard to imagine this unit being able to take the next step towards elite status in the not-so-distant future.

As it is, the Rams are going to have to wait their turn. They will have two picks in the top 15 this upcoming May and have a plethora of unproven talent on the roster. It’s now going to be about making a decision on Bradford. If St. Louis decides to move on from its investment, there will be many different options available to it when the draft rolls around in May. That’s going to dictate in what direction this franchise is heading moving forward. Despite a 6-8 record, there is a lot to be happy about in Missouri.


Before I continue on until the Super Bowl, let’s take a quick look at just how much success this division has had in 2013 and why it has to be considered the best in the entire National Football League.


Overall Winning % 0.661
Non-Divisional Winning % 0.737
Point Differential 339
Average Margin of Victory Ouside Division 8.9
Turnover Differential 37


These are some telling statistics right here. Let’s compare this to the 2010 season for a second.


Overall Winning % 0.391
Non-Divisional Winning % 0.282
Point Differential (-) 322
Average Margin of Loss Ouside Division 8.1
Turnover Differential (-) 10


As alarming as these differences might be, you now have a good understanding as to why the NFC West, as a whole, has improved so dramatically over the course of just three seasons. The indicators are mentioned above. Hire good coaches, bring in solid front office personnel, draft well, avoid spending large sums of money in free agency and create continuity in the locker room. All four NFC West teams have done a stellar job in these aspects of franchise building over the past couple seasons.

It’s now all going to be about maintaining this high level of play. Fortunately, the structure is in place for the NFC West to continue its domination over the rest of the conference. San Francisco and Seattle have relatively young cores, while Arizona and St. Louis are building strong foundations from the inside out. The question will not be whether the NFC West gets two teams in the playoffs in a  given season. Instead, will it send both wildcard teams to the second season? Heck, there is a slight possibility of this happening in 2013.

As it relates to the Rams and Cardinals, they are still behind the top two teams in the division. It’s now going to be about continuing their building process and closing the gap. If that happens, the NFC West could very well become the modern version of the Black and Blue Division. 

Thanks for reading and stay tuned to The Sports Daily for more extensive coverage as the site gets up and running.


Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called “Football Debate Central” with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.







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