2015 Seattle Seahawks Are Men Among Boys In The NFC West
Few expected the NFC West to become the powerhouse it is today after the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks clinched the division in 2010. Yet three conference championships and one Super Bowl victory later, it now seems like a yearly given that the NFC West will be among the best in football.
Fans, however, would be prudent to temper their expectations for this division in 2015, as a multitude of factors suggest the division as a whole is approaching rapid decline. The Seahawks should still dominate, but, compared to years past, the rest of the division stands little chance of competing with Seattle for the division title.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams can blame their 6-10 record in 2014 on their paltry offense, which ranked 28th in yards per game (314.7).
St. Louis tried to remedy this problem by trading Sam Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for Nick Foles, but he's not a sure improvement. Foles followed up his incredible 2013 season with a dud in 2014, earning an overall performance grade of -7.4 from Pro Football Focus premium statistics, 25th among quarterbacks. Shaun Hill and Austin Davis, the team's 2014 passers, ranked 26th and 29th, respectively.
Foles also loses a respectable offensive line in Philadelphia, which ranked 8th in pass blocking, while St. Louis ranked 27th.
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Rams fans hope that Todd Gurley will propel this offense to acceptable levels, but the reality is that Gurley, though supremely talented, won't change much initially. Gurley is still recovering from a knee injury and his availability Week One remains uncertain. Even when he does play, defenses will stack the box and force the Rams to throw. Drafting Gurley was a start, but St. Louis has miles to go in the passing game before they win consistently.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners have appeared in conference championships three of the last four years, yet they parted ways with the man that brought them there, Jim Harbaugh.
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Probably the biggest testament to Harbaugh's value was just how many players abandoned ship after he announced his departure. Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Dan Skuta, Chris Culliver, and Michael Crabtree are all on different teams now, and Patrick Willis retired. Some may have left anyway, but it's unlikely all six would have left if Harbaugh stayed. Clearly, his leaving was a sign that rebuilding was looming.
Time is working against the aging Niners defense. With the addition of thirty-four year old Darnell Dockett, the Niners have four defensive players age thirty or older expected to see significant playing time.
While the defense is filled with veterans whose window is closing, the offense is a total unknown. The offensive line is young and showed promise last season, but Colin Kaepernick took major steps backward in his passing game, posting the lowest total QBR of his career (55.86), and he remains unproven. Likewise, Carlos Hyde replaces Gore and he's talented, but it's not a given he will be the bell cow they previously had.
After consecutive seasons with double-digit wins, the Cardinals look poised to contend in 2015 at first glance, but several predictive metrics suggest decline is imminent.
The Pythagorean projection was explained by fellow SQ contributor Daniel Apadula in his article on teams poised for a comeback. Essentially it's a mathematical prediction of wins developed by Football Outsiders, the idea being that teams who over/underperform their projection are likely to regress the following year. This bodes poorly for the Cardinals, who outperformed their expected win totals of 9.46 in 2013 and 8.34 in 2014.
Also detailed in Daniel's article is the predictive application of fumble recovery percentage. Theoretically a team's fumble recovery percentage should be around 50%, yet Arizona recovered fumbles an NFL-best 62.86% of the time in 2014. This kind of luck is unsusta inable, so expect fewer fumble recoveries in 2015 and consequently, maybe fewer wins.
Arizona's strength in 2014 was its defense, which changed a lot this offseason. Starters Antonio Cromartie and Dan Williams both signed elsewhere and former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles became head coach of the New York Jets. Bowles is credited with the attacking style defense that made Arizona dangerous and opposing teams will recognize his absence. Arizona added LaMarr Woodley and Cory Redding, both of whom figure to help the pass rush but do nothing to fill the depleted secondary.
Offensively, the big question going forward is whether Carson Palmer can stay healthy. In his six games last season, Palmer threw eleven touchdowns and just three interceptions, demonstrating relative effectiveness in Bruce Arians' vertical system.
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After Palmer tore his ACL in week 6, however, the Cardinals were exposed, as backup Drew Stanton ranked 31st among quarterbacks in PFF's overall performance grade. Palmer's injury history (17 missed games the past four seasons) suggests a sixteen-game stint is unlikely, so the arrow is pointing downward in Arizona.
Despite two years of utter dominance, the Seahawks could actually be better in 2015. Only three starters departed this offseason--Byron Maxwell, James Carpenter, and Max Unger. Maxwell is replaced by veteran Cary Williams, whose physicality suits the Legion of Boom well. Carpenter is easily replaced by Alvin Bailey, and as for Unger, the Seahawks are plenty happy with that move, considering they got Jimmy Graham in return.
Graham has to be the biggest offseason upgrade for any team, solely because his red zone prowess should stop plays like this from ever happening again:
Seattle has led the league in total defense the past two seasons, and all of their core components are slated to return Week One. Factor in the the addition of Graham to an offense that already features a dominant rushing attack via Marshawn Lynch and continues to improve with the growth of Russell Wilson and Seattle's offense should score more than enough for the Legion of Boom to continue carrying them.