What is Going on in the NFC West?

Benjamin White '23

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The 2019-2020 NFL season has certainly been an odd one so far. Lamar Jackson has made the Ravens look like a powerhouse. Sam Darnold has been seeing ghosts, and the Jets have been a downright dysfunctional mess. Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago Bears somehow look worse than they did last season. Dwyane Haskins of the Washington Redskins might be the Markell Fultz of football. Matthew Stafford got the record of the fastest QB to 40,000 passing yards, despite having no defense or running game for his entire Detroit Lions career. On Thursday Night Football of Week 11, Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns literally assaulted Pittsburgh Steelers QB, Mason Rudolph, ripping his helmet off and swinging it into Rudolph’s head. Even with all of this mayhem happening, the NFC West is still the most interesting division in the NFL.

 

Going into the season, the NFC West appeared to be easy to understand. The Los Angeles Rams were coming off of a Super Bowl appearance, and seemed destined to repeat as NFC West champions. The Seattle Seahawks were coming off of a wildcard loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and were expected to be in the same position behind Russell Wilson’s elite playmaking ability and a well rounded, albeit no longer elite defense. The San Francisco 49ers finished the 2018-2019 season tied with the second worst record in football. Some of that may have been due to Jimmy Garoppolo’s ACL injury that sidelined him for a majority of the season. With the second pick in the 2019 NFL draft and a healthy Jimmy G, the 49ers looked like they could be a sneakily competitive non-playoff team. With the worst record in the NFL, there was the Arizona Cardinals. Josh Rosen at QB was not cutting it for the Cardinals front office, so they dumped him for a second round pick and a fifth round pick to the Dolphins. The Cardinals drafted Kyler Murray to lead their offense, but they still seemed destined for a top 3 pick again. Despite what everything was expected to be, this season, everything went haywire. The NFC West standings as of the end of week 10 might add some clarity to that statement.

 

First Place: San Francisco 49ers: 8-1

For the 49ers to be elite, it looked like they needed Jimmy G to become an elite NFL QB to supercharge their offense. While Garoppolo has proven to be a serviceable starting QB, he certainly has not been elite. Amongst other NFL quarterbacks, Garoppolo ranks 19th in passing yards, 16th in passing TDs, and 14th in passer rating. He is also tied for 8th in most interceptions thrown, with 8 on the season. What has made the 49ers look dominant through nine games is their running attack and defense. With 161.8 rushing yards per game, the 49ers rank second in the NFL. It is not as if they have an elite group of running backs. Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman are under the radar players that do a great job behind an elite offensive line. What really separates the 49ers is their stellar defense. The 49ers give up the second least amount of yards per game, trailing only the reigning Super-Bowl Champion New England Patriots. They also have the third most takeaways in the league. On the defensive line, the 49ers drafted Nick Bosa with the second pick in the NFL draft, and he has been effective in adding another threat to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Bosa has seven sacks through nine games and looks comfortable in his rookie season. An elite running game and defense has unpredictably made the 49ers go from the second worst team in the league to being tied with the New England Patriots for having the best record in football. With Bosa anchoring the defensive line for the foreseeable future, the 49ers look to keep dominating defensively.

 

Second Place: Seattle Seahawks: 8-2

The Seahawks have been a very solid team for a long time due to their running game and defense. In the past few seasons, the Seahawks have lost elite running back, Marshawn Lynch, and key members of their elite secondary, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. This past season, the Seahawks fired offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, and seemed poised to struggle offensively. Despite that, the Seahawks have maintained an elite running game, as they rank 6th in rushing yards per game behind running backs Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and C.J. Prosise. However, defensively, the Seahawks have struggled mightily. Despite being 4th in takeaways, The Seahawks have given up the 9th most yards per game, seemingly letting teams get to the red-zone at will, evidenced by how the Seahawks give up the 10th most points per game. Often, those defensive stats do not translate to an 8-2 record. As usual, the Seahawks difference maker has been Russell Wilson. This season, Wilson has gone from being an elite quarterback who makes clutch plays to being an MVP candidate. Wilson ranks 4th in passing yards, 1st in passing TDs, and has a touchdown to interception ratio of 23 to 2, one of the best in the league. With deep threats Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf, Russell Wilson has defied the odds and kept the Seahawks at a playoff caliber level. 

 

Third Place: Los Angeles Rams: 5-4

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Rams were looking to build off of a dominant offensive season where they made the Super Bowl, but their offense has had a disappointing turnaround. In the 2018-2019 NFL season, the Rams ranked second in yards per game and points per game. This season, the Rams are 12th in yards per game and 11th in points per game. Some of this may be due to the rest of the NFL figuring out how to defend Sean McVay’s offense. Another possibility is Jared Goff did not improve the way people hoped he would. In the 2018-2019 season, Goff ranked 4th in passing yards with 4688 passing yards. He also had 32 passing TDs, which ranked 6th in the NFL. Goff was also able to limit his interceptions to 12 on the season. This season has been a different story. Goff’s passing yards still look impressive, but little else does. He has fallen to 21st in passing TDs, and has the 4th most interceptions in the league, with 9 picks. Not only has Goff been a disappointment, so has Todd Gurley. There have been numerous reports about something wrong with Todd Gurley’s knees, which makes sense due to his injury history. The issue is that nobody knows what specifically is wrong with them. He does not have a designated injury, so the Rams keep playing him. Last season, Gurley was a monster, ranking third in rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns. This season, it looks as if someone killed the monster that once kept defensive coordinators up late at night, and replaced him with a defensive friendly ghost that only children and Sam Darnold are afraid of. Gurley now ranks 23rd in rushing yards and 12th in rushing TDs. Some of the Rams issues may be due to a weaker offensive line, but Gurley’s health and Goff’s struggles certainly deserve a majority of the blame. The Rams have gone from a Super Bowl contender to being third in their own division, and it looks like a long road just to reach the playoffs.

 

Fourth Place: Arizona Cardinals: 3-6-1

The Cardinals being last in the NFC West is possibly the least surprising storyline in the NFL. Watching Kyler Murray excel as an NFL quarterback certainly has been entertaining though. Going into the season, there were legitimate questions towards if Kyler Murray was that much of an improvement over Josh Rosen. His height has always been questionable, as he has had multiple different measurements averaging around 5’10” (Which might even be a little generous). 5’10” is not small for average standards, but when there are 6’7” defensive tackles blitzing Murray full force, people expected him to have difficulties seeing the field. Despite that, Murray has impressed in his rookie season. Murray ranks 8th in passing yards, has a 12 to 5 passing touchdown to interception ratio, is ranked second in rushing yards for quarterbacks, and has 2 rushing TDs. Meanwhile, Josh Rosen has been stuck on the bench watching Ryan Fitzpatrick do everything he can to help the Dolphins win, much to the dismay of the tanking organization. The Cardinals definitely have their share of issues, but they may have found their QB of the future. 

 

The season is definitely not over yet. Despite everything that was said above, the only team that is out of the playoff picture in the NFC West is the Cardinals. Typically, rookie QBs have a better second half of the season than they have in the first half, so Murray could look even better than he does right now, giving Cardinals fans still have something to cheer for. The other three teams in the NFC West all have playoff aspirations. Despite the Rams disappointments, their defense has kept them playing at an above average level. If the offense steps up, the Rams could return to their championship contending ways. Meanwhile, the 49ers and Seahawks are in a battle for first place in the division, with the loser seemingly destined for a wildcard spot. The NFC West has taken unexpected turns this season, but those turns have turned it into the most competitive and entertaining division in all of football. 

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