Expected/Actual Win Totals(Rank): 7.2 (24) / 10 (10)
Expected/Actual Points Scored (Rank): 361 (20) / 379 (16)
Expected/Actual Points Allowed (Rank): 386 (26) / 324 (7)
Average Player Age(Rank): 27.8 (2)
2013 Grade: B+
The question with Arizona heading into 2013 wasn’t whether or not their pass offense would be better, it was the extent to which the improvement could be measured. At season’s end QB Carson Palmer led the NFL’s 15th ranked passing game, a drastic upgrade over the previous season’s 30th ranked unit that had been quarterbacked by the likes of Ryan Lindley, Kevin Kolb, and John Skelton. The defense, now under the tutelage of coordinator Todd Bowles, had another stellar year finishing 5th overall in pass defense. Despite losing 2013 first round pick G Jonathan Cooper to injury in the preseason and playing in football’s best division, the Cardinals improved by 5 wins over the previous year with rookie head coach Bruce Arians.
Team Direction: ↔
The Cardinals, an older team, will find it hard to improve much upon their 10 wins achieved in 2013. The NFC West is shaping up to be at least as competitive as it was in 2013 as both Seattle and St. Louis sport significantly younger and perhaps more talented rosters. Palmer is a quarterback capable of posting winning seasons with regularity but at 35 is not going to elevate his game any higher. Bruce Arians is an elite offensive mind and has brought stability to Arizona, but that playoff mountain may be even harder to climb in 2014.
San Francisco 49ers
Expected/Actual Win Totals(Rank): 10.8 (1) / 12 (5)
Expected/Actual Points Scored (Rank): 407 (7) / 406 (11)
Expected/Actual Points Allowed (Rank): 298 (1) / 272 (3)
Average Player Age(Rank): 27.6 (5)
2013 Grade: A-
Head coach Jim Harbaugh overcame a Super Bowl hangover, injuries and suspensions to key defensive players, and a 1-2 start in guiding the 49ers to 12 wins. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, in his first full season leading the team, backed up a great rookie season with a solid #10 league rank in pass offense. The defense was very good once again as San Francisco finished in the top 6 in adjusted pass defense for the 3rd straight season.
Team Direction: ↑
The only negative one can really throw at the 49ers is their lack of a Lombardi trophy the last three years. The 2013 season easily could have culminated with the 49ers appearing in a second straight Super Bowl if not for a last-minute loss to the best team in the league on the road. Although the team is more aged than most the front office and coaching staff are as good as any and have managed to stay intact despite the success of the organization on the field. The immediate challenges for the franchise involve keeping key cogs such as Harbaugh, Kaepernick, and WR Anquan Boldin under contract as roster tweakings are made to try to topple division rival Seattle.
Expected/Actual Win Totals(Rank): 9.1 (5) / 13 (1)
Expected/Actual Points Scored (Rank): 388 (13) / 420 (8)
Expected/Actual Points Allowed (Rank): 340 (3) / 231 (1)
Average Player Age(Rank): 25.9 (28)
2013 Grade: A+
The Seahawks somehow eclipsed their 2012 defensive performance this season as they led the NFL in fewest adjusted points allowed, adjusted pass defense, and turnovers forced. Not coincidentally the team captured the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in early February with a one-sided demolition of the Broncos. Second-year QB Russell Wilson led another top 5 passing offense as Seattle finished behind only Denver and New England in adjusted points scored. Off-season additions such as defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril played up to their potential in head coach Pete Carroll’s aggressive 4-3 defensive front.
Team Direction: ↑
Only complacency can stop the Seahawks from becoming the next dynasty in the NFL. The front office and coaching staff look as though they will stay together for at least one more year. Parallels are not hard to draw to the early 90′s Dallas Cowboys; both teams were brimming with young all-pro caliber players on defense and at quarterback at the time of their first championship. The off-season’s biggest addition, WR Percy Harvin, will likely participate in more games in 2014 than the one regular season match during which he saw the field this year. Look for the team to address line play in the draft and free agency, particularly the interior of the offensive line and depth along the defensive front.
St. Louis Rams
Expected/Actual Win Totals(Rank): 6.5 (31) / 7 (20)
Expected/Actual Points Scored (Rank): 324 (31) / 348 (21)
Expected/Actual Points Allowed (Rank): 366 (15) / 364 (13)
Average Player Age(Rank): 25.5 (32)
2013 Grade: B
Despite their starting QB Sam Bradford only playing 7 games and a pass defense which sank to 31st in the NFL, the Rams rounded into form as the season evolved and finished with a .54% adjusted win percentage. This jump in team ability relative to 2012 sheds light on the quantity of inexperienced talent employed by St. Louis. Exciting young players such as pass rushing DE Robert Quinn and WR/KR Tavon Austin give the team the sort of game changing ability, in regards to forcing turnovers on defense and creating big plays on offense and in the kicking game, that they have lacked since the Dick Vermeil era.
Team Direction: ↑
Head coach Jeff Fisher knows that finesse football will not rule the day in the NFC West anytime soon. The Rams are beginning to truly reap the rewards of the Robert Griffin deal of 2012 (in the form of extra draft picks) and are in the process of building a team talented enough to battle toe-to-toe with division rivals Seattle and San Francisco. General manager Les Snead and his staff appear committed to Sam Bradford for at least the near future, and maybe for good reason; the former #1 overall pick posted a 93+ adjusted passer rating in 2013 before succumbing to injury. A full season of Bradford should be enough for St. Louis to have a winning record in 2014. If early round picks are used wisely the next couple years, winning seasons will become the norm for the Rams.