By Marc Lawrence
The days of the wild, wild West are long gone and in the rear view mirror. Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice have been replaced by the likes of Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Leinhart and Larry Fitzgerald in today's NFC West.
To illustrate exactly how much of a drop off this division has suffered, consider this: In the 1980's the NFC West was recognized as a road monster, with teams from this loop going 176-127-6 ATS away from home, including 114-80-4 in non division games and 20-4-1 in road frays when the Over/Under total was 47 or higher points.
In the same, identical roles, the 2000's contingent was 146-191-12 ATS on the highway, including 76-126-8 ATS outside the division and 10-24 when the Over/Under total was 47 or more points.
What a remarkable drop-off. From the Hall of Fame to the Hall of Shame.
The rebuilding has started, with Pete Carroll jumping over to Seattle from USC and St. Louis pinning its hopes on Sam Bradford with the No. 1 pick of this year's draft.
We're betting on it being the mild, mild West for a while. At least until enough of Carroll's Trojans find their way to Seattle.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
Shaking off the stigma of being a Super Bowl-loser last season, the Cardinals became only the second such team in nine years to make it back to the playoffs the following season in 2009. While that feat put a smile on Ken Whisenhunt's face, the loss of future Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner to retirement is another matter. A lukewarm draft yielded Fordham QB John Skelton in Round 5, meaning it's finally time for Matt Leinart to stand and deliver. He completed 66% of his passes last year in pinch-hit and mop-up roles, but will need to improve on a 14/20 career TD/INT ratio. Otherwise, import Derek Anderson, a former Pro Bowler with Cleveland, will be barking signals. Tackling the softest strength of schedule in the league - along with the possibility that emerging RB Beanie Wells can inch his team over 100 rushing yards per game - Arizona's chances of returning to the playoffs will be like Warner's new life in a hammock... a breeze.
PLAY ON: vs. New Orleans (10/10) - *KEY off a loss
TEAM THEME: SAM THE MAN
Hearts were racing when the Rams designated Sam Bradford as their quarterback of the future with the first selection in this year's NFL draft. It marked the second year in a row that a QB groomed for the NFL by quarterback coach-guru Terry Shea (Detroit's Matthew Stafford last year) was chosen with the coveted top pick. "He certainly has all the tools to be a franchise player in this league," said Shea about Bradford. He'll be protected by LT Jason Smith, the No. 2 overall selection in last year's draft. Bradford's 175.6 career passer rating ranks No. 1 all time in college football history, making the choice a safe one. The good news is Bradford will be facing the 2nd easiest strength of schedule in the league in 2010. The bad news is the Rams are 0-12 SU and 1-11 ATS the first four games of the season the last three years. If the break-in process doesn't do them in, Stan Musial could be taking a back seat to a new hometown hero.
PLAY ON: as dog at Detroit (10/10)
LIVE BY THE SWORD
The 49ers did an impressive job of improving their team this off-season, turning former weaknesses into potential strengths for the coming season. QB David Carr is a solid backup for Alex Smith, who will be operating with the same offensive coordinator for the first time in six years. WR/KR Ted Ginn Jr. adds the kind of speed San Francisco hasn't witnessed in a long while. Using their two first-round picks on OT Anthony Davis and OG Mike Iupati instantly upgraded the offensive line. A strong draft was cemented when S Taylor Mays of USC became available in a 2nd round steal. And MVP LB Patrick Willis topped the league in tackles in 2009 with 114. There is a lot to like about the makeup of Mike Singletary's squad. And there is also a lot to like about Singletary. He's been a winner at every level of his NFL career and it appears he'll have his team playoff bound faster than you can say Samurai Mike.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. New Orleans (9/20)
TEAM THEME: ON THEIR TROJAN HORSES
The Pete Carroll era kicks off in Seattle this season and it couldn't happen soon enough. After winning nine games in two years, the Seahawks opened their wallets and made the biggest hire in franchise history when then lured Carroll away of USC. Carroll's first task was assembling an all-star coaching staff, including eight former USC staff members, and then overseeing a draft that proved super, with any one of his first three choices potential Rookie of the Year candidates. The players that Carroll has brought in to resurrect this program, along with the players already on the roster, will make for an explosive football team, especially on offense. QB Charlie Whitehurst was acquired form San Diego and will battle Matt Hasselbeck for the starting job. Off-season additions of WR's Mike (ex-Trojan) and Reggie Williams and draft day acquisitions of RB's LenDale White (ex-Trojan) and Leon Washington are immediate upgrades.Yes, it appears this program should be riding high, sooner than later.
PLAY ON: vs. Carolina (12/5)