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How the West Was Won

A timeline of how the NFC West went from league laughingstock to the best division in football

On January 1, 2011, the NFC West was the laughingstock of the NFL. The 6-9 Seahawks and the 7-8 Rams were one day away from playing a would-be playoff tilt on Sunday Night Football that would determine whether the NFC West would become the first division in league history to send a team with a losing record to the NFL playoffs as its champion, inspiring national discussion as to whether the division was the worst in league history. The Cardinals, two years removed from a shocking trip to the Super Bowl, had failed to recover from the retirement of Kurt Warner and collapsed into one of the league’s worst teams. They were 5-10 heading into the final week of the season, as were their opponents, who might have been the biggest disappointments of all. The 49ers, expected to regress toward the mean after a promising 8-8 season with a 9.5-win point differential the previous year, had fallen off to an embarrassing 5-10 record. A fan base with high hopes had resorted to chanting “WE WANT CARR” at embattled head coach Mike Singletary amid an 0-5 start, but the 49ers instead stumbled through a stretch with Alex and Troy Smith before eventually firing Singletary on December 27, one day after a loss to the Rams.

On December 23, 2012, the NFC West was the toast of the league. The Sunday Night Football contest that night was between the 10-3-1 49ers and 9-5 Seahawks, two of the best teams in football. They would each make deep playoff runs; the Seahawks would come within one play of a rubber match with the Niners in the NFC Championship Game, and the Niners would finish one play short of the Lombardi Trophy. The Rams, one of the league’s youngest teams, improved by nearly six full wins to finish 7-8-1; the Cardinals still hadn’t found a replacement for Warner, but they had managed to scrape together one of the league’s best defenses. The division that had been a case for playoff rule changes just 24 months prior was now, quite possibly, the best division in football. This Sunday, they’ll renew acquaintances in Seattle in one of the most highly anticipated matchups of 2013.

How on earth did that happen to the NFC West?

Well, let’s look back. Some of the big moves had already been made, but their true impact hadn’t yet been revealed; other changes were still to come. Let’s start, though, with what those teams looked like heading into the final week of the 2010 season, and finish up with how they got to where they are now.

Where They Were Then

The 49ers were a team in transition. Their interim head coach was Jim Tomsula, who would return to his role as defensive line coach after the season. He looked like a guy who had won a contest to be head coach for a day. His lone game as head coach would be a good one, as the 49ers blew out the Cardinals, 38-7.

Of the 22 players who started for San Francisco that day, seven were off the active roster by Week 1 of the 2011 campaign: Barry Sims, David Baas, Brian Westbrook, Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson, Takeo Spikes — and Nate Clements, a notable misfire after the 49ers gave him the largest contract ever given to a defensive player in 2007. Guard Chilo Rachal, safety Reggie Smith, and cornerback Shawntae Spencer would remain on the team as reserves in 2011; in all, the team would turn over nearly half its starters1 by the end of the following season. The Niners were already building around a young offensive line, having used first-round picks on Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, and Anthony Davis, while all-world inside linebacker Patrick Willis seemed to be roaming the middle for naught on defense.

The Seahawks were successful enough to go to the playoffs, and they had already made their big hires in coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, but they were also in the process of turning over their roster. Charlie Whitehurst, of all people, started at quarterback for the Seahawks that Sunday night. Their turnover wasn’t quite as severe that offseason because they didn’t change coaching staffs, but there are only four starters from that Week 17 tilt against the Rams who are still with the Seahawks today: defensive end Chris Clemons, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, and the first two draft picks of the Schneider Era from that year’s draft, first-rounders Russell Okung and Earl Thomas. Lurking on the bench were Marshawn Lynch,2 Kam Chancellor, and Golden Tate.

The Cardinals were obviously a mess at quarterback, as they were finishing up the season with John Skelton at the helm, but many of the players who fueled their great 2012 defense were around at the end of the 2010 season, including Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington, Greg Toler, Adrian Wilson, and Kerry Rhodes. The Cardinals had dealt Anquan Boldin to the Ravens during the previous offseason,3 but they still had Larry Fitzgerald, giving them the best offensive weapon in the division by a significant margin.

The most promising team in the division, by far, was the Rams. St. Louis had the best quarterback in the NFC West in rookie Sam Bradford, who had shouldered an enormous workload while leading the Rams to their best record in four seasons. They also had one of the best young coaches in football in Steve Spagnuolo, who was treated as a viable Coach of the Year candidate nationally. Years of bad records had finally paid off: In addition to Bradford, the Rams could point to a core that included Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, and O.J. Atogwe. And just like the adage said, the Rams were building from the lines out. Their offensive line included second overall pick Jason Smith, the 2010 33rd overall pick, Rodger Saffold, and big-money former Ravens center Jason Brown, all of whom started for St. Louis that day.

Since then, just about everything has changed. And you can relive that change in this timeline of the NFC West.

The Path to Stardom

January 2, 2011: The 49ers beat the Cardinals, 38-7, to push the Cardinals into last place in the NFC West. When asked whether he could imagine a scenario that would see him return to San Francisco for the 2011 season, Alex Smith responds with a rare bit of candor: “Are you being serious? Uh … no.”

January 2, 2011: In the final game of the NFL regular season, the Seahawks beat the Rams, 16-6, to claim the NFC West title and the no. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs. At 7-9, they are the only team in NFL history (besides the strike-shortened season of 1982) to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record. Seattle’s defense, which had allowed an average of just under 34 points per game in its six previous outings, holds Bradford & Co. to two field goals. Steven Jackson, with 39 yards, is St. Louis’s leading receiver. Whitehurst finishes 22-of-36 for 192 yards with one touchdown in his second career start. It remains unclear who will start at quarterback for the Seahawks in their upcoming playoff game against the 11-5 Saints, the league’s defending Super Bowl champion.

January 3, 2011: Adam Schefter tweets that the leading candidate for the 49ers job is Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.

January 5, 2011: The 49ers promote vice-president of player personnel Trent Baalke to general manager. Baalke and owner Jed York spend the day interviewing two candidates for their head coaching job: Harbaugh and Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. The team also requests permission to interview Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.

January 5, 2011: After ESPN analyst Jon Gruden rejects a $7 million-per-year offer from the Miami Dolphins, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross sets his sights on Harbaugh. Jason La Canfora, then of NFL Network, tweets that a Harbaugh deal with the Dolphins could reach $8 million per season; the 49ers have reportedly offered Harbaugh $4.5 million per year, while Harbaugh wants to match Carroll’s $6.5 million deal from the Seahawks. The Dolphins, it’s worth noting, still have head coach Tony Sparano under contract.

January 6, 2011: The Dolphins meet with Harbaugh in California, but decide to pass on offering Harbaugh their head coaching job. Two days later, they give Sparano a two-year contract extension through the 2013 season.

January 7, 2011: The 49ers hold a press conference to announce they’ve hired Harbaugh on a five-year, $25 million deal. When brother John — preparing for a playoff game with the Ravens — is asked to comment, he notes, “I’m very happy he’s not in the AFC. We’ll see him once every four years and Super Bowls — hopefully we could get a couple of those.”

January 8, 2011: In a stunning upset, the Seahawks beat the Saints, 41-36, to advance to the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Seattle wins despite coming into the game as a 10-point underdog at home, making it the first double-digit playoff underdog at home since at least 1978. Matt Hasselbeck starts for the Seahawks and outduels Drew Brees, throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns, but the most memorable play of the game comes when Lynch runs through the New Orleans defense on one of the greatest carries in NFL history.

January 13, 2011: The Browns hire Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to be their new head coach. The Associated Press story on the signing notes, “Shurmur’s arrival was greeted with mostly a collective yawn by Browns fans …”

January 16, 2011: Chicago comfortably beats Seattle at Soldier Field, 35-24, bringing the 2010 season to a close for the NFC West.

January 19, 2011: St. Louis hires Josh McDaniels, formerly of the Broncos, to be its new offensive coordinator.

January 21, 2011: With their season over, the Seahawks sign three players to future contracts. One of them is 27-year-old Calgary Stampeders cornerback Brandon Browner, who has made the CFL’s all-star game each of the previous three seasons.

March 11, 2011: The extensions of the previous collective bargaining agreement run out.

March 12, 2011: The NFL locks out its players.

March 18, 2011: The 49ers conduct a private workout with Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

April 27, 2011: The final mock drafts from Mel Kiper, Todd McShay, Rick Gosselin, and Mike Mayock all predict that the 49ers will use the seventh overall pick on Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Plugged-in 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco notes that the 49ers would move on from Smith if they used their first-round pick on Gabbert.4 Gabbert attracted pre-draft praise from Harbaugh, who called his pro day performance “dazzling.” And a poll of front-office executives by legendary Packers beat writer Bob McGinn names Gabbert as the best quarterback available in that year’s draft, finishing narrowly ahead of Cam Newton. Kaepernick finishes seventh on that list.

April 28-30, 2011: The 2011 NFL draft occurs under the specter of an unplayed season. The draft is fruitful for the teams of the NFC West, as each team selects several notable players as follows, with their round and pick number in parentheses:

July 25, 2011: The NFL lockout ends.

July 26, 2011: San Diego signs former 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes to a three-year deal. The 49ers are expected, according to multiple reports, to turn the job over to NaVorro Bowman, who had struggled at times and lost the coaching staff’s confidence during his rookie campaign in 2010.5

July 27, 2011: Seattle signs oft-injured wideout Sidney Rice to a five-year, $44 million contract with $18.5 million guaranteed. On August 2, it’ll add a second target for its quarterbacks by signing tight end Zach Miller to a five-year, $34 million deal with $17 million guaranteed.

July 29, 2011: The Eagles announce that they’ve traded Kevin Kolb to the Cardinals for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick in the 2012 draft. (That pick is traded to Green Bay and eventually yields defensive end Vinny Curry and cornerback Brandon Boykin.) The Cardinals immediately sign Kolb to a five-year, $64 million deal that guarantees him $21 million.

July 29, 2011: Hasselbeck signs a three-year, $21 million contract with the Tennessee Titans, ending his 10-year run with the Seahawks.

July 30, 2011: San Francisco signs longtime Eagles kicker David Akers to a contract. Akers will lead the league in field goals (44) during his first season at the helm.

August 3, 2011: The 49ers sign cornerback Carlos Rogers to a one-year deal. Rogers will end up making the Pro Bowl in 2011 before signing a long-term deal with the team in 2012.

August 4, 2011: Despite tweeting that he would sign with the Bengals, who even announced the signing on their team website, Donte Whitner signs a three-year contract with the 49ers.

August 21, 2011: The Cardinals re-sign Fitzgerald to an eight-year, $120 million deal that guarantees their star wide receiver nearly $50 million.

September 11, 2011: During the opening week of the 2011 season, the Rams lose slot wideout Danny Amendola to a dislocated elbow and starting cornerback Ronald Bartell to a broken neck. Both players miss the remainder of the season; Bartell becomes the first of three starting cornerbacks to suffer season-ending injuries in St. Louis.

October 12, 2011: Aaron Curry, 2009’s fourth overall pick, is traded from Seattle to Oakland for a 2012 seventh-round pick and a conditional pick in the 2013 draft. The first pick in question is used on North Carolina State defensive end J.R. Sweezy, who converts to guard after being drafted by the Seahawks. Sweezy eventually becomes Seattle’s starter at right guard. The second pick is used on cornerback Tharold Simon in the fifth round.

October 16, 2011: Bradford suffers a high ankle sprain in a loss to the Packers. The injury adds to hip, toe, and finger issues that have slowed Bradford during St. Louis’s 0-5 start to the season. The team brings Bradford back into the lineup three weeks later and runs him through four disappointing performances before he again returns to the trainer’s table.

October 17, 2011: The Rams trade for Brandon Lloyd, a bizarre luxury for a winless team. The McDaniels favorite follows his old head coach to New England after the season.

November 9, 2011: St. Louis benches center Jason Brown, less than three years after giving him a five-year, $37.5 million deal with $20 million in guarantees. The article reporting the move notes that team sources gave Brown’s performance on the field excellent grades, suggesting it was a decision unrelated to Brown’s play. Brown returns to the lineup as a guard after missing two weeks because of injuries, but he is released after the season and never plays another NFL down.

November 24, 2011: The 49ers lose the first Harbaugh Bowl on Thanksgiving Night, 16-6, ending their eight-game winning streak. They’ll win four of their last five games to finish 13-3.

December 12, 2011: St. Louis returns a clearly injured Bradford to the lineup on Monday Night Football, but a gimpy Bradford can only go 12-of-29 for 193 yards with an interception against the Seahawks. Bradford misses the remainder of the season, which finishes with the Rams at 2-14.

January 2, 2012: One year to the date of their loss to the Seahawks in what amounted to the NFC play-in game, the 2-14 Rams fire head coach Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney.

January 11, 2012: Rockies second baseman Russell Wilson tells the organization that he plans to focus on his football career and will not report to spring training. In two years with the Rockies, Wilson hit .229 with five homers in 315 at-bats without making it past Class A.

January 13, 2012: Jeff Fisher is hired to be the new head coach of the Rams.

January 14, 2012: In one of the most exciting playoff games in recent memory, Alex Smith leads a pair of late touchdown drives to push the 49ers past the Saints, 36-32.

January 22, 2012: A closely fought NFC Championship Game turns on two Kyle Williams fumbles, as a dominant performance by the 49ers defense isn’t enough to produce a victory over the Giants, who win 20-17 before claiming the Lombardi Trophy two weeks later.

February 14, 2012: The Rams hire Les Snead, director of player personnel with the Atlanta Falcons, to be their new general manager.

March 12, 2012: St. Louis agrees to trade the second overall pick in the 2012 draft, seen as the ticket to Robert Griffin III, to Washington. The Rams move down four spots in the 2012 draft and acquire Washington’s second-round pick, as well as first-round selections in 2013 and 2014.

March 13, 2012: The Rams stay busy by giving Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan a five-year, $50 million contract to become St. Louis’s featured cornerback.

March 14, 2012: In an intra-division move, the Cardinals sign guard Adam Snyder away from the 49ers, who eventually turn the job over to undrafted free agent Alex Boone. Snyder receives a $5 million signing bonus, but is cut after one season with the Cardinals and re-signs with the 49ers for 2013.

March 19, 2012: Seattle addresses its quarterback situation by signing Packers backup Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million contract with $10 million guaranteed. Flynn is expected to compete with Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job.

March 22, 2012: The 49ers sign quarterback Josh Johnson, who played under Harbaugh in college, to a two-year deal. Harbaugh later says that Johnson will compete with Kaepernick for the backup job behind Alex Smith.

April 26-28, 2012: The 2012 NFL draft goes down in New York. Although the draft is not as fruitful as it was for the teams the previous year, there are certainly notable additions to the division:

May 13, 2012: Carroll, in gushing about Russell Wilson, notes for the first time that his rookie passer will be a serious competitor in the team’s quarterback battle during training camp.

July 29, 2012: St. Louis locks up defensive end Chris Long, arguably its best player, to a five-year deal that guarantees him $36.7 million.

August 18, 2012: Arizona left tackle Levi Brown suffers a torn triceps that ends his 2012 season before it begins. The Cardinals, already thin at tackle, eventually start journeyman D’Anthony Batiste at left tackle and rookie Bobby Massie at right tackle.

August 26, 2012: After an impressive training camp and preseason, the Seahawks name Wilson their starting quarterback for Week 1 against the Cardinals.

August 27, 2012: The Rams trade Jason Smith, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, to the Jets for tackle Wayne Hunter.

September 16, 2012: In a shocking upset, Arizona heads to New England and narrowly pulls out a 20-18 win over the Patriots, pushing the Cardinals to 2-0. They will eventually start 4-0.

October 14, 2012: Kolb leaves the game during the fourth quarter of Arizona’s loss to the Bills with a rib injury; it’s later revealed that he had multiple ribs detach from his sternum while also suffering a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. He misses the remainder of the season and never plays again for the Cardinals, who spend the rest of the year shuffling between Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer at quarterback.

October 18, 2012: The first 49ers-Seahawks matchup of the season is a defensive battle. Seattle receivers drop a number of passes in the first half that could have given the Seahawks a chance at taking an early lead, but the 49ers eventually throw their weight around and pull out a 13-6 victory. Wilson finishes 9-of-23 for 122 yards with an interception, which remains his worst game as a pro.

November 11, 2012: Alex Smith suffers a concussion during the first half of San Francisco’s game with St. Louis. Kaepernick comes in and finishes the contest, which ends up as a 24-24 tie.

November 19, 2012: In his first start, Kaepernick leads the 49ers to a 32-7 win over the Bears. In going up against the league’s top-ranked defense (by DVOA), Kaepernick completes 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards, throwing for two touchdowns with no interceptions.

November 28, 2012: Harbaugh announces that Kaepernick will be his starter against the Rams and for the foreseeable future.

December 23, 2012: One week after beating the Patriots in New England, the 49ers head to Seattle and get stomped. The Seahawks lead 14-0 after one quarter, and when Sherman returns a blocked field goal 90 yards for a touchdown, the rout is on. Seattle eventually wins, 42-13.

December 23, 2012: Arizona benches running back Beanie Wells after his four carries against the Bears produce three yards and one fumble lost. After the game, Wells notes that he intends to use Week 17 as an “audition for 31 other teams.” The former first-round pick does not get a single carry in Week 17 and has not signed with a team since leaving Arizona.

January 6, 2013: Wilson leads the Seahawks to a come-from-behind win over the Redskins on the road in the NFC wild-card round, 24-14.

January 8, 2013: Arizona fires head coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves. Whisenhunt leaves having produced two of Arizona’s three winning seasons over the past 28 years. The Cardinals promote director of player personnel Steve Keim to general manager shortly thereafter.

January 12, 2013: The 49ers unleash the gates of hell upon the Packers, running for 323 yards in a 45-31 rout.

January 13, 2013: A frantic comeback led by Wilson earns Seattle a narrow lead in the fourth quarter against Atlanta, but a stunning drive from Matt Ryan produces a game-winning field goal that sends Seattle home, 30-28.

January 18, 2013: The Cardinals hire former Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to be their new head coach.

January 20, 2013: San Francisco becomes the second NFC West team in two weeks to fall behind the Falcons in Atlanta before launching a second-half comeback to take the lead; the difference is that San Francisco stops Atlanta on the goal line to make its lead hold up. A 28-24 win pushes the 49ers into Super Bowl XLVII.

February 3, 2013: Baltimore ekes out a win over San Francisco, 34-31, in the Super Bowl. A third-quarter blackout delays the game and does not provide San Francisco with any momentum for its comeback.

March 11, 2013: Seattle trades its first-round pick to the Vikings for wideout Percy Harvin.

March 12, 2013: The Chiefs acquire quarterback Alex Smith from the 49ers in exchange for the 34th overall pick in the 2013 draft.

March 13, 2013: Arizona swoops in and unexpectedly signs Drew Stanton to a three-year contract. Arians says afterward that he’s “found his guy” at quarterback and “I have all the confidence in the world with him being our starter.”

March 13, 2013: Harvin signs a six-year, $67 million deal with the Seahawks that guarantees him $25.5 million.

March 13-14, 2013: Seattle signs defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to short-term contracts. Bennett gets a one-year, $4.8 million deal, while Avril’s deal nets him $13 million over two years.

March 14, 2013: Rams wideout Danny Amendola signs with the Patriots.

March 15, 2013: Arizona releases quarterback Kevin Kolb.

March 15, 2013: Rams running back Steven Jackson signs with the Falcons, ending his nine-year tenure with the team. During that run, the Rams go 43-87-1 with Jackson in the lineup.

March 18, 2013: The Rams add left tackle Jake Long from the Dolphins after a multi-day physical. The deal comes six days after the Rams added pass-friendly tight end Jared Cook.

April 1, 2013: The Seahawks deal quarterback Matt Flynn to the Raiders for a fifth-round pick in the 2014 draft. Flynn finishes his Seahawks career having thrown nine regular-season passes for the team, all coming in the second half of a 58-0 blowout of the Cardinals. He earns almost $1 million per pass during his time with the team. By comparison, each Russell Wilson pass during his rookie season cost the Seahawks $1,386.42.

April 2, 2013: Arizona trades a sixth-round pick to the Raiders for Carson Palmer and a seventh-rounder. Stanton’s run as the definite starter in Arizona lasts 20 days.

April 3, 2013: Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington, arguably one of the best interior pass rushers in football in 2012, is suspended for the first four games of the NFL season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

April 25-27, 2013: The 2013 NFL draft occurs, yielding the following notable (as of yet) picks:

May 22, 2013: Star 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree undergoes surgery on a torn Achilles.

July 30, 2013: Harvin decides to get surgery on an ailing hip, a move that is expected to keep him out for most of the 2013 season.

August 19, 2013: The 49ers trade 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins to the Chiefs for Jonathan Baldwin. Jenkins never catches a pass for the team that drafted him.

August 24, 2013: Jonathan Cooper, Arizona’s first-round pick, suffers a broken leg in a preseason game. The Cardinals place him on injured reserve six days later.

September 15, 2013: The 49ers and Seahawks will face off again in Seattle, with the early moniker of “Best Team in Football” on the line.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, People

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell