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Revenge of the NFC West

Long the joke of the NFL, it might just be the best division in the league

Last night’s tilt between the 49ers and Seahawks might not have been the prettiest football game ever broadcast, but it served as yet another sign that the NFC West is no longer the doldrums of the NFL. How can we be so sure? Well, for one, the NFL was actually able to air a game between two NFC West teams on national television without anybody decrying what a terrible live matchup it was. Remember: People were upset that the Rams and Seahawks were bumped into Sunday Night Football in Week 17 of the 2009 season, and that was essentially a play-in game for a playoff spot. The NFC West has come a long way, baby. In fact, only two-plus years after sending a 7-9 team to the playoffs for the first time in the history of the NFL, the NFC West might actually be close to the best division in football.

At the moment, the numbers bear out that possibility. In an admittedly small sample of 18 out-of-division games, the NFC West is 12-6. That .667 winning percentage is the best of any division in football, finishing just ahead of the NFC North. (The AFC South is at the bottom, having started 4-11.) Even if the NFC West doesn’t finish atop the out-of-division leaderboard this season, it’s clearly full of teams thave raised their games and become competitive NFL franchises. And figuring out how they got there should give hope (and a blueprint) to some of the league’s newer cellar-dwellers.

First, though, it’s worth realizing just how bad the NFC West has been. The NFC West has not been your standard-issue subpar division, in the way that the AFC South or NL Central or Atlantic Division of the NBA have been. The NFC West, for virtually its entire existence under the league’s current organization, has been truly wretched in ways that “worst” doesn’t capture. Numbers never tell the whole story, but here, it’s impossible to get the whole story without them.

When the NFL realigned itself in 2002 and stuck the 49ers, Cardinals, Rams, and Seahawks in the same division, there was no reason to think that the division would become a league laughingstock. The Rams were a 14-2 team that had just lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl; the Niners, a perennial contender, had gone 12-4 before losing in the wild-card round to the Packers. The 9-7 Seahawks came over from the AFC West, and the 7-9 Cardinals were transported to their rightful locale after serving as one of the NFC East’s anachronisms. And over its first two seasons, the NFC West really was competitive, delivering three over-10-win teams to the playoffs while producing a respectable 38-42 record in non-divisional matchups.

In 2004, though, the wheels came off. The 9-7 Seahawks won the division, beginning their stretch of dominance while simultaneously becoming the first NFC team in the new setup to win their division without making it to 10 wins. It’s happened six times in the NFC by now, and four of those instances have been times when an NFC West team squeaked in with nine wins or fewer.

The division’s performance in games outside of the NFC West, though, is where it truly shines as the NFL’s beacon for mediocrity. You might not be surprised to hear that the NFC West has the league’s worst record in out-of-division games since the 2002 realignment, which is true. What’s staggering, though, is not that they were the worst over that 10-year stretch; it’s that they were the worst division in the league during virtually every season of that stretch. In each of the six seasons between 2004 and 2010, the NFC West had either the worst winning percentage in out-of-division games of any division in football or was tied with another division as the worst.

That peaked in 2008, when the Cardinals won the division with a 9-7 record built upon the backs of their NFC West brethren; Arizona was 6-0 against the NFC West and just 3-7 against the rest of the league during the regular season, while the Rams and Seahawks combined to go 3-17 outside of the West. The division went 10-30 in out-of-division matchups and had a .250 winning percentage, the lowest rate for any one division in terms of the current divisional setup. Of course, the Cardinals promptly won three out-of-division games to make it to the Super Bowl, which goes to show: The playoffs are weird.

Let’s put the division’s staggeringly poor performance in context. Below is each division’s winning percentage in inter-divisional games from 2002 through 2011:

Would you have rated those eight divisions in that order of relative merit while looking back at the last decade or so? I think the NFC North would probably be higher in most people’s minds, but otherwise, I think it’s reasonably accurate. Again, though, it’s important to note just how far at the bottom the NFC West is. In terms of percentage points, the NFC North — ranked next-to-last — is closer to first place and the NFC East than it is to the macabre NFC West. The NFC West was so bad that it caused the expectations for the rest of the league to rise; on average, they were about three-tenths of a win better solely by not being in the NFC West (and getting to play against it).

This division being that bad also means that it’s really worth reconsidering how we view certain teams and organizations from that eight-year time frame. Take the Seahawks, who were generally considered to be the class of the division from 2003 through 2007, when they won nine or more games during each campaign and made it to the Super Bowl in 2005. That team was 22-8 inside its division (.733 winning percentage) and just 29-21 outside of it, which is responsible for a much less impressive figure of .580. The 2005 squad was a legit juggernaut that deserved to go far into the playoffs, but were the 2003 and 2007 teams — who were just a combined .500 outside of the NFC West — really much more than average? Over that five-year stretch, the Seahawks ranked an average of just 12th in DVOA, which does adjust for strength of schedule. And if the Seahawks were worse than people realize, weren’t the long, lean years for the Rams and 49ers as bad or worse than the ones endured more infamously by the Lions?

Last year, things finally started looking up for our friends out west. For the first time since 2003, they didn’t finish with the worst out-of-division performance in football. Their collective winning percentage of .450 was admittedly just second-worst, but it was still much better than the .350 mark put up by the AFC South. And after years of rough losses and never-varying punch lines, they finally produced their first truly elite team since those 2005 Seahawks. The 2011 49ers weren’t even clear favorites to win their division before the season, but they ran away with it, finishing 13-3 with an 8-2 record outside of the West.

The sudden emergence of that 49ers team is commonly attributed to their head coaching change, in which they replaced the overwhelmed and often embarrassing Mike Singletary with Jim Harbaugh, who was almost instantly the league’s best game manager. That undoubtedly had a heck of a lot to do with the improvement, but there were other factors worth considering. The Niners followed one plan that virtually every team in football should emulate on one side of the ball; on the other, they followed a plan that is almost always set up for failure but somehow found success pulling it off.

On offense, the Niners followed the conventional maxim and built through the line outward. Since the organization cleaned house after the 2004 season and selected Alex Smith with the first pick of the 2005 draft, they’ve used three first-round picks on offensive linemen, including both of their first-rounders in the 2010 draft. A fourth first-rounder was used on Vernon Davis, who is widely regarded as the best blocking tight end in football. It took some time for the likes of Anthony Davis and Joe Staley to develop into their roles, but they’ve emerged as the league’s best run-blocking line, a unit capable of running on and through even the stoutest of run defenses. Including wideout Michael Crabtree, the Niners will usually start six homegrown first-round picks on offense, all of whom are either in their prime or approaching it. Harbaugh’s brilliance has helped mold that offense, but he’s been aided by players who were improving even before he got there.

Defensively, on the other hand, the Niners have followed a game plan that often leads to failure. The two first-rounders left starting for them on defense are truly dynamic, as Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith represent two of the best players in football at their respective linebacker roles. The Niners have also found key contributors in later rounds, adding Dashon Goldson and NaVorro Bowman with ESPN2 draft picks.1 Otherwise? They’ve built their dominant defense through adding veterans in free agency, which is often a way for teams to spend themselves into oblivion without making themselves any better. The 49ers were unsuccessful with this tactic at first, as the record contract they gave cornerback Nate Clements didn’t offer much return. Next, though, they threw a big deal at Justin Smith. That one worked. Smith is one of the best defensive linemen in football, regardless of what Kevin Gilbride might suggest about the legality of his tactics. Then, last year, they shored up a struggling secondary by signing cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Donte Whitner; Whitner became a key run stopper and defensive enforcer, while Rogers suddenly learned how to pick off passes and went to the Pro Bowl. Beyond the Clements move, the Niners have been able to sign free agents who were known quantities and get more out of them after they arrived. That’s extremely uncommon.

The Seahawks, on the other hand, built their team around the possibility of vacancies. After years of dismal drafts by general manager Tim Ruskell had left their post–Super Bowl cupboard mostly bare, the team parted ways with Ruskell in December 2009 and started anew. Just five of the 22 starters from that team remain on the Seattle roster. The team hired John Schneider away from Green Bay to take over as their new general manager, and he quickly took an ax to Ruskell’s lineup. Flop wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh was cut just one year after being signed in free agency, and fourth overall pick Aaron Curry, the last first-rounder of the Ruskell regime, was gone after just two-plus seasons in Seattle. Veterans like Matt Hasselbeck and Patrick Kerney were eased into retirement or let go, and young “building blocks” who were merely average players — guys like John Carlson, Rob Sims, and Josh Wilson — were allowed to leave when the team thought it could do better.

Schneider’s first draft may end up going down as one of the best of the decade. The 2010 draft brought four starters into the fold, including Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas and his partner, Kam Chancellor. Russell Okung and Golden Tate emerged as eventual starters on offense, and a year later, Okung was joined on the offensive line by 2011 first-rounder James Carpenter and third-rounder John Moffitt. Like the 49ers, the Seahawks placed a clear emphasis on building up front through the draft.

More notably, though, the Seahawks have become a place for the league’s afterthoughts to become impact starters. Marshawn Lynch had become a pariah in Buffalo, but after scuffling during his first year in Seattle, his legendary run in the playoffs led to a breakout season in 2011. Chris Clemons was a backup in Washington, Oakland, and Philadelphia, but since the Seahawks acquired him before the 2010 season, he’s produced back-to-back 11-sack seasons. The team’s starting cornerbacks, as Mike Mayock noted last night, all have chips on their shoulders after being ignored by the league. 2011 fifth-rounder Richard Sherman essentially stepped straight into the lineup last season and has played well enough to get away with trolling Tom Brady, but even he takes a backseat to Brandon Browner. Browner was undrafted out of Oregon State in 2005 and eventually washed up in the CFL, where he was a three-time All-Star before making his way to Seahawks camp. Browner made his NFL debut as a starter for Seattle at 27 and promptly picked off six passes during his rookie season, eventually making his way to the Pro Bowl as a replacement for, coincidentally, Carlos Rogers. Seattle’s secondary might be the best four-man unit in football, and it consists of one player (Thomas) with any pedigree whatsoever.

Even if the NFC West fades a bit after its hot start — and it seems likely that at least the Cardinals will do so over the upcoming weeks — it’s clear that the league’s most embarrassing division has worked its way out of the basement. The Niners have arguably the league’s best coach and a handful of players from the top 50 trade value list. The Cardinals have a more tantalizing asset than anyone on that deep Niners roster in Patrick Peterson. The Seahawks have a devastating young defense and the league’s best home-field advantage. And the Rams might not have the talent pool that the 49ers and Seahawks have or the star power that the Cardinals enjoy with Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald, but with a bounty of first- and second-round picks from the RG3 trade, they’re going to get good in a hurry. The NFC West isn’t just watchable again; it might even be great.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell