The kind of parity the NFL wants has been on display in the NFC West over the past half-decade.
San Francisco won two straight division titles in 2011-12, following by Seattle winning the division in 2013 and 2014. And last year, it was Arizona’s turn to snatch away the division crown from the Seahawks, the Cardinals’ first division title since 2009.
It seems inevitable that either Arizona or Seattle will find itself back on top of the division in 2016, as both are considered among the elite of the NFC.
The Rams are beginning a new chapter, returning to Los Angeles with renewed excitement but the same questions whether they can advance beyond being an average franchise.
And the 49ers are rebuilding for a second straight year, this time under new coach Chip Kelly after a failed attempt with Jim Tomsula in charge.
Here’s a look at the four teams:
LIGHT YEARS: Seattle believes it has rediscovered its swagger from the 2013 Super Bowl title season. There’s no Super Bowl hangover from winning or losing to deal with, just the bitterness of an NFC divisional playoff loss to Carolina.
Despite a calm offseason, Seattle still has flaws. It’s shaky on the offensive line and the performance of the blockers could determine Seattle’s offensive success. If given enough time, Russell Wilson appears ready to build on last year’s evolution as a passer and his connection with Doug Baldwin, who tied for the NFL lead with 14 TD catches.
The Seahawks have been the top scoring defense in the NFL the past four seasons, and that remains the expectation with the likes of Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner still in their primes.
“I am seeing the same joy, the same intensity, same passion (as 2013),” Sherman said. “Guys just playing for one another and appreciating one another.”
LEARN TO FLY: The Cardinals were 13-3 last season to win the division and are 34-14 under Bruce Arians. They’ve proven they can win in Seattle, a prerequisite to contending in the division.
But there is urgency surrounding Arizona. Carson Palmer is coming off his best season, but threw four interceptions against the Panthers in the blowout loss in the NFC title game. Palmer turns 37 in December and Larry Fitzgerald turns 33 on Wednesday, so the opportunity for success may be shrinking.
Running back David Johnson showed last season he can be a great complement to Palmer and the passing game, while the defense should be buoyed by the acquisition of Chandler Jones, the drafting of Robert Nkemdiche, and return of Tyrann Mathieu.
BACK IN CALI: The Rams have a second honeymoon going with Los Angeles after their return home from St. Louis, with 89,140 fans setting an NFL preseason attendance record for their opener.
But the good feelings in Los Angeles will be tested if the Rams struggle early with a defense that lost a few key contributors and an offense that didn’t add much beyond No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff, currently the backup to Case Keenum.
“It’s not up to me. Again, it’s something that I’d love to do, but it’s not my decision,” Goff said of being the starter. “That’s what they pay the coaches for, and that’s what they’re here for.”
Jeff Fisher hasn’t coached a winning team since 2008, but he’s banking on steady improvement across the board and another big year from running back Todd Gurley to alter the steady mediocrity of his first four Rams teams.
The Rams have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL with the likes of Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn, but it may not be enough to move beyond .500.
FREE FALLIN’: The 49ers have taken a rapid fall from perennial NFC contender to also-ran in recent seasons. After a failed experiment with Jim Tomsula in place of Jim Harbaugh, the Niners are turning to Kelly in hopes that his up-tempo style that was so successful in college at Oregon and early in his tenure with the Eagles will translate to San Francisco.
Kelly has a tall task, starting with finding a quarterback. Colin Kaepernick’s career has plummeted since nearly winning a Super Bowl following the 2012 season, and his insistence on not standing for the national anthem has sparked something of a furor across the nation.
Blaine Gabbert, who was elevated last season when Kaepernick struggled and was injured, could start despite a career 55.8 completion rate. At receiver, Torrey Smith is the only proven commodity.
The solid defense is led by linebacker NaVorro Bowman and recent first-round picks Eric Reid, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.
“I don’t ever put a ceiling on a team,” 49ers GM Trent Baalke said. “In 2011, a lot of people wanted to put a ceiling on this team and we did pretty well. This is a young football team. There’s a lot of competition out there.”
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams, 49ers.
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