In 2013, three NFC West teams won at least 10 games. Barely three years later, the Seahawks are still champs but the Cardinals, 49ers and Rams have suffered steep declines. What happened?
Barely three years ago, following a 17-10 Arizona win at CenturyLink Field, first-year Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians stood before his team in a celebratory visitors’ locker room and declared “there’s a new sheriff in town.”
It was the Seahawks, though, who proved to be the real boss that season, rebounding from that stunning defeat to win the Super Bowl six weeks later.
And as the Cardinals return to CenturyLink Saturday for their annual game against the Seahawks in Seattle, they have already been asked to turn in their badges, their reign as the rulers of the NFC West already a distant memory.
But not only are the 5-8-1 Cardinals regarded as maybe the most disappointing team in the NFL this season — remember that they had 12-1 odds to win the Super Bowl in September, fourth in the NFL behind only New England, Green Bay and Seattle — they are also symbolic of an NFC West that has similarly come swiftly crashing down.
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The Cardinals won 10 games in 2013, Arians’ first year at Arizona, but couldn’t make the playoffs, stuck behind 13-3 Seattle and 12-4 San Francisco.
That made the NFC West one of just six divisions since 1991 that finished with three teams with 10 or more wins.
It was a swift turnaround from just three years prior, when the division had been considered a laughingstock when Seattle won it with a 7-9 record, the first time in NFL history a team won a division with a losing record.
And as 2013 came to a close, there wasn’t necessarily a reason to think the good times would end anytime soon.
“I don’t think anything is going to change much with that,’’ said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll at the 2014 NFL combine. “I think we are going to keep that up. Everybody is getting better. The Rams are getting better, and they have a tremendous draft opportunity coming up (holding the second and 13th picks in the 2014 draft). The Cardinals are just getting started; Bruce did a tremendous job in his first year. And we are going to slug it out with the Niners, too.”
Three years later, though, everyone has only gotten worse (we’ll leave the jury out on the Seahawks for this year, but at the moment, no one would yet compare this team to the 2013 titlists).
The 49ers fell to 8-8 the next year, then in a decision that looks worse by the day, forced out Jim Harbaugh and could be headed to the worst season in franchise history in 2016.
The Rams, who had gone 7-9 in 2013, turned those two picks into offensive tackle Greg Robinson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Well, one out of two ain’t bad. Worse is that the Rams still don’t have a quarterback they can feel comfortable with as they are also now in a new city and seeking a new coach.
And the Cardinals, after a one-year stint as the NFC West champs and a berth in the conference title game, have fallen apart, going 2-5-1 since a 3-3 start, and 2-5 since a 6-6 tie to the Seahawks on Oct. 23 that looks now like something of a turning point for this season, if not longer.
Add it up, and three years after the NFC West went a combined 42-22 it will likely finish 23-39-2 (all that’s left are division games and we’re assuming — possibly mistakenly — no more ties).
And if the present is grim, the future for all three NFC West teams outside of Seattle is even murkier.
Even if Carson Palmer returns in 2017, the Cardinals will soon need to find a quarterback of the future. The Rams, as noted, may also not have one despite taking Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick this season. The 49ers likewise have nothing but uncertainty at QB to couple with what is the worst defense in the NFL, already raising questions about how long Chip Kelly will manage to survive.
Seattle’s somewhat meandering 2016 season has shown that the Seahawks are far from without potential cracks in the foundation.
But barring massive makeovers between now and next September, one of the best things the Seahawks have going for them is residence in a division that otherwise appears headed nowhere fast.
Or, to paraphrase The Who, the new boss figures to be the same as the old boss in 2017.