NFC Worst? Not anymore

Entering his third year with the Seahawks, Pete Carroll is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFC West.

Can’t be? Yes, it can. With Jeff Fisher taking over the Rams in St. Louis last month and Jim Harbaugh stepping in with the San Francisco 49ers last year, Carroll ranks behind the Cardinals’ Ken Whisenhunt among the division coaches – and Whisenhunt has only been in Arizona since 2007.

So far, change has been good for the four teams that have comprised the NFC West since realignment in 2002.

Harbaugh led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship game last season – the franchise’s first playoff appearance since the last time it won the division 2002.

The Seahawks captured the division in 2010 and have gone 7-9 in each of Carroll’s two seasons, after winning a combined nine games in 2008 and 2009.

Whisenhunt took the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008 and they also won the division in 2009, after the franchise had posted one winning record in the previous 23 seasons.

“It’s obviously a lot stronger division,” Whisenhunt said last week at the NFC Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “It starts with the way San Francisco played. Seattle certainly showed that they are a team that’s getting stronger. And we’re excited about the fact that we’ve got a lot of young players that make significant contributions for us this season and they’ll only get better.”

Now comes Fisher, who brings instant credibility – not to mention increased optimism – to a franchise that has averaged 4.6 victories since 2003, when the Rams posted their last winning record and claimed their last division title. The consensus at the Combine was that the Rams just got at least two-wins better because of Fisher’s presence.

If that sounds like a stretch, look at what happened to the other three teams in the division in their first seasons under their current coaches: The 49ers went from six wins in 2010 to 13 under Harbaugh last season; the Seahawks went from five wins in 2009 to seven under Carroll in 2010; and the Cardinals went from five wins in 2006 to eight under Whisenhunt in 2007.

While the Rams do have holes, Fisher has a whole lot of experience in getting the most out of his players and molding them into a team. He inherited a 2-14 Tennessee Titans team midway through the 1994 season and had them playing in the Super Bowl in 1999 – where the 13-3 Titans lost to the Rams. The Titans also posted double-digit victories and advanced to the playoffs in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2008.

“When you have a coach that has the pedigree of Jeff Fisher and what he’s done, it makes you feel like the division is going up – moving up,” Whisenhunt said.

Fisher is aware that the division he’s joining is no longer the NFC Worst.

“Obviously, the success that the 49ers had was extraordinary, especially considering the circumstances where you’ve got a lockout and no time to install and you’ve got a first-year head coach that comes in and does that kind of job,” he said at the Combine. “It was outstanding.

“Seattle’s very, very competitive. Arizona is just a few years away from being in a Super Bowl. So I think this division will stand on its own for a number of years now.”

The dean of the division’s coaches can only agree.

“I didn’t hear any that of that (NFC Worst talk) at the end of this season,” Whisenhunt said. “I think people recognize that’s not the case anymore, and that’s a good thing.”

With that said, here’s a look at the biggest questions facing each NFC West team for this season has they move into the offseason – with free agency to begin March 13 and the draft set for April 26-28:

Seahawks – Who will be the quarterback of the future? Tarvaris Jackson is the incumbent starter, but Carroll and general manager John Schneider have said they’d like to increase the depth and competitiveness at the pivotal position.

They already have built one of the better young rosters in the league in their first two years together.

“There are two ways to do this,” Schneider said before the Combine. “You can get the quarterback and then build around him. Or you can build a foundation and then get the quarterback to place in the middle of it.

“We’ve built a strong core around the quarterback position, so whoever we place in there is coming into a better situation than he would have two years ago.”

49ers – What can they do for an encore in Season Two under Harbaugh? As Fisher said, the 49ers’ abrupt about-face last season – of all seasons because the offseason was erased by the 136-day lockout – was impressive. But, as Harbaugh knows from having played in the NFL, this has become a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. He’s also aware that the improvement from Year One to Year Two for an NFL player is critical, and also can be for a team with a new coach.

“Because everything you’re doing, you’re doing it for the second time,” Harbaugh said at the Combine. “You’re doing it again. You’ve already experienced it once. You’ve experienced the speed of the game, the potholes, the things that can come up. You’re doing it again. You’ve got some muscle memory there.

“And it only works if you take advantage of it, if you attack it. That’s been my experience. I have no empirical data to share with you at this time. That’s my personal experience.”

Cardinals – Which Arizona team shows up in 2012? The one that started 1-6 last season, or the one that won seven of its last nine games? The answer to that likely will hinge on the Cardinals’ linger question at quarterback, despite giving up cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick in this year’s draft to acquire Kevin Kolb in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles last year and then doling out big bucks in a multiyear deal to appease the QB who had been Michael Vick’s backup.

Kolb missed seven games because of injuries and was 3-6 in the games he started, while second-year backup John Skelton was 5-2.
NFC Worst? Not anymore.