Will the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers propel the Green Bay Packers to the playoffs?
For years the Los Angeles Rams were among the elite teams in the National Football League. During the 1970’s, the Rams won seven consecutive NFC West Championships, while earning the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearances in 1979. The Rams would continue to be competitive throughout the 1980’s as they made a pair of appearances in the NFC Championship Game. But by the 1990’s, the Rams had fallen on hard times as from 1990-1994, they lost at least 10 games in each season. And if the losing wasn’t bad enough, former Rams owner Georgia Frontiere decided to move her team to St. Louis, Missouri in 1995 when she was unable to secure a new stadium for her the club in Orange County. And with the Rams in a new city with a brand new state-of-the-art facility in the Trans World Dome, they would win their first and only Super Bowl Title in 1999.
In St. Louis, the Rams were paced by “The Greatest Show on Turf” which consisted of quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk, as well as wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. From 1999-2001, the Rams would win 37 games as they were one of the most popular teams in the National Football League.
But as quick as the Rams ascended to being one of the best teams in the National Football League, their decline was as rapid. The 2004 NFL season would mark the last time that the Rams made the playoffs as the rest of their stay in St. Louis was marred by an ownership change, poor attendance, wasted draft picks, and consistent futility on the football field.
In 2010, businessman Stan Kroenke purchased controlling interest in the Rams from the estate of Frontiere who had passed away in 2008. And from the moment that Kroenke began running the show for the Rams, it was all about him attempting to find a way to get his team out of Dodge.
Kroenke wanted a new stadium for the Rams, and although that the City of St. Louis had good deals on the table, he along with the majority of the other National Football League team owners wanted to put the team back in Los Angeles. And in early 2016, that became the new reality as the Rams announced that they were heading back to Los Angeles.
There was excitement for the Rams returning to Los Angeles after their 22-year hiatus from Southern California. But this excitement would soon be tapered as the Rams went 4-12 during their first season back in Los Angeles and it appeared to be another dose of the same old Rams.
In 2016, the Rams would mortgae their future to move up to the first overall slot in the National Football League Draft in order to select quarterback Jared Goff. Goff came into the NFL with some hype attached to him, but his first go round in the NFL had all of the symptoms of him being a bust. Goff would go winless in seven starts for the Rams which included him throwing 5 touchdowns to 7 interceptions and completing 54.6% of his passes.
However all of the Rams faults could not be placed on the shoulders of the young Goff. The Rams were an undisciplined team who took on the look of their head coach Jeff Fisher. But as the Rams appeared to symbolize a classic Hollywood box office flop, things would drastically change during the off-season.
After Fisher was fired, the Rams would hire Sean McVay to be their new head coach. McVay was only 31-years of age, but he commanded respect from his first day on the job which was important for an undisciplined team that has consistently been among the most penalized teams in recent years in the National Football League.
McVay spent the last three years as the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins and his top priority upon taking over the Rams was to work with Goff, which he has been able to do.
This season Goff is much more comfortable in the pocket as he is completing more than 61% of his passes, while throwing 16 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions. This improvement included Goff being named as the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week for Week 9 when he was 14-of-22 passing for 311 yards and 4 touchdowns as the Rams cruised to the 51-17 victory over the New York Giants.
A big reason for the improved play of Goff is that Rams general manager Les Snead has done a solid job of putting a good team around the franchise’s starting quarterback. After a down 2016 campaign, running back Todd Gurley is once again showing the ability that made him the National Football League’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015. Gurley is currently fourth in the NFL in rushing yards with 754, while he leads the league in rushing touchdowns with 7. During the off-season the Rams signed veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth to give the unit some experience, while also bringing in a pair of former Buffalo Bills wide receivers who were looking new life in Los Angeles.
In 2013, Robert Woods was a second-round pick of the Bills, but he was never able to live up expectations. Woods is a native of Gardena, California, while he played collegiately for the Southern California Trojans. Woods is now back in Southern California and playing on the same field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that saw him be one of the best pass catchers in the nation. Now Woods is enjoying a career year with the Rams as he is on pace to gain 1,000 yards receiving in a season for the first time as a professional.
In 2014, the Bills traded up in the first round of the National Football League Draft to select wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins never became the impact player that the Bills envisioned him to be: which was not completely his fault due to the fact that the organization has had consistent issues at the quarterback position. In nine games with the Rams, Watkins’ numbers are not eye popping as he only has 21 receptions for 372 yards. However with the Rams, Watkins doesn’t have to be the guy as he can simply focus on being one of the guys due to the fact that he is playing on a team that has depth on offense.
And when you add up all of the adjustments on offense for the Rams, they have gone from having the worst offense in the National Football League last season to the third ranked unit in the league this season.
Even under Fisher, defensive football has long been what the Rams have hung their hats on. The Rams have taken a slight dip in total defense from last season as they were ninth in the National Football League last season in the category compared to 14th this season. But this slight dip won’t prevent the Rams from doing some big things coming down the stretch of the regular season and potentially in the playoffs.
For more than 40 years Wade Phillips has coached in the National Football League; primarily as a defensive coordinator. The past two years saw Phillips serve as the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos. Under Phillips, the Broncos had one of the top defenses in the NFL which led to them winning Super Bowl 50.
With the Rams, Phillips has inherited another strong defense which includes the likes of defensive tackle Aaron Donald, inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, and free safety LaMarcus Joyner. The Rams have given up a combined 51 points in their last five games and by the time that the season finishes, they should once again be ranked in top ten for fewest yards allowed.
Donald is one of the better interior defensive linemen in the National Football League as his ability to rush the passer and take on double teams opens things up for the linebackers playing behind him which is invaluable. A contract dispute saw Donald sit out training camp, but upon his return there is no disputing that he is the leader of the team’s defense.
This sudden uprising by the Rams has given Kroenke and the National Football League what they needed which was support for this team once again in Los Angeles. There were fans who were happy to see the Rams return to Los Angeles last year, but the City of Angels has long been a place that will support a winner, while being lukewarm at best to a team which is not contending. The Rams illustrated this last year when they went 4-12 as following their home opener which was a sellout at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, their home attendance tapered. But now attendance is back on the rise which is important for the Rams who will be moving into a new stadium in Inglewood in a few years as they need fan support from the Greater Los Angeles area.
The Rams have been able to take advantage of having a weak schedule as their first three opponents this season failed to make the playoffs in 2016. But beginning this Sunday things will be changing for the Rams as five of their next six opponents are either division leaders of in second place. However winning cures everything as it has made it easier for the young McVay to get his message across as the wins have been piling up. Barring something unforeseen the Rams are on pace to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and one thing that we have learned so far from this team is that these aren’t the same old Rams.
X-Seattle Seahawks 11-5
Six of the last seven years have seen the Seattle Seahawks make the playoffs, but after they lost the Super Bowl in February 2015, they’ve lacked the ability to be recognized as a strong Super Bowl contender. Since Seattle won the Super Bowl in February 2014, age, injuries, free agency, and the salary cap crunch have caught up to them. Seahawks general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll have stuck to their guns which has seen them focus on drafting in the hopes of maintaining depth at each position. And as some players have been harder to replace than others, it has shown up in key regular season losses for Seattle as well as when they were eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs in each of the last two years. But as a new season is set to begin in the National Football League, will the Seahawks be able to put all of that behind them and make another push at winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy?
Russell Wilson was the starting quarterback for the Seahawks when they won the Super Bowl, but the heart and soul on offense for that championship team was running back Marshawn Lynch. Last year saw Lynch retire from the National Football League and in the process the Seahawks running game suffered. In 2016, the Seahawks were 25th in the NFL in rushing with their leading rusher being Christine Michael with only 469 yards.
In the off-season the Seahawks signed former Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy in the hopes of giving their stagnant running game a boost. Lacy had a strong start to his National Football League career in 2013 with the Packers. That season saw Lacy gain 1,178 yards on the ground and in the process he was named as the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. However weight issues have hampered Lacy ever since which led to him falling out of favor in Green Bay. But I do expect Lacy to have an impact with Seattle this year due to the fact that he has incentives in his contract to keep his weight down.
And a solid season be Lacy should benefit Wilson. In five years as the Seahawks starting quarterback, Wilson’s career record is 56-23-1. Wilson’s passing yardage has increased in each season, however when he has a big passing game the Seahawks generally lose. The Seahawks offense is predicated on balance and as good of a winner the Wilson is, he cannot carry the offense by his lonesome.
Surprisingly the Seahawks traded veteran wide receiver Jermaine Kearse this off-season, but Wilson still has his “BFF” in wide receiver Doug Baldwin while after tight end Jimmy Graham dealt with injuries as well as trying to figure things out in Seattle in 2015 was able to bounce back last year for one of the most productive seasons of his career. And although that Graham is set to become 31-years of age in November, he can still get it down for the Seahawks; especially in the red zone.
Last year the Seahawks were fifth in the National Football League in total defense and this unit is at its best when all 11 players are flying around the football. For the longest time Seattle has had a stout defensive line with pass rushers such as Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, and Michael Bennett set to have an impact this season. But the rich got richer when the Seahawks were able to acquire defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson from the New York Jets this summer.
Richardson was able to burst onto the scene with the Jets in 2013 as he was named as the National Football League’s Rookie of the Year, while making the Pro Bowl in 2014. The best way to describe Richardson is that he is a disruptor on the defensive line and when he is on top of his game, he is one of the top defensive tackles in the game. However the downside is that Richardson can take plays off and lose focus. But if there is an organization that can bring out the best in Richardson, it would be the Seahawks.
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner led the National Football League in tackles last year with 167, while outside linebacker K.J. Wright is one of the most underrated players at his position. The Seahawks secondary is still home to some of the top alpha males in the NFL in cornerback Richard Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas, and strong safety Kam Chancellor. Thomas is looking to bounce back after he suffered a broken leg last year and the Seahawks secondary simply wasn’t the same without him. But overall this unit could be ready to once again be dominant this season.
In 2015, Blair Walsh was one of the most accurate kickers in the National Football League as he connected on more than 87% of his kicks as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. But Walsh will only be remembered for missing a 27-yard field goal in the closing seconds of a wild card loss to the Seahawks. Walsh would have a hard time getting over the miss which led to the Vikings releasing him last year. However Walsh has now been presented with the chance to get back on track as a member of the Seahawks, and whereas Carroll has been known to coach his guys up, Walsh could be ready to bounce back in a big way this season.
The beginning and the end of the Seahawks schedule will be the toughest portion as they’ll open on the road against the Packers, while they will finish up with the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals. But when it is all said and done, Seattle should be in line to claim another NFC West Title.
Arizona Cardinals 10-6
At the start of the 2016 National Football League season, the expectations were high for the Arizona Cardinals. The previous season had seen the Cardinals reach the NFC Championship Game for just the second time in franchise history. However the Cardinals would be up and down last season which began in their first game when they lost at home to the eventual Super Bowl Champions in the New England Patriots who didn’t have the services of quarterback Tom Brady. And as the Cards finished with a record of 7-8-1, they have still failed to make the postseason in three consecutive years. But as the Cards finished 2016 by winning their final two games which included knocking off the Seattle Seahawks on the road for the second consecutive year, maybe they can carry that momentum over into the new season.
Since Bruce Arians has been the head coach of the Cardinals, he has relied on Carson Palmer to be his starting quarterback. Palmer is entering his 13th years in the National Football League and as he is set to be 38-years of age in December, it will paramount for Arizona’s offensive line to keep him protected due to the fact that he is not that mobile.
Palmer isn’t the only veteran who is a key component to the Cardinals. The last 13 years have seen wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald morph into one of the best pass catchers that the National Football League has ever seen. And the age of 34, Fitzgerald isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Fitzgerald led the NFL in receptions last season with 107, while he still commands a double team.
But the Cardinals cannot solely rely on Fitzgerald in their passing game which means that wide receiver John Brown needs to have a bounce back season. After Brown gained 1,003 receiving yards in 2015, he struggled at times last year and in the process he fell out of favor with Arians as he was only able to tally 517 yards.
Very rapidly running back David Johnson has emerged as one of the better all-purpose backs in the National Football League and his 1,239 rushing yards were seventh in the league last season. But what set Johnson apart was his ability at the goal line as he had 16 touchdowns on the ground. And if the Cardinals are able to get some consistency from their wide receivers who are not named Fitzgerald, Johnson could be even more dangerous with defenses being unable to solely focus on him.
For Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, it is all about “organized chaos” with his unit. The Cards defense is all about putting as much pressure as possible on opposing offenses and it also good that the players in Arizona can rely on some former National Football League players as assistant coaches. Kevin Ross played in the NFL for 14 years and now he serves as the Cardinals defensive backs coach. Larry Foote spent 13 years in the NFL which included winning a pair of Super Bowl Championships as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and now he serves as Arizona’s inside linebackers coach. Brenston Buckner spent 12 years in the NFL as a defensive tackle and now he is coaching the defensive line for Arizona.
But even with all of that experience on the sidelines, it is the Cardinals players who have to go out on the field and make it happen, however they have the people to do so. Defensive ends Robert Nkemdiche and Frostee Rucker can provide pressure up front, while the Cardinals could have one of the best linebacking cores in the National Football League. Outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden have become one of the bookend pass rushing tandems in the NFL which should compliment rookie inside linebacker Haason Reddick and Karlos Dansby who is set to begin his third stint with the club.
The Cardinals secondary is home to a wealth of play makers as well. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the best in the business in regards to one-on-one coverage, while free safety Tyrann Mathieu has rapidly developed into arguably the top all-around safety in the National Football League due to his ability to play both the run and the pass. The Cards have depth in their secondary which includes strong safety Tyvon Branch and cornerback Tramon Williams. And this depth has allowed the Cardinals to play Deone Bucannon at linebacker as opposed to his natural position of safety.
Special teams were an issue last year for Arizona as well, but the acquisition of kicker Phil Dawson should remedy that being that he is one of the most accurate kickers in National Football League history. And it will also help the veteran kicker in Dawson that all of Arizona’s home games will be played indoors.
Only one of Arizona’s first nine games will be played against a team that made the playoffs last season. And a fast start for Arians and his team could be just what they need to make it back to the postseason.
Los Angeles Rams 6-10
The 2016 National Football League season saw the Rams return to the City of Los Angeles for the first time since 1994. And although that the Rams were initially welcomed with excitement for their return to Southern California, it waned rather quickly. The Rams went 4-12 last year for their tenth consecutive losing season. In the process the Rams went through two different head coaches as Jeff Fisher was fired after the team’s 4-9 start. The Rams finished with the fifth worst record in the National Football League, but they didn’t have a first-round pick to show for their inefficiency due to a trade in 2016 with the Tennessee Titans. 31-year old Sean McVay has been hired to be the Rams new head coach. And as critics will attempt to use McVay’s age against him, will he be the guy to get things turned around in Los Angeles?
McVay was given the Rams job on the premise that he would be able to develop quarterback Jared Goff into a quality National Football League quarterback. The Rams used the first overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft on Goff and in the process they mortgaged the future by giving up multiple first-round picks in order to obtain him.
Last year Goff began his National Football League career by watching from the sidelines. Goff would go on to start seven games for the Rams, but he was never able to lead them to a victory. As expected Goff struggled as he only completed 54.6% of his passes, while throwing 5 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. Overall the Rams offense was last in the NFL in total offense, but the entire blame cannot be placed on Goff.
After being the National Football League’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015, running back Todd Gurley regressed last season. Gurley only gained 885 yards on the ground last season as he wilted in the Hollywood spotlight. But if the Rams want to have any success on offense this year, Gurley will need to run like he did when the team still called St. Louis home.
The Rams passing game should receive a boost this year as the team acquired wide receiver Sammy Watkins from the Buffalo Bills. After the Bills moved up in the first round of the 2014 National Football League Draft to select Watkins, he was never able to live up to the hype as he has constantly been injured. And it hasn’t helped Watkins that wide receivers who were selected after him such as New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are consistently Pro Bowlers. But now Watkins has the opportunity to wipe the slate clean with the Rams as he needs to get on the same page with the young Goff.
Defensively the Rams were ninth in the National Football League in total defense last year, but at times they were a very undisciplined bunch. The Rams were the fifth most penalized team in the NFL last year with the defense accounting for their fair share. The Rams have talented players on the defensive side of the ball, but they’ve simply been unable to make it all come together consistently.
It has not taken defensive tackle Aaron Donald that long to become one of the best players at his position in the National Football League. In just three years Donald has tallied 28 sacks which is an incredible number for a player who spends the majority of his time on the interior of the defensive line. This off-season has seen Donald attempt to be compensated like one of the top players in the league, but to no avail. And as Donald and the Rams have been unable to come to an agreement on a long-term deal, he sat out for the entire off-season which has cast some doubt over his availability for the regular season.
The Rams defense will look different without Donald on defense, but they still have a strong group of linebackers which includes outside linebacker Robert Quinn, along with inside linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron. Quinn has spent his entire National Football League career as a defensive end, but with Wade Phillips taking over as the Rams defensive coordinator, Quinn’s role has changed. Phillips is a proponent of the 3-4 defense as opposed to the 4-3 as it is all about supplying as much pressure as possible on opposing offenses. However Phillips knows how to get results with his defenses which included his most recent stint as the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos which led to a Super Bowl Championship to culminate the 2015 National Football League season.
The Rams are going to need some luck in order to be a playoff team in 2017, and they’ll have to take advantage of the early portion of their schedule which will see them host the Indianapolis Colts who won’t have the services of quarterback Andrew Luck, and the Dallas Cowboys who won’t have running back Ezekiel Elliot.
San Francisco 49ers 1-15
It’s hard to believe, but it was less than five years ago that the San Francisco 49ers were in the Super Bowl and they were one play away from winning it all. Since then the championship caliber team that had been built by former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has been rapidly destroyed with only three players who were on San Francisco’s roster during their Super Bowl run currently still there. And after San Francisco has only been able to win a combined seven games over the last two years, Niners owner Jed York has decided to push the reset button and start over as he has welcomed in a new general manager and head coach to his organization.
York hired John Lynch to be San Francisco’s new general manager. Lynch doesn’t have any prior front office experience in the National Football League, but most notably he was a standout free safety for 15 years which included appearing in nine Pro Bowls and winning a Super Bowl Title as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lynch gave up a cushy job as a color analyst for FOX Sports to join the 49ers, but as he brings the same passion and intensity that he played with to the front office, things could be turned around in San Francisco sooner rather than later.
Lynch’s first order of business was to hire Kyle Shanahan as the 21st head coach in 49ers franchise history. Shanahan learned the ins and outs of the coaching profession from his father Mike who won a pair of Super Bowl Championships as the head coach of the Denver Broncos. The younger Shanahan has been the offensive coordinator for several teams in the National Football League with his most recent stint being with the Atlanta Falcons.
However Shanahan’s stint with the 49ers will begin under a cloud of controversy as his last game with the Falcons was Super Bowl 51 where his offense could not maintain a 28-3 lead versus the New England Patriots. And now Shanahan must redeem himself as he looks to make San Francisco a contender.
It’s tough to get overly excited for the Niners this season once you look at their quarterbacking situation. The two quarterbacks who are currently on the 49ers roster are veteran Brian Hoyer and rookie C.J. Beathard. In eight years in the National Football League, Hoyer has a career record of 16-15 with a completion percentage of 59.5%, while Beathard has never attempted a pass in the league.
Overall San Francisco is lacking play makers on the offensive side of the football. Each of the last two years have seen the Niners fail to produce a 1,000-yard running back, while the only bright spot for the offense is left tackle Joe Staley who is a five-time Pro Bowler.
With Lynch leading the way, he is going to attempt to rebuild the defense; more than likely in the variation of the Cover 2 defense that he is most familiar with which is the “Tampa 2”. The strength of the Cover 2 is right up the middle of the defense which is currently a huge weakness for the Niners. And as San Francisco was dead last in the National Football League last year in total defense which included surrendering at least 35 points in a contest five times, there still isn’t that much to get that excited about in regards to this group.
The only two victories that the 49ers were able to attain last year were over the Los Angeles Rams. And as this year appears to be a throw away for the Niners, victories will once again be few and far between.