There’s a legitimate case to be made for the NFC West being the most exciting division in the NFL.
After their Super Bowl letdown, the Los Angeles Rams enter 2019 knowing they will likely face an extremely difficult fight to maintain supremacy in the division.
With the health of Todd Gurley’s knee a huge question mark hanging over their season, the Rams face stiff competition from a Seattle Seahawks team that made the playoffs last season and potentially a San Francisco 49ers team set up to contend if their quarterback can stay healthy and return to his 2017 form.
Lurking as a dangerous worst-to-first contender is a Arizona Cardinals team that promises to be one of the most fascinating in the league in 2019.
After he guided them to within a win of the Lombardi Trophy, Rams quarterback Jared Goff signed a four-year extension.
“He’s just getting better and better,” coach Sean McVay says of Goff.
For the Rams retain the division title, they’ll need that to continue to be the case.
Player to Watch
Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers quarterback
Last year, the 49ers were expected to make the leap to playoff contention because of Garoppolo. That all went south when Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3, and now he is under considerable pressure to prove he is the right man to lead the offense and deliver much-needed results for coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch in year three of their regime.
Garoppolo rebounded from a dreadful preseason performance against the Denver Broncos with a solid outing against the Kansas City Chiefs, though the concerns his performance in the first game raised will not be extinguished until he starts winning.
Niners tight end George Kittle, though, has full belief in Garoppolo. Kittle told StatsPerform: “I know for a fact that Jimmy Garoppolo is really, really good at football and I can’t wait until everyone can see what he can do in a full season. He’s a special player, so I’m just looking forward to being back on the field with him.
“When he came in, he played in five games and won all five. That year we were kind of banged up too, we were missing some pieces and he still led us to five wins, so I’m just looking forward to what he can do with a fully healthy roster and a whole year with coach Shanahan under his belt. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Kyler Murray, Cardinals quarterback
Sometimes the best answer is the obvious one. That is certainly the case with Kyler Murray, the clear frontrunner to have the biggest impact of any rookie not just in the division, but in the whole NFL, too. As the Cardinals adjust to Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense, they will go as far as the dual-threat (potential) superstar can take them.
There has been so much attention on what Murray can do with his legs, but what has stood out most to his Arizona team-mates is his unerring accuracy.
“Obviously, he’s a dynamic quarterback. He can change just the whole style of a team’s offense when he scrambles,” running back Chase Edmonds said, via ESPN. “But I think it overshadows just how accurate he truly is and just how calm he’s able to stay under pressure when you look at his footwork when guys are approaching him or how he’s so quickly able to just settle back and get an accurate throw going on.”
If the Cardinals are to bounce back from a dismal 3-13 season and surprise those who expect another last-place finish, Murray will need to showcase that accuracy right off the bat.
Coach on the hot seat
Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals
There is a strong argument for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan being on the hot seat after two losing seasons, but injuries likely bought him time and, given Shanahan’s play-calling wisdom, general manager John Lynch would likely go before him.
Questions about Pete Carroll’s longevity may come if the Seahawks struggle, but the most likely scenario is that the Cardinals’ gamble on Kingsbury and his offense backfires and Arizona are forced to cut bait.
Kingsbury, for his part, is adamant his attack will not look the same as it did during his time with Texas Tech, telling The Ringer: “We won’t throw it 88 times [a game] the way we did with [now-Chiefs QB] Mahomes.”
However, his hiring is still one with potential for disaster, and he has a chance to be one and done should the Cardinals be as bad as they were last season – 3-13 in, ahem, Steve Wilks’ one-and-done season.
Seahawks at 49ers, Nov 11
The Niners ended a long winless run against the Seahawks in 2018 with a meaningless late-season overtime victory. This primetime clash should have a lot more riding on it, though, and if San Francisco are victorious again this time around, it will be a clear signal the Seahawks’ time as a force in the West is coming to a close.
It’s an offense-dominated league in which play-callers are perhaps even more important than those executing the instructions. In that area, the Rams and 49ers have the edge over the Seahawks. A lot is dependent on Garoppolo, but the two California teams looked best placed to fight for the division, with the Seahawks looking ill-equipped to keep up with them should both the Rams and Niners offenses fire on all cylinders.