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Hope Sets In The West

Heading into the offseason, questions and optimism color division outlook


The Cardinals want to get back to the top of the NFC West, the Rams believe they are in position to finally get there after years out of contention.

Jim Harbaugh stood talking to the media at the annual Scouting combine for the first time as a head coach, and made it clear his immediate intentions.

"We're not looking to go 8-8 next year," the 49ers' new boss said. "We're looking to make the jump all the way to the Super Bowl."

Harbaugh needs to get his team to the top of the NFC West first.

The shots came early and often to the division last season, and it was hard to deflect criticism by the end of the season after no team finished at least .500 and the Seahawks carried home a title with a 7-9 mark. Seattle did impressively win a playoff game, although Pete Carroll's team carries with it as many questions as everyone else.

The Cardinals and 49ers are in search of a quarterback. The Seahawks, with Matt Hasselbeck a free agent and getting to the end of his career, are in nearly the same spot. The Rams have a quarterback and a good one in Sam Bradford, but were forced to change offensive coordinators this season and with Josh McDaniels in place, must wait to see (given labor uncertainty) how much of an offseason there will be to train Bradford.

"This is a quarterback-driven league and you need a guy that can function at that position to be successful," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. "With that in mind, whatever team does a better job of answering that question and solidifying that position will have the advantage."

There is a new offensive coordinator in Seattle, too, and new coordinators on both sides of the ball in Arizona too (although Mike Miller on the offensive side was already on staff).

Of course, there's a whole new coaching staff in San Francisco facing the same issue, hoping to have enough time to install what's needed before getting too deep into the summer.

The 49ers were crushed at the way their 2010 season went after many picked them to win the division. Where they are slotted this year will be interesting, based on the holdover talent with the new coach. In a lot of ways, their position as a team looks a lot like the Cardinals in 2007 when Ken Whisenhunt arrived as head coach, with a lot of pieces already in place – save for one major one at quarterback.

Again, Bradford's presence is a big reason the Rams are considered in the best spot and on the way up. They still need to acquire talent – their wide receiver position remains shorthanded – and they still finished with a sub-.500 record, indicating progress that is still needed.

But the Rams' youth will inevitably be optimistic for the next couple of seasons after the step forward they took in 2010 and there will be a feeling they could – and perhaps should – be the favorites.

"The confidence grew and certainly the expectations are going to be higher," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "There's a tremendous hunger there. You get a taste of it a little bit."

Whether the Seahawks can maintain may be the biggest question mark. They played arguably their best game of the year when they beat the Saints in the playoffs, and looked anything but world-beaters much of the season (they lost by at least 15 points in each of their nine regular-season losses).

"Our goal from the day we walked through the door was to win the division," Carroll said. "We did that. Now we have to keep improving and getting better so we can continue to be competitive in the division."

That leaves the Cardinals, who are searching for key parts not only behind center but elsewhere (like pass rusher) while trying to wipe out what turned out to be a miserable 2010. As bumpy as the season went, there remains an internal confidence – assuming stability and production at quarterback – the Cardinals can be right back battling for a third division crown in four seasons.

It might not have been possible everywhere in the NFL, but it is in the NFC West.

"I think it's going to be anybody's division, whoever plays the best," Whisenhunt said. "That's exciting for us because if we get straightened out we have a chance to win it again, which is something that is our goal."

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