The NFC West had become one of the most competitive divisions over the last few seasons, but after last season's second-half collapse of the Cardinals, the general destruction of the 49ers and the aggressive mediocrity of the Rams, they may no longer deserve that title. Looking ahead to this season, which head coach in the NFC West has the most to prove in 2015? SI.com's NFL staff (mostly) agrees on one man: Jeff Fisher of the St. Louis Rams.
Don Banks: Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams—The easy choice, of course, would be San Francisco’s Jim Tomsula, who comes to power as lightly experienced in the role of head coach as any hire in recent NFL memory. But while Tomsula has everything to prove in his rookie season, he’ll likely get shown plenty of patience by the men who installed him as Jim Harbaugh’s replacement—49ers CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke. And that’s why the real pressure in the NFC West coaching ranks should be on Fisher, the Rams’ fourth-year head coach.
For all his vast experience—20 years as an NFL head coach—Fisher’s accomplishment level has been wholly underwhelming of late. He last posted a winning record when Barack Obama was still the president-elect (13-3 with the 2008 Titans), hasn’t won a playoff game since Tennessee captured a first-round victory in the '03 postseason and has produced a lackluster 20-27-1 mark in his first three seasons in St. Louis, going 7-8-1 in '12, 7–9 in '13 and 6–10 last year.
While Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona have all been to the postseason and logged multiple double-digit win seasons recently, the Rams continue to max out at six or seven wins a year, failing to even climb to the .500 level or position themselves as a team on the rise. Despite a bevy of high draft picks and an impressive amount of defensive talent on the roster, St. Louis has been stuck in status quo mode under Fisher, unable to break out of its state of mediocrity and contend in the league’s toughest division.
While the relocation scenarios swirl around the 2015 Rams, it’s time Fisher’s team made a move in the standings, with bold offensive moves like the trade for quarterback Nick Foles and the drafting of Georgia running back Todd Gurley creating a win-now mentality in what likely will be the franchise’s final season in St. Louis. Fisher’s job security under team owner Stan Kroenke may or may not be a legitimate issue this season, but another losing record and continued offensive malaise could easily lead to the conclusion that Fisher’s strong reputation is no longer supported by the Rams’ results.
Chris Burke: Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams—The answer, as has become almost an annual tradition in the NFC West, is Jeff Fisher. His three seasons with St. Louis have produced records of 7-8-1, 7-9 and 6-10, each time with the Rams sporting a 3–5 mark at the halfway point. At some point it becomes fair to wonder if we've already seen St. Louis reach its ceiling with Fisher running the show.
Worse yet, Fisher's teams have found life increasingly difficult within the division. That 7-8-1 mark in 2012 came highlighted by a sparkling 4-1-1 combined mark against Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle. Over the 2013 and '14 seasons, though, the Rams have managed a measly 3–9 record against its division rivals. Granted, the West has been brutal of late but there is no chance St. Louis can close the gap without a better showing there.
Sam Bradford's inability to stay healthy handed Fisher a built-in excuse, and this off-season's trade for Nick Foles could do the same if Foles bombs. But four years of sub-.500 play, while an improvement over St. Louis' pre-Fisher stretch (15–65 from 2008–13), is far from what this franchise had in mind when it hired the veteran coach.
Doug Farrar: Jim Tomsula, San Francisco 49ers—Very little doubt here. While Pete Carroll, Bruce Arians and Jeff Fisher each have long and varied successes as coaches, Tomsula's primary claim to fame before he replaced Jim Harbaugh was his position as the 49ers' defensive line coach. He was known as a motivator in that smaller arena, but with no head coaching experience outside of NFL Europe, and with a staggering amount of personnel churn in his first offseason, Tomsula will have to pull off a near-miraculous coaching job to keep the 49ers where they have been under Harbaugh over the last few seasons. The common perception is that Tomsula was the choice of GM Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York because he'd let the front office call the shots with far less friction than Harbaugh ever did, and he's done little to dispel doubts about his acumen since he was handed the job in January.
Of course, there have been head coaches who have been wildly successful despite their lack of general experience. Before he became the Ravens' head coach in 2008, John Harbaugh had been the Eagles' defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator for the previous decade. But Harbaugh was ready for the leap, and he knew he'd be joining an organization known for its intelligence in personnel and player development. That's paid off handsomely, as Harbaugh leads all coaches since 2008 with 10 playoff wins, and he ranks second over that time with 82 total victories.
Tomsula's situation is very different. The 49ers have major gaps in their secondary, linebacker corps, defensive line and offensive line, and Baalke has not proven that he can restock the team through the draft. Perhaps because of this, he has the least to prove in a general sense—if he fails over time, most will blame the people above him. But if he makes a mess of it, there's little chance he'll ever get another NFL head coaching opportunity down the road.
Bette Marston: Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams—Thinking about the NFC West coaches, Pete Carroll has already proven that he can reach the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons (and come within a play of winning back-to-back Super Bowls, but I digress). On the other end of the spectrum, Jim Tomsula was thrust into an unfortunate situation with the 49ers, and expectations aren't high in San Francisco. Bruce Arians, in his two years as the Cardinals’ coach, has achieved two winning records and a playoff berth. Which brings us to Fisher.
When Fisher came to St. Louis with the freedom to build his coaching staff in 2012, he likely didn’t imagine a future of middling records and no playoff appearances. In his three years at the Rams’ helm, Fisher has not put up a winning record or finished above third in the division. Yes, the Rams have had their share of injury issues, especially last year, when they lost Sam Bradford and Jake Long for the season, but at this point, blaming injuries comes off as making excuses. This team is filled with talented (but inconsistent) players on both sides of the ball, due to a slew of top draft picks over the last three years, and they have nothing but six- and seven-win seasons to show for it.
This off-season, Fisher went all in to try to make this offense work alongside their skilled defense. Most notably, he swapped quarterbacks with the Eagles—giving up Sam Bradford, whom the Rams thought could be their franchise quarterback, and getting Nick Foles in return—and drafted a talented running back in Todd Gurley, creating a sense of urgency around his team.
If Fisher can’t turn things around and post a winning record in St. Louis (dare I say make a playoff push), the Rams might as well pick up and head to California.
Amy Parlapiano: Jim Tomsla, San Francisco 49ers—Jim Tomsula is already coming into the 2015 season with a target on his back. Most people assume the 49ers are going to be subpar, if not awful, this year. Many think he’s nothing more than Jed York’s little robot, the complete opposite of the volatile but knows-how-to-win Jim Harbaugh. He’s not a big-name replacement, he had a bad introductory press conference, and he’s now in charge of running a team that got hit pretty hard in free agency, with a quarterback who needs to prove very soon that he has the capability to bring his game up to the next level.
It’s impossible to sit here and say Tomsula doesn’t have the most to prove when he’s taking over a role that was occupied by a coach who went 44-19-1 over the course of four seasons, with two NFC Championship appearances and a Super Bowl appearance, and was forced out anyway. Sure, maybe that means all Tomsula has to do is not make people angry and his job is safe, even if he’s not winning. But the Harbaugh shadow is a big one, and with all eyes on San Francisco, many looking for and expecting a trainwreck, it’s up to Tomsula to show he can at least compete with the three other experienced and proven coaches in his division.
Eric Single: Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams—The NFC West has sent two teams to the playoffs and one team to the Super Bowl every year since Fisher entered the division, so in one respect he has been a victim of bad timing, but his record in St. Louis 20-27-1 is starting to exit the land of small sample sizes. Fisher rewarded his first franchise for its patience, taking the Titans to the Super Bowl in his fifth full season after being given enough tether for four consecutive years of .500 or worse finishes, but aside from his coincidental expertise in steering a team through relocation drama, what's to stop the Rams from pulling the trap door under his feet after Year Four if they miss the playoffs for the 11th straight season?
On the other hand, the stress of managing an injury-prone quarterback evaporated with the Sam Bradford trade, and Fisher has helped craft one of the league's best defenses to trade stops with the division's other vaunted units. In any other year, the Seahawks' status as Super Bowl favorites and a brutal out-of-conference slate that pits the Rams against the AFC North and NFC North would be enough to take the edge off another middle-of-the-road campaign, but 2015 does not set up to be just any other year. A winning season and a playoff berth would validate a few years of frustration and patience in St. Louis and restore some momentum to Fisher's career in the process.