Don Banks: Coaching, QB play to blame for West woes - Sports Illustrated

How the West was lost: Coaching, QB play to blame for division woes

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Halfway through this NFL season, I can't get over the staggering decline and fall of the West. There are few givens in 2008, but one of them is that nobody plays worse football collectively than the eight teams in the NFC and AFC West divisions.

Have you noticed? If you haven't, let me point out a few nuggets:

• Of the eight teams in the NFC and AFC West, only one has a winning record (Arizona at 5-3), and one is at .500 (Denver 4-4). The other six are all 3-5 or worse. San Diego is 3-5. Oakland, Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis are 2-6, and Kansas City is 1-7. For comparison sake, an eye-opening 19 of the other 24 teams (79.2 percent) in the league are at .500 or better.

• Teams in the AFC West are a combined 10-22 (.313). Teams in the NFC West are a combined 11-21 (.344). Put them together and the Western divisions are 22 games below .500, at 21-43 (.328).

• Unsurprisingly, all three of the NFL's midseason coaching changes have occurred in the West, with St. Louis and San Francisco making a move in the NFC, and Oakland doing likewise in the AFC. And there's more to come because Seattle is switching from Mike Holmgren to Jim Mora after the 2008 season, and by anyone's estimation, coaches like Kansas City's Herman Edwards and San Diego's Norv Turner are squarely on the hot seat at midseason. And don't forget that interim coaches Tom Cable in Oakland, Mike Singletary in San Francisco, and Jim Haslett in St. Louis may all be bounced in the offseason.

• The two West divisions are home to some of the longer playoff droughts in the NFL. Arizona hasn't made the playoffs since 1998, the longest active streak in the league. San Francisco and Oakland both made the postseason most recently in 2002, and there are only three non-West teams in the NFL that have waited longer (Detroit and Buffalo last went in 1999, and Miami in 2001).

St. Louis hasn't been a playoff team since 2004 and hasn't had a winning record since 2003. Denver last went in 2005, but has won just one playoff game since John Elway retired after the 1998 season. And the Chiefs made the postseason in 2006, but haven't won a playoff game since 1993.

In Week 9, the ineptitude in the West was on full mind-boggling display. To wit:

• The Raiders lost 24-0 at home to the Falcons, and finished the game with just 77 yards of offense and three first downs, none via passing. At the half, Oakland had minus-2 yards of offense and zero first downs. It was the Raiders worst offensive showing in 47 years, even pre-dating the team's silver and black color scheme.

• The AFC West's first-place Broncos continued to show themselves frauds, losing 26-17 at home to Miami to drop their fourth in five games after a 3-0 start. Denver's once-dominant rushing game gained 14 yards and went without a first down on the ground.

• Kansas City blew a 24-3 lead at home against Tampa Bay, losing 30-27 in overtime. It was the second consecutive week that the Chiefs squandered a fourth-quarter lead, having done the same thing at the Jets in Week 8.

• Seattle, once dominant at home, lost its third game in four tries at Qwest Field this season, falling 26-7 to Philadelphia. The Seahawks punted 11 consecutive times in the game, seven after three-and-out series. At one point, Seattle spiked a pass on third down, forcing a punt.

• The Rams lost 34-13 at home to the Cardinals. After taking a 7-0 first-quarter lead, St. Louis gave up 31 consecutive points to lose its second straight after Scott Linehan's firing sparked a modest two-game winning streak.

• San Diego and San Francisco had byes in Week 9, and even those weren't uneventful, with the Chargers firing defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell last week amid charges that Turner was scape-goating his assistant, and the 49ers reeling from the controversial first days of their Singletary era. The image of the San Francisco coach with his pants down around his ankles is one that won't soon dissipate.

What in the name of Bill Walsh has happened to West Coast (and West division) football in the NFL? Can't anybody here play this game?

I called a veteran NFC personnel man Tuesday morning and asked him to put the West's problems into some sort of perspective for me. He didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. In this league, bad teams usually have bad quarterbacking and bad coaching. And there's more of that in the West than anywhere else in the NFL these days.

"Bad quarterbacks have been the main thing behind the decline of those divisions,'' the NFC personnel man said. "And there have been a lot of coaching changes as well. Almost all those teams have changed coaches once or more in recent years.''

Indeed, six of the eight teams in the West divisions have hired new coaches at least once since 2006. Only Denver's Mike Shanahan and Seattle's Mike Holmgren have bucked the trend, and Holmgren is in the midst of a desultory 10th and final season with the Seahawks. Oakland is on its third head coach in three years (Art Shell in 2006, Lane Kiffin in 2007-08, and now Cable). San Diego's Turner and Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt were hired in 2007, and Edwards joined the Chiefs in 2006.

As for the quarterbacking, the West has been a wasteland. K.C. has gone through three starters this season in Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard and Tyler Thigpen. The 49ers have benched J.T. O'Sullivan in favor of Shaun Hill, while the Seahawks have tried to make due with either Seneca Wallace or Charlie Frye in the absence of the injured Matt Hasselbeck. Oakland can't get 2007 No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell straightened out, the Rams' Marc Bulger has been disappointing, and Denver's Jay Cutler cooled off after a torrid start.

"The team with the best quarterback, Kurt Warner in Arizona, is having the best season,'' said the NFC personnel man. "It again pinpoints how important that position is to the success of the team. It comes down to quarterbacks. It always does. The teams that have a good one usually win.

"Denver has talent, but it has some serious defensive problems. Seattle has battled all those injuries at receiver. Kansas City can't get a quarterback to play for very long, and Oakland has a young quarterback who hasn't played well. San Francisco doesn't have a guy pulling the trigger at quarterback, and Philip Rivers in San Diego hasn't been able to offset the Chargers problems on defense.''

The Cardinals, who are on their way to their first division title since Jim Hart was quarterbacking them in St. Louis in 1975, are the only team in either West division whose offense and defense both rank in the top half of the league in terms of yards gained/allowed. Arizona is second on offense and 12th on defense.

On offense, five of the lowest rated nine teams in the NFL reside in the West: San Francisco is 24th, Kansas City 26th, Oakland 29th, St. Louis 30th and Seattle 31st. On defense, the West's struggles are even more pronounced. Six of the seven lowest-ranked defenses are in either the NFC West or AFC West: San Diego is 26th, Seattle is 27th, Oakland is 28th, Denver is 29th, St. Louis is 30th, and Kansas City is 31st.

That's a bunch of bad football, all congregating in the same geographic region of the NFL's divisional alignment. No wonder no West-based team can win in the Eastern time zone this season. While I still expect San Diego to come around and win the weak AFC West -- somebody has to -- the sun has long since set on the era when the West was the NFL's best. Denver and St. Louis combined to win three consecutive Super Bowls in 1997-98-99, while San Francisco and Oakland monopolized seven of a possible 15 NFL titles from 1980 to 1994.

This year? We've got the 5-3 Cardinals setting a less-than-torrid pace, and a bunch of deeply flawed teams who are fooling no one. And so continues the decline and fall of the West. It's only Week 10, but in at least two NFL divisions this year, the season already feels lost.