EARTH CITY, Mo. — As the Arizona Cardinals contemplated yet another reboot this winter, trying to devise a strategy for their front office and coaching vacancies, they studied several structures in hopes of duplicating the rapid ascent of their division rivals. In the end, they decided that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.
It was only a few years ago that the NFC West was the laughingstock of the league (if not all of pro sports), with Seattle snatching a division title in 2010 despite a 7-9 record. The situation was so unsightly that suggestions of altering the playoff seeding system became an offseason talking point.
Contrast that to now, as executives from other divisions fear three teams from the resurgent NFC West — Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis — will reach the postseason.
The rapid ascent is hardly a quirk. It’s not been a fluke at all. In fact, several key common denominators are present in the rise of these clubs, which are born of a paradigm in which an aggressive, first-time general manager was paired with an experienced head coach who had pretty much seen it all before.
In conversations with general managers, coaches and players throughout trips to training camps, including stops with every team in the NFC West, it’s become apparent that the burgeoning race between these teams stems from the similarities in their construction.
It began with the Seahawks in 2010, when former NFL head coach Pete Carroll, fresh off a dominant run at USC, was paired with rising Green Bay executive John Schneider. It continued in 2011 when San Francisco promoted accomplished scout Trent Baalke to GM and landed Jim Harbaugh, a highly successful college coach most recently at Stanford, who had also apprenticed as an NFL assistant. In 2012 the Rams followed suit, plucking Les Snead from Atlanta as a first-time GM and installing him with Jeff Fisher, who was refreshed after a year off from football following a productive 16-year run coaching the Oilers/Titans.
All of those head coaches are full of boundless positivity; all of the young GMs are fearless and willing to gamble and make huge trades, ground where many older execs dare not tread.
Therefore, it was hardly shocking in January when Cardinals ownership, suddenly trailing the rest of the division and after a long coaching search, ended up promoting well-regarded front office assistant Steve Keim to general manager and went with the NFL’s reigning coach of the year, Bruce Arians, a grizzled longtime offensive coordinator, as head coach.
With the Seahawks coming a field goal from playing in the NFC Championship Game last year, the 49ers coming a fourth-down pass from winning the Super Bowl and the Rams widely regarded as one of the most improved franchises in football since Snead/Fisher took over (St. Louis won just 15 games from 2007-2011 but surged to 7-8-1 last year), the Cardinals, who finished last year in a 1-11 rut, realize they need to improve quickly to compete.
“It’s not an accident,” Keim said. “That’s been a successful model, and I talked with (owner) Michael Bidwell about that. Here are two teams in Seattle and San Francisco that got better, and it wasn’t like it took multiple years. They got better, and they got better quickly, and there’s a reason behind that and that comes from the way they put their power structure together.
“It’s because Trent has done a fantastic job in San Francisco, and obviously John has done a great job up in Seattle. They have a lot of energy, positive energy and the head coaches there also have a lot of energy in those places. And I think that’s the model you want.”
There was an overall trend in the NFL the past decade to seek out hot young coordinators, owners looking to keep costs down and find the next Mike Tomlin or John Harbaugh. The rise of the West has run counter to that groupthink, with Seattle, San Francisco and the Rams all spending top dollar for more proven commodities — hardly a coincidence as well.
“The owners reshaped this division,” said Rams COO and executive VP of football operations Kevin Demoff. “This was the division that got back to the highly sought-after and highly paid coach. You have to give credit first and foremost for saying we’re going to get back into this arm’s race. And you wound up with guys who are tough-nosed, like the power running game, and now the teams are very similar in how being constructed.”
Keim realizes the chore ahead of him, now.
Schneider was willing to make bold, sage trades like acquiring running back Marshawn Lynch and pass rusher Chris Clemons; drafting Bruce Irvin in the first round; and finding steals in the draft with Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.
The 49ers have drafted as well as any team in the league the last five years or so, stockpiling the best offensive line and linebackers in football in the opinions of many, Baalke trading up to land dynamic quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the…