It’s over. Just give San Francisco the 2010 NFC West Division title now and be done with it.
OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole. Nothing is ever set in stone. You just have to like the 49ers’ chances, though, in a division where the most consistent and dynamic offense just lost it’s biggest weapon.
With the announcement today that Arizona Cardinal quarterback Kurt Warner is leaving the game, the 49ers find themselves with an opportunity to not only compete—something they were already doing this past season—but wrest the Division title from the Cardinals for the first time in two years.
It won’t be easy. The Cardinals still have one of the best group of wide receivers in the game today. Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston—and if he stays—Anquan Boldin are all top notch players. If Boldin leaves, Early Doucet has proven he can step in as a number three, while Breaston steps up into the number two role.
Problem is, they won’t have Kurt Warner throwing to them.
Say what you will about judging too early, but Matt Leinart has yet to show that he will step seamlessly into Warner’s shoes. While he looked improved when given spot duty during the playoffs, Leinart lacks consistency and has struggled more than he has excelled.
It’s safe to say that for an offense predicated on massive pass yardage, this could prove to be a huge step backwards.
While Chris Wells and Tim Hightower have formed a pretty good running back tandem, they will now face stiffer run defenses until Leinart can prove he’s the real deal. The offensive line, which has been shaky and streaky, will be tested with blitzes and various pressure schemes to press Leinart into bad decisions.
The Cardinals won’t implode, not by any means. What they may have to do is seriously alter their offensive game plan to suit the remaining talent, which can take time. Fitzgerald and company may be able to make Leinart look better quicker, but ultimately defenses will test the young quarterback.
From what we’ve seen so far, he has a long way to go still.
While the 49ers struggled throughout the season, they made some great strides forward. Another year with the same coaching staff, with the same vision, should allow them to continue to build towards something very good.
There are certainly areas of need. The secondary needs help, the offensive line has pretty significant problems and they could use more defensive line and linebacker depth to help create pressure on opposing offenses (such as the Cardinals).
However, if 49ers quarterback Alex Smith can play a little more consistently and continue to make strides forward, if the team can improve that offensive line via Free Agency and April’s NFL Draft, if Frank Gore can stay healthy while Glen Coffee takes a step forward in his secodn year—well the 49ers have an opportunity to strike and wrest the Division away from Arizona.
It’s a lot of ‘if’s’ but the 49ers were in the hunt for much of the season this year despite some really shaky moments. With a second off-season together, as well as additions they can make this Spring, they will continue to take a step forward.
The running game—anchored by Gore and assisted by Coffee—will still be a key feature and as the offensive line improves, they will only be more effective.
While there are still questions about Smith as a viable starter long-term, the weapons he has in tight end Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree (and to a lesser extent, Josh Morgan) are potent. Smith needs to protect the ball better, but his arm strength coupled with his receivers could allow him to pull defenses away from the offensive line and give the run game more room.
There is work to be done, but the 49ers offense is on the upswing.
Looking at the rest of the Divison doesn’t really create worries. Aside from a Cardinals team which will still be a tough foe—even without Warner—there are two teams in far worse shape than San Francisco.
The St. Louis Rams are in complete rebulding mode and barring a miracle, will not be a factor for several years. Both sides of the ball—from quarterback to secondary to offensive and defensive linemen—are a shattered mess in need of a complete tear-down and rebuild.
The Seattle Seahawks have more tools to work with but are still in a transitional period. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has problems staying healthy and is no longer the top-shelf quarterback he once was. There is little to speak about in the run game, the wide receivers—even 2009’s Big Signing TJ Houshmandzedah—are decidedly average even when Hasselbeck isn’t struggling or hurt. The defense is slipping. And they have a new coach—former USC Head Coach Pete Carroll—who has to come in and revamp much of the team.
Neither of these teams are serious contenders for the NFC West Title.
It will come down to the Cardinals and the 49ers. Neither team is perfect, but while the 49ers are adding pieces, the Cardinals are losing one—a big one. You don’t lose a potential Hall of Fame quarterback and just move on. (Well, you rarely do. Usually you need Steve Young.)
It’s a long off-season and both teams will make many roster moves between now and opening day. Many things will change, perhaps radically.
Regardless of those moves, the balance of power in the NFC West has shifted. It may be slight. It may even still be weighed in the Cardinals’ favor.
It moved, though and that slight shift could be all the 49ers need to win the Division Title since 2002.
Find more 49ers articles by Andrew at BleacherReport.com.