QB instability hangs over NFC West

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Quarterback situations are supposed to settle out during the course of an NFL season.
The opposite is happening in the NFC West.

  • The Seattle Seahawks can't be sure when -- or if -- Matt Hasselbeck can return from injuries. Is Hasselbeck's body breaking down at age 33? Will the organization remain committed to him once Mike Holmgren departs after this season?

  • The St. Louis Rams have benched $65 million starter Marc Bulger and hastily restored him to the lineup, with unconvincing results.

  • The San Francisco 49ers appear no closer to identifying their long-term starter while working through a midseason switch from J.T. O'Sullivan to Shaun Hill.

Even the Arizona Cardinals can't be sure what awaits them at the position. Kurt Warner is putting up MVP-caliber numbers as the Cardinals threaten to run away with the NFC West title, but Warner doesn't have a contract for 2009.

As the uncertainty threatens the stability of every franchise in the division, we take an in-depth look at possible scenarios for each team:

Arizona Cardinals
Cumulative 2008 passer rating: 103.9

Best-case scenario: Warner leads the Cardinals to playoff success, then returns under a new contract packed with incentives and enough up-front money to keep him happy. Matt Leinart works diligently in the background. Third-team quarterback Brian St. Pierre re-signs and pushes Leinart for playing time during the exhibition season.

Worst-case scenario: Warner takes one too many hits and can't finish the season. Arizona falters under Leinart as more embarrassing photos turn up online. Warner
signs with the Rams in free agency, leading them back to respectability. St. Pierre finds work elsewhere and enjoys another strong exhibition season while Leinart fails to emerge. Receiver Anquan Boldin forces an offseason trade, further weakening the passing game.

Likely scenario: Warner leads the Cardinals to an NFC West title and home playoff victory before signing a deal that makes him the likely starter in 2009. Leinart's career remains on hold while St. Pierre considers options elsewhere. Warner continues to produce in 2009 as the Cardinals remain a threat for another division title.

San Francisco 49ers

Cumulative 2008 passer rating: 76.7

Best-case scenario: Shaun Hill grows within offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system, finding a reasonable balance between managing the game and taking enough downfield shots to make the offense work. The 49ers rally around Hill as they improbably finish 4-4 in the second half of the season. Frank Gore carries the offense. Hill shows enough to at least return as a viable No. 2 quarterback and potential starter.

Worst-case scenario: Hill quickly flames out as a starter and the 49ers enter the final month of the season feeling even worse about the position. Martz and interim coach Mike Singletary clash over philosophical differences, leaving the offense lost in the divide as the interceptions mount. O'Sullivan gets another chance, only to suffer a season-ending injury as the pass protection continues to falter. Jamie Martin mops up. After the season, Alex Smith declines a paycut and the 49ers release him for salary-cap reasons. Smith revives his career elsewhere while O'Sullivan enjoys a career revival with Martz in another organization. The 49ers go to camp with Hill and David Carr as the leading candidates.

Likely scenario: Hill cuts down on interceptions, but the offense still isn't good enough to win games consistently. The quarterback situation remains unsettled heading into the offseason. The prospect of wholesale changes on the coaching staff complicates the issue. The 49ers draft another quarterback, sign a veteran in free agency and tailor the offensive philosophy to fit the personnel on hand.

St. Louis Rams

Cumulative 2008 passer rating: 74.4

Best-case scenario: Steven Jackson returns to health, giving Marc Bulger a chance to restore his career despite spotty pass protection. The ground game allows Bulger to get comfortable and continue building a rapport with rookie deep threat Donnie Avery. Bulger's confidence surges as the Rams win four of their final eight. The Rams keep the offensive system in place and upgrade their offensive line for 2009. Tight end Randy McMichael comes back strong from injury. Bulger, Jackson, Avery and McMichael grow into a formidable foursome.

Worst-case scenario: Jackson's injured thigh prevents the ground game from taking pressure off Bulger. Bulger responds by pouting instead of attacking the challenges head-on. His body language on the field reflects a broken man without the necessary leadership skills for the position. Fans boo Bulger as his confidence wilts further. The Rams head into the offseason feeling as though they invested $65 million in the wrong quarterback.

Likely scenario: Bulger continues to provide inconsistent play as the offensive line falters. Bulger finishes on a higher note as Jackson finally gets healthy, but it's clear the Rams need to rebuild their offensive line if they hope to salvage Bulger's confidence. And the Rams still aren't sure if Bulger is the right man for the job.

Seattle Seahawks

Cumulative 2008 passer rating: 65.8

Best-case scenario: Matt Hasselbeck returns from injury in time to lead the Seahawks to a cathartic home victory over Arizona in Week 11. Hasselbeck and Bobby Engram quickly regain the rapport that helped both flourish last season. The Cardinals fall to 6-6 with consecutive losses to the Giants and Eagles. A rejuvenated passing game restores life to the Seahawks on defense and in the running game. Seattle makes a late run to salvage Mike Holmgren's final season with the team. In retirement, Holmgren brokers a deal returning the Sonics to Seattle.

Worst-case scenario: Hasselbeck returns against Arizona, only to severely aggravate back and knee injuries when Adrian Wilson and Chike Okeafor sack him on a first-quarter pass play. Hasselbeck misses the remainder of the season. Seneca Wallace struggles. Hasselbeck's bad back remains unpredictable heading into the 2009 season. Free agency and the draft provide no immediate relief, setting up the Seahawks for a repeat of this season.

Likely scenario: Hasselbeck returns at some point this season, but he fails to recapture the Pro Bowl form he showed in past seasons. The Seahawks continue to falter in the passing game and overall. Hasselbeck can't finish the season. Seattle drafts a quarterback in the first few rounds, but Hasselbeck remains the clear-cut starter. An offseason of rehabilitation allows him to return and produce in 2009, but his long-term health remains a concern.