Nearly five months have passed since I set team-by-team expectations for the NFC West based on what I'd seen at training camps.
The San Francisco 49ers outperformed expectations. The St. Louis Rams fell far short. The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks finished right about where I had projected, but there were more ups and downs along the way than almost anyone could have anticipated.
Let's reconcile expectations with results and try to learn something along the way.
St. Louis Rams
Projected wins: 8
Actual wins: 2
Following up: A tough schedule meant the Rams would need quarterback Sam Bradford to make significant improvement under new coordinator Josh McDaniels. I expected that to happen after speaking with Bradford and McDaniels in some detail during camp. I also expected the Rams' defense to remain a strength after adding veteran role players from winning organizations. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Injuries played a significant role on offense in general and at cornerback, a position I outlined as lacking sufficient depth. But the offensive line wasn't playing well even when the starters were together.
Lesson learned: Bradford and the Rams struggled down the stretch to close out the 2010 season. That should have invited more skepticism from me. I gave Bradford and McDaniels the benefit of the doubt based on Bradford's poise and the confidence both showed heading into the season. The narrative of an ascending young quarterback should not have been so persuasive. Adding veteran role players seemed to make sense at the time because the Rams weren't making significant financial commitments to them. However, signing so many older players meant the team lacked young depth. That should have set off alarms.
Projected wins: 7-8
Actual wins: 8
Following up: It's tough to take full credit for nailing this projection given how it happened. The team started 1-6 and rallied to 8-8 despite never getting much from newly acquired quarterback Kevin Kolb. I thought Arizona would have needed more games from Kolb to improve its record by three victories. Arizona's ability to manufacture victories through the return game and fourth-quarter rallies made up the difference. The concerns I raised about Kolb's durability in relation to the Cardinals' pass protection hit the mark. The defense showed more improvement than I had anticipated.
Lesson learned: Never underestimate strong safety Adrian Wilson. I had a hard time believing Wilson would hold up physically through a full season after suffering a torn biceps tendon during camp. Wilson not only held up, he got stronger as the season progressed. Wilson even earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. The Cardinals drove home a couple additional lessons this season. They showed that wheeling and dealing aggressively in free agency and through trades can build excitement without delivering immediate results. They also reminded us to withhold final judgments until late in a season. The view from 8-8 looks a lot better than the one from 1-6. But as we look ahead to 2012, we should not assume the Cardinals will continue on their recent trajectory. Every season is different.
San Francisco 49ers
Projected wins: 6-7
Actual wins: 13
Following up: My general feel for the team was accurate. How it would translate into victories was not. I thought the 49ers would be difficult to analyze in the short term because they had a new coaching staff. I thought better-than-expected play at quarterback could quickly upgrade their prospects. And I figured lower expectations from the outside would help. "I am saying there's a chance," was how I put it back in August. A chance for 13-3? Never saw that coming. In retrospect, I should have listed the 49ers' win range as "6+7" instead of 6-7.
Lesson learned: New coach Jim Harbaugh and staff impressed during camp, but I underestimated how much competent coaching would mean for the 49ers right away. The current coaches have done a phenomenal job fitting together how the offense, defense and special teams complement one another. While I allowed for the fact that San Francisco's defensive changes were by design, I wasn't convinced they would pay off. They did, and hugely. The 49ers' personnel people also get credit for resisting temptations to spend lavishly in free agency. They trusted their instincts and got great contributions from NaVorro Bowman and Carlos Rogers in particular. They paid Ray McDonald and parted with Aubrayo Franklin when no one was saying they should do those things. So, if and when the 49ers let players walk in free agency, we should realize things could be going to plan.
Projected wins: 5-7
Actual wins: 7
Following up: The Seahawks met expectations and probably exceeded them after suffering so many injuries to their offensive line and elsewhere. Seattle was, as expected, a team "eager to let young players develop before acting more boldly to upgrade the quarterback position in the offseason." The Seahawks were an easy team to read for those not blinded by coach Pete Carroll's public support for Tarvaris Jackson. They still need another pass-rusher and better play at quarterback to take the next step.
Lesson learned: Tom Cable is a fantastic offensive line coach, for one. Also, general manager John Schneider and the Seahawks' personnel people should get the benefit of the doubt on their evaluations. They repeatedly got positive results when turning to young players. They replaced Lawyer Milloy with Kam Chancellor and came out way ahead. They replaced Aaron Curry with rookie K.J. Wright and were correct, again. They continually churned the roster and made themselves deeper. They turned a project from the CFL (Brandon Browner) into a Pro Bowl first-alternate even while rookie fifth-round choice Richard Sherman became their best corner. So, if the Seahawks do not show interest in Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn, we can trust it's because Schneider, formerly of the Packers, knows better.