The Big Question: Best QB in NFC West?

Kurt Warner's retirement did more than stir debate over which NFC West team should win the division in 2010.

It also begs a separate, related question: Which NFC West team has the best quarterback?

And by best quarterback, let's focus on the best for this season, not for a player's career. All those touchdown passes Matt Hasselbeck threw from 2003 to 2007 will probably land him a spot in the Seahawks' Ring of Honor, but they mean less for the sake of this conversation -- unless you expect him to recapture past form while playing behind an improved line and within a superior scheme. Likewise, all those interceptions the 49ers' Alex Smith threw in 2005 mean little -- unless you expect him to improbably revert to rookie form.

"If healthy, which is a huge 'if,' I think you still need to give this honor to Hasselbeck," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.

For now.

"My hunch is that if you asked me this again about halfway through the season, I would probably pick Smith," Williamson said. "I still have a fair amount of hope for him and his supporting cast should now make his job much easier. The great unknown for the big picture is [new Seahawks backup] Charlie Whitehurst, though, and who knows? Maybe he comes in midway through the season and really lights it up."

In which case Hasselbeck wouldn't be the best quarterback on his team, let alone the division.

Figuring out what Hasselbeck has left requires projecting how well the Seahawks' new offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, and new line coach, Alex Gibbs, can utilize scheme to shield the quarterback from big hits. Jay Cutler took only 11 sacks in 16 starts for Denver in 2008 when the Broncos were running the scheme Bates has brought to Seattle (Bates was the Broncos' quarterbacks coach at the time). This is Bates' first year as a coordinator, however, and his head coach is Pete Carroll, who built his reputation on defense, not Mike Shanahan.

Hasselbeck had thrown 14 touchdown passes with eight interceptions through Week 14 last season. He then threw three touchdown passes with nine interceptions over the final three games of the season. He played hurt most of the season, suffering damaged ribs in Week 2 and a shoulder injury later.

Those injuries can work in Hasselbeck's favor for the sake of this discussion -- imagine what he might do if healthy -- or they can serve as more evidence he's winding down as his 35th birthday nears. Hasselbeck has 22 touchdowns, 27 interceptions and a 6-15 record as a starter over the past two seasons.

Smith finished last season with 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 5-5 starting record.

The Cardinals' Matt Leinart nearly won his only start last season, losing only when the Titans put together a 99-yard touchdown drive to end the game, but he was erratic in mop-up duty the rest of the season. The team even went back to Warner after Leinart and the offense struggled to hold a big lead at Chicago. Leinart has 14 touchdowns and 20 interceptions for his career. He has one start over the past two seasons and 17 for his career. The Cardinals went 4-2 over his final six starts as a rookie in 2006. They went 7-4 over an 11-start period spanning the 2006 and 2007 seasons, but Warner helped win some of those games.

"I can't even see putting [Rams rookie] Sam Bradford in the conversation just yet and really, Matt Leinart has done zero as well -- but at least has had an opportunity in the NFL already," Williamson said. "For the long term, surely I would want the Bradford, but overall, this isn't a real illustrious group!"

That, as much as anything, explains why it's tough to select a consensus favorite to win the division this season.