“We feel this is the toughest division in football.” – John Schneider on the NFC West.
The NFC West has been the best division in football for several years now, so it is no big surprise that the NFC championship featured two teams from Seattle’s division.
The 49ers and Rams both have lost in the Super Bowl in the past three years, and now – after a pair of walk-off road wins last weekend — one of them (the Rams) is returning to the league’s championship game. It will be the NFC West’s sixth Super Bowl appearance in the last 10 seasons – another tribute to the best division in the NFL.
The Seahawks have had two of those berths, but they have been on a slow, steady skid since the Super Bowl XLIX debacle and they bottomed out in 2021, missing the playoffs for the second time in five years with the worst record in Russell Wilson’s career.
Meanwhile, the 49ers reached their fifth NFC title game since 2011 and their second in the last three years. They were looking to get back to the Super Bowl for the third time since Wilson became Seattle’s QB in 2012 – and the second time since Seattle started “letting Russ cook” in 2019.
Instead, the Rams are back in the Super Bowl for the second time in Sean McVay’s five years as coach.
The Hawks have just one playoff win in those five years while the 49ers have four in the past three and the Rams, who will host the Super Bowl in their stadium, are going for their seventh in four years.
Why the 49ers & Rams are at the top
So how have the 49ers and Rams ascended to contenders while the Seahawks have become – at least for one year — the division’s cellar dwellers?
As Schneider recently pointed out, the 49ers and Rams (and Arizona) have had some really bad years that allowed them to stack their rosters with high-end draft picks. That is part of it, but that does not explain it all. Both the 49ers and Rams have made savvy trades for key stars (including their quarterbacks), and both have built strong defenses and excellent offensive lines to take the pressure off the passers.
It’s how Schneider and Pete Carroll need to rebuild their club.
After Jim Harbaugh’s last year, in 2014, the 49ers went four straight seasons with no more than six wins (with three coaches). So, their 2016-19 drafts were all top 10: DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Mike McGlinchey and Nick Bosa. They then flipped Buckner for the 13th pick in 2021 and replaced him with Javon Kinlaw.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, have always drafted in the deep 20s. It’s harder to find impact players down there – and the Hawks have not found enough. Their 2016-19 top picks were Germain Ifedi, Malik McDowell, Rashaad Penny and L.J. Collier.
That, along with Schneider’s mammoth Day 2 whiffs in 2016 and 2017 and a boom-or-bust offense, largely explains Seattle’s inability to advance in the postseason ever since the Legion of Boom was dismantled in 2018.
The Rams, meanwhile, have been built through trades. In 2016, they moved up from No. 15 to No. 1 to take Jared Goff, who helped the Rams get to the Super Bowl in 2018 – McVay’s second year.
Rams GM Les Snead then started trading first-round picks for veteran players: Brandin Cooks (2018 first-rounder), Jalen Ramsey (2020 and 2021), Matthew Stafford (2022 and 2023). Stafford and Ramsey were huge factors in this run to the NFC title game.
Snead has been incredibly aggressive with other trades as well. For the 2018 Super Bowl run, he procured Cooks, corners Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and Dante Fowler. Those guys are all gone, but this year he added Stafford, Von Miller and Sony Michel.
Through it all, it has helped that the Rams’ defense has been anchored by Aaron Donald, the 13th overall pick in 2014 who has become the best defender in the league. Andrew Whitworth and Leonard Floyd were great free-agent additions, too. And the Rams were able to lure Odell Beckham Jr. after Cleveland waived him this season, a move that offset the loss of Robert Woods (injured just as OBJ was signed).
Schneider certainly has made an effort to keep the Seahawks in contention. He has made his own veteran trades, acquiring the likes of Duane Brown, Quandre Diggs, Jamal Adams, Carlos Dunlap and Gabe Jackson.
And, just as the 49ers found Deebo Samuel in the second round and the Rams found Cooper Kupp in the third, Schneider has added Tyler Lockett in the third and DK Metcalf in the second. So he at least has matched those teams in finding stellar receivers through the draft.
But the Seahawks have not put together a consistent offense because they have not built a line that can run the ball well enough to take pressure off Wilson, who always looks for the big play through the air. And they still have not rebuilt the stout defense they once had and really need again.
The 49ers got to the NFC title game thanks largely to their defense, just like they did in 2019. Both years they were top 10 in scoring defense, ranked seventh in DVOA and top three in yards allowed. DeMeco Ryans’ unit – led by Bosa, Arik Armstead and Fred Warner — held Dallas and Green Bay to 27 points total, and the Rams won just 20-17.
The Rams actually were better on defense in 2020 – first in yards and points – but they still were No. 5 in DVOA this year.
The Seahawks have not had close to that kind of defense the past four years, with average rankings of 24th in yards, 15th in scoring and 19th in DVOA. That explains why Ken Norton Jr. was fired and why Carroll reportedly plans to be more aggressive on defense going forward.
Hawks have to be aggressive
In December, Carroll admitted the rest of the NFC West was more talented than the Seahawks.
“Going into the season, we were very optimistic about it and thought we had a lot of pieces put together,” he told 710 ESPN. “I liked every aspect of what we had; but, as it turned out, the guys in our division (were even more loaded). It’s why it’s the best division in football. … We’re up against it.”
So how do the Seahawks catch up?
It doesn’t help that they won’t get the benefit of the 10th overall pick they earned by going 7-10. That goes to the Jets for Adams.
But Schneider needs to be more aggressive about improving his team. The 49ers are the latest proof that you can go far if you build up your team around the QB.
Whether the Hawks keep Wilson or not, they need to put resources into the offensive line and corners, pay Diggs and maybe try to add Chandler Jones to the pass rush. These are clear priorities.
Where do they get the resources? Trading Wilson could bring a bunch of picks and $11 million in cap space (though Schneider would need a playoff-capable replacement QB). Trading Bobby Wagner would add $16.6 million. Trading DK Metcalf would net a first-round pick and more. These are all options to consider.
Then Carroll’s coaches need to be much better. On defense, they need to use Dunlap and Adams to their best effect and quit playing so passively. On offense, they need to build a stout line that can run the ball as well as they did in the final month of 2021 (and no, that does not mean paying a bundle to Penny).
If the Seahawks aren’t willing to be as aggressive as the rest of the NFC West, they will continue to watch from the losers’ seats as the 49ers and Rams win playoff games and take turns challenging for the Super Bowl.