INDIANAPOLIS It took less than an hour of the first day of the NFL combine for me to miss Bruce Arians being here.
Sean McVay is the Los Angeles Rams’ kid coach. He is 34 younger than Arians, the recently retired Cardinals coach.
McVay spoke at the combine Wednesday about the state of the NFC West for 2018.
“The Seahawks are still a force to be reckoned with,” he said of the Rams’ aging, obviously transitioning rivals.
McVay added that people forget the Rams and Seahawks played in Week 15 last season for first place in the division.
So kind. He left out the part about his Rams annihilating Seattle on its home field 42-7 in mid-December. It was the Seahawks’ worst margin of defeat of the Pete Carroll coaching era.
When the irascible, free-speaking Arians talked at these combines he was liable to say things like, “we rule the division now,” or “the Seahawks and everybody else are chasing us.” He absolutely would have said that had his team recently beaten the Seahawks by 35 points to win the West.
Remember this, before December’s season finale at Seattle when the Cardinals beat the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field--again?:
"We know that's our home field. We're goin' up there to kick their ass,” Arians told his players--before they did, to end the Seahawks’ season on New Year’s Eve.
Not so with these new regimes in the West. They are being complimentary here about the Seahawks remaining at the top of a division that has undeniably, startlingly changed in the last year.
In his first season as a head coach, the 31-year-old McVay led the Rams in seizing the division title from Seattle in 2017. Though it lost at home in the first round of the playoffs to Atlanta, Los Angeles went 11-5 and became the first team besides the Seahawks or Cardinals to win the West since 2012.
Arizona is starting over, post-Arians. The Cardinals have an NFL rookie head coach in Steve Wilks, Carolina’s defensive coordinator last season. Arizona also has zero quarterbacks currently on its roster, after Carson Palmer finally retired at the age of 65 or so.
San Francisco general manager John Lynch and 38-year-old coach Kyle Shanahan are at their second combine together with a new full-time starting quarterback for 2018, recently minted Jimmy Garoppolo.
Meanwhile in Seattle, Carroll is the league’s oldest coach at age 66. He and general manager John Schneider are at their ninth consecutive combine for the Seahawks this week. But as Carroll admits “John and I have a huge job” this offseason.
Carroll will speak to the media here Thursday morning at 9 a.m. Pacific Time for the first time since Jan. 2--and first time since his coaching-staff overhaul. Schneider will talk Friday at 8 a.m. PT.
How much has the division changed in the past year?
This time last year, the Seahawks were its undisputed kings. They were on a run of five consecutive playoff appearances. They had played in two of the last four Super Bowls, winning the team’s first NFL championship at the end of the 2013 season. They had a 28-year-old franchise quarterback in Russell Wilson signed for three more seasons. They had seven Pro Bowl stars on defense.
Their reign seemed intact. Especially with Palmer’s health and age failing the Cardinals. With the 49ers coming off a two-win season and starting over with a first-time GM and coach. And with the Rams having a QB having just seven career starts in Jared Goff, plus a first-time coach who is younger than two of Carroll’s three children. McVay’s so young he looked like a luggage valet when I saw him on the curb at the Indianapolis airport Tuesday.
The NFC West couldn’t be more different.
“Aside from us, everybody has addressed the quarterback position,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said Wednesday. “But I'm excited for our process moving forward. And it's exciting from the fact, San Francisco is getting better, L.A. had a great year and Coach McVay has done a great job, Seattle is going to be a very good football team.
“But I wouldn't have it any other way. I enjoy the challenge to be able to have a division so competitive.”
So, yes, it’s all un-Arians-like diplomacy here from division rivals about Seattle not falling off in the division.
Goff and the Rams are the defending division champions. They have a relentless defense, an all-world defensive tackle in Aaron Donald that Wilson says is “probably the best defensive player I’ve ever played against,” plus a young core that isn’t going anywhere. San Francisco finished last season with five consecutive wins. Those were the first five starts by a Garoppolo after the 49ers traded with New England for Tom Brady’s backup in October. The Niners just gave Garoppolo a record contract worth $137.5 million to be their guy for the next five years. The Cardinals are largely starting over, especially on offense. Or do you think 33-year-old runner Adrian Peterson can carry that team all by himself in 2018?
And the Seahawks have a world of issues beyond just missing the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Their “Legion of Boom” secondary that could be bust after 2018, if Richard Sherman doesn’t rebound in the last year of his contract from a torn Achilles tendon, if Kam Chancellor can’t play again because of a serious neck injury and if Earl Thomas doesn’t get his money. Wilson suddenly has just this season and next left on his contract, and this time next year may be seeking an extension above $30 million per year. Carroll has just two years left on his deal. He now has a new offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer) and defensive coordinator (Ken Norton Jr.) and questions on how he’s going to make good on his vow to return to the offense to running.
“For our division as a whole, you are excited about the competitiveness,” McVay said of day one of the league’s annual scouting extravaganza. “I don’t know that I can really say I’m ‘excited’ about it, but it’s going to be a great challenge for us going against those three teams next year.”
The Cardinals are going to be the 2016 Rams and 2017 49ers in 2018. That is, with a new quarterback.
Wilks said Wednesday the Cardinals are going to be “aggressive” in pursuing a new passer.
Then again, as Keim said: “When you don't have one, there is no other way.”
The Cardinals are intensely scouting the quarterbacks at the combine, though Arizona would seemingly need to trade up from having the 15th-overall pick in the first round to get the most highly coveted QBs in this draft class. USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, even Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield are likely to be selected before Arizona’s turn.
Or do the Cardinals go get a veteran one to replace Palmer? Free agency begins March 14. Kirk Cousins is going to be available after Washington traded with Kansas City to get Alex Smith. But that route is likely to cost perhaps $25 million or more per year.
“We will have plans in place for free agency,” Keim said. “But again, a trade option potentially, and the draft, it's all three because we don't have any (QBs) on the roster currently. Whether we are going to keep two or three, we're going to have to have someone that's experienced, and you'd like to be able to take a young guy and develop him.”
We spend a lot of time and type here dissecting all the Seahawks’ concerns and needs. But the one asset they--and now the Rams and the 49ers--have that the Cardinals do not is a franchise quarterback.
And in Wilson, Seattle has the only passer in the division that has won a playoff game. Wilson’s won eight one them, in fact--including a Super Bowl.
That title seems longer than just four years ago, doesn’t it?