The NFL tends to operate with the same basic barometer — Al Davis’ “Just win, baby!” — thanks to the parity that results from a hard salary cap and an annually impactful draft. The reality is, unless your name is Jeff Fisher, you have to make the playoffs in your first two years as a head coach or you’ll be looking for work.
But success can still be relative for teams that are either rebuilding, ascending or ready to contend. The strength of the division as well as the conference, and a team’s schedule can help determine how high the bar can realistically be set.
All22.com is taking a close look at each of the division races to see which teams have a legitimate shot at the postseason.
In this installment, the NFC West:
Arizona Cardinals (13-3, first place, lost to Carolina in NFC Championship Game in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Cardinals win at least 12 games and the NFC championship. It’s possible the Seahawks could be recharged and ready to take the division back, but Arizona is aiming for a return to the NFC Championship game and putting up a much better showing than last year’s 49-15 spanking by the Panthers. Coach Bruce Arians’ teams seem to take another step every season, which in this case would mean a trip to the Super Bowl. With quarterback Carson Palmer turning 37 and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald staring down 33, there’s no telling how many chances either have left.
Why it should happen: The Cardinals were a victory away from the Super Bowl a year ago before they laid the worst egg possible, with nothing hurting the cause more than Palmer’s six turnovers. Palmer was never quite right after dislocating his finger at the end of the regular season, but he was the best he’s ever been when healthy. His offense remains as deep, explosive and balanced as it’s ever been, but it’s the defense that should take a step forward in 2016. The additions of linebacker Chandler Jones and tackle Robert Nkemdiche to the front seven should pair well with the best secondary in the NFL. If safety Tyrann Mathieu is healthy, there’s no limit to how high the Cardinals can fly.
And if it doesn’t: Questions will hit Palmer like they never have before. Fair or not, people will wonder if some moments get too big for him. It’ll only become harder to prove those critics wrong with more age, more injuries and whatever steps Fitzgerald starts to lose in the meantime.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6, second place, lost to Carolina in divisional round in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Seahawks win at least 12 games and advance to the NFC Championship game. The only difference between the top two West teams is that one has top performers nearing the end of their careers and the other hasn’t. Oh, and the Seahawks have been to the Super Bowl twice, winning once. So we’ll alleviate the pressure on Seattle slightly, as the NFC really is rugged, but coach Pete Carroll has established high expectations here: don’t get bounced in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Why it should happen: It’s hard to imagine injuries crippling the Seahawks offense quite the way they did in 2015, when tight end Jimmy Graham’s and running back Marshawn Lynch’s seasons were done by Week 10. Lynch is gone, and part of an ascending line has departed, but the reinforcements Seattle brought in are no schlubs. Running back Thomas Rawls and guard Jahri Evans should be impact players. If quarterback Russell Wilson can continue his magical play in and out of the pocket, the Seahawks should again make a deep playoff run.
And if it doesn’t: Carroll and general manager John Schneider might start to regret letting talented offensive linemen leave in recent years, especially if collapsing pockets end up getting Wilson hurt. That’ll especially be true if they still can’t figure out how to use Graham, whom they traded Pro Bowl center Max Unger to acquire. It’ll make the 2017 offseason a pivotal time to address the issues upfront.
Los Angeles Rams (7-9, third place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Rams win nine games behind inspiring play from rookie quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley. The Rams will be facing higher expectations in their first season in Los Angeles. Coach Jeff Fisher can ensure some job security with his first winning record in seven seasons (two with Tennessee). The Rams’ division and conference are too difficult to expect making the playoffs with a rookie quarterback, but to enter 2017 with a talented young quarterback and running back, as well as an energized fan base, would be a great start to the next L.A. era.
Why it should happen: The Rams won seven games last year with 11 touchdown passes combined between Nick Foles and Case Keenum. That’s remarkable in today’s pass-oriented game, and so the bar for even a highly touted rookie like Goff isn’t all that high. Goff learned on the fly at Cal, working on a 1-11 team he’d later build into an eight-win team, so a challenging rookie year with almost nobody to throw to could still end up being a positive. He’ll ride Gurley, but if they’re able to play off each other — Gurley opening up play action for Goff and Goff keeping at least some defenders out of the box for Gurley — the Rams could enter next offseason feeling like they really have something building on offense.
And if it doesn’t: Fisher’s seat should be scorching hot, if it somehow isn’t already. A real dud could send him for the door, as general manager Les Snead looks for someone more hands-on to develop his franchise quarterback. The Rams mortgaged their future for Goff, so if he doesn’t pan out, or if Gurley were to suffer another major injury, the Rams could be in for a really tough first few years in their new home.
San Francisco 49ers (5-11, fourth place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The 49ers win six games behind an inspired 16-game season from quarterback Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco doesn’t have much potential on its roster right now, but it does have a quarterback who appears tailor made in his style and attributes to the offense coach Chip Kelly wants to run. It’s an offense that succeeded wildly in Philadelphia before bad decisions by Kelly depleted the talent pool. For once, Kelly needs to show he can stick with one quarterback who actually fits his hurry-up, quick-hit, zone-based offense. If the 49ers can emerge from 2016 with an exciting, solidified quarterback, little else about what happens this season will matter in comparison.
Why it should happen: Kaepernick has the highest potential for a Kelly offense with his quick feet, monster arm and pistol experience. It’s much higher than that of Blaine Gabbert, whose struggles against pressure and on third-and-long still haven’t disappeared. By effectively pairing Kaepernick with running back Carlos Hyde, who played in an option scheme at Ohio State, Kelly could ride a diverse running game to at least a few wins. In the process, he’d have the most challenging part of his equation figured out.
And if it doesn’t: San Francisco will slip further into the basement of the NFC West with almost nothing to point to as a sign for change in the near future. Kelly could search forever for the right quarterback, but the organization might not hold the patience to wait that kind of process out. He is the third 49ers coach in three years, after all.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.