The recent reports that Jim Harbaugh was pursued by the Cleveland Browns officially kicks off another offseason of intrigue for the NFC West.
The rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks escalated over the past few years, but especially throughout last offseason. Move by move, the teams tried to outdo each other. Harbaugh traded for Anquan Boldin. The Seahawks tried to top that by trading for Percy Harvin. The battle continued throughout the offseason into the regular season.
Here's the difference this year: The NFC West is no longer just a two-team rivalry. All four teams are in the race. If you had any questions about this being a four-way battle, look at Rams coach Jeff Fisher's hiring of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator. Though his reputation was tarnished with the bounty scandal in New Orleans, Williams is respected for the results he has gotten over the years. Fisher is a master of preparing defenses, but Williams' strength is adding toughness.
Coaches from Arizona, Seattle and Francisco all understand the potential impact of Williams. The Rams are well-coached with Fisher at the helm. The Rams have already shown how well they match up against the Seahawks and 49ers. Williams will toughen up the defense along with improving the play of the cornerbacks.
Then there are the Arizona Cardinals. Bruce Arians has reshaped the atmosphere in Arizona. He brought in a simpler offense that runs well with Carson Palmer at quarterback. The understated part of the Cardinals is their defense. Under coordinator Todd Bowles, the Cardinals fly to the ball and make plenty of big plays.
Watch how the Cardinals and Rams escalate their offseason acquisitions to challenge the 49ers and Seahawks.
Let's get back to Harbaugh for a second. The reported strain of the coach's relationship with the organization comes down to one fact: The 49ers' organization is mandating a Super Bowl ring the same way it did in the old days under owner Eddie DeBartolo and coach Bill Walsh. Walsh, a Hall of Fame coach, established one of the great football dynasties, but even he knew his job was annually in jeopardy unless he kept winning Super Bowls.
Harbaugh has been to three straight NFC title games and has been to one Super Bowl. He's entering the fourth year of a five-year contract. What's becoming clear is that ownership isn't going to make him the highest-paid coach in the league until he delivers a Super Bowl to San Francisco. What I can see happening after the 2014 season is the 49ers offering him a short-term contract extension that would take him above $8 million a year -- if he wins a Super Bowl. Harbaugh might take offense to an incentive-based deal with his recent track record of success.
Whether it's the Harbaugh story, the Seahawks' efforts to repeat as Super Bowl champions or the rise of the Cardinals and Rams, the NFC West will dominate the headlines this season.