The LiveBall Sports Arizona Cardinals Season Preview
Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom.
What we said about the Cardinals prior to the 2012 season
By staying with Kevin Kolb in 2012, the Cardinals made a much wiser decision with their quarterback position than the Cleveland Browns did with Colt McCoy in almost the same situation. They were rewarded for their decision by a strong three-and-a-quarter game stretch by Kolb that led to a 4-0 start by the Cardinals.
The Cardinals were not a trendy playoff pick last year, pretty much because of their problematic quarterback situation, but they entered 2012 with a well respected defense and the natural homefield advantage that comes from playing in a modern stadium in the pacific time zone. In other terms, it shaped up to be your average Cardinals year.
What should we have known with hindsight?
Kolb got hurt, was replaced by John Skelton, and Skelton was so bad that he got pulled on a coaches decision for Ryan Lindley at quarterback, a player so overmatched that we will likely never see him in an NFL game (if on a roster) again. Skelton was released by the team after the season and the last year of his contract was picked up on waivers by the Cincinnati Bengals. Kolb did not return from injury, but as very much an effect of the size of his contract, Kolb was released by the Cardinals after just two seasons.
Most metrics and predictions had the Cardinals pegged pretty accurately, but I’m not sure anyone saw the historical awfulness of the Cardinals offense coming, specifically given the start to the season that Kolb gave them. The running game fell off the face of the earth behind a Beanie Wells injury, and nothing will derail a team more quickly than a young player who appears to be coming into his own being useless to a franchise. Wells was released due to a knee injury and is still unsigned as I write this.
The bigger issue for the Cardinals is the lack of development of their receivers. Larry Fitzgerald was the league’s best offensive weapon in 2008. Five years later, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that we’re still dealing with a star here. While Fitzgerald continues to get the benefit of the doubt with poor quarterback play, he’s not putting up numbers that other top receivers with poor quarterbacks do. There’s some bias in Fitzgerald’s advanced statistics thanks to forced passes in his direction, but what the statistics can tell is is that Fitzgerald is simply not the player he was earlier in his career. And while a rebound season in 2013 is likely, I don’t think we’re going to enjoy another great season by Fitz again.
Where does the team appear to think it’s at?
On some level, every team is going to be guilty of overrating its current situation: no one (non Reggie McKenzie division) ever wants to admit that the job that they just signed up for is going to be difficult to turn around. However, in the case of the Cardinals it sure felt like new General Manager Steve Keim went into this offseason to target the team’s biggest needs instead of rebuilding.
Obviously, a team can address only so many needs in a single offseason without skimping on some things, and the skimping is the art of team building beyond the science of resource analysis. But at some point, filling needs becomes rebuilding, and for the Cardinals, they can’t compete this year without better performance on the edges than last season.
If the Cardinals don’t compete this year, their veteran offensive acquisitions won’t be around when they are ready to compete in the NFC West.
How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?
The Cardinals identified the interior offensive line, running back, and quarterback as the greatest needs on the team, and addressed all of those needs in the offseason. The problem may be what they did not address: offensive tackle, tight end, and wide receiver.
The Cardinals get positive grades for the quality of players they brought in to address those needs. Carson Palmer and Rashard Mendenhall are A+ grade buy low opportunities in the offensive backfield, and should take the Cardinals from 32nd in the league on offense to about 25th or so. Any further improvement would come from head coach Bruce Arians and his internal development of his receivers.
The Cardinals focused mostly on the defensive side of the football in the draft, addressing the offensive line when they had the value to do so. I have my issues with Jonathan Cooper as the seventh overall pick, but there aren’t many football scouts who don’t believe that is a good selection. Getting DE Alex Okafor, DB Tyrann Mathieu, and LB Kevin Minter in the same draft should be a nice series of building blocks as the defense switches schemes.
What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?
The Cardinals just don’t have enough to put it together in the NFC West this season. The acquisitions they made this offseason have a good shot to work. But while they made strong investments, they didn’t get a ton of upside, typically because upside is expensive. Jonathan Cooper is not a high upside player because of the position he plays, and neither is Kevin Minter. Palmer is bound to have a good season before his career is over, but he lacks the pre-injury upside from his early Cincinnati days. Mendenhall is going to have another strong NFL season, but he’s not going to be the player that is expected from a first round running back. Even Fitzgerald’s best years are in the rear-view mirror.
The best case scenario is that the Cardinals ride a strong defense, a nice special teams unit, and homefield advantage to a couple of in-division upsets and a 8 or 9 win season. But the more likely outcome is that the Cards claw their way to a 5 or 6 win season and play in more close games than they did last season. Measurable progress, but still very much a standard-level Arizona Cardinals season.