The 2012 season started out so promising for the Cardinals. They ended September with a 4-0 record, highlighted by a stunning win in New England in Week 2. Unfortunately, reality set-in soon after with amazingly bad QB play coming after starter Kevin Kolb’s injury in Week 6, leading to a complete collapse the final three months of the season. It was the third consecutive disappointing year following Kurt Warner’s retirement, and team president Michael Bidwill cleaned house as a result. Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt and General Manager Rod Graves (who just a few years ago had the Cardinals in their first Super Bowl) were both fired, unable to overcome the challenge of finding a suitable successor at QB.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Regime Change
After decades of futility under owner Bill Bidwill’s guidance, son Michael has been taking over day-to-day management of the Cardinals for the past several years, and the change has been noticeable. Michael’s first new hire at GM is Steve Keim, who has worked in the Cardinals’ front office for 15 years. He was well regarded around the league as an up-and-coming personnel man and now gets his first chance to captain the ship. His new head coach is Bruce Arians, former Offensive Coordinator of the Colts in 2012 (and reigning Coach of the Year for his work during Chuck Pagano’s illness) and the Steelers for five years prior to that. Arians, who will also be the play-caller, hopes to overhaul an offense in desperate need of one. Expect a lot of 12-personnel, which the Colts used on 26.7% of plays last year, and a passing attack that stretches the field. Under Arians last year, Andrew Luck attempted more deep passes (101) than any other QB in the league.
2. The Arrival of Carson Palmer
After last season’s debacle, the revamping of the offense had to start at quarterback. With both Kolb and erstwhile starter John Skelton gone, Arians raised a few eyebrows proclaiming newly-signed FA Drew Stanton as his apparent starter just a few days into free agency. Arizona, however, was quick to pounce on Carson Palmer when he became available via trade from the Raiders during Oakland’s salary cap purge. Along with his new two-year deal comes the expectation that Palmer can finally bring legitimacy to a QB position that has been woeful since Warner’s departure. Palmer’s style would also seem to fit Arians’ game plan of throwing the ball downfield, and having Larry Fitzgerald on the receiving end can only help. Last year the Cardinals’ QBs could manage just 11 completions on 58 attempts of passes 20 yards or more downfield.
3. Young Playmakers on Defense
With Calais Campbell, Patrick Peterson and Daryl Washington, the Cardinals have a young core of difference-makers on defense who are all entering their prime. Campbell thrived at DE in the 3-4, producing a +33.8 grade, demonstrating strong play as both a run stuffer and pass rusher. Peterson, who had seven interceptions in 2012, began showing signs of becoming an elite corner in his second year, and often mirrored the opponents’ best receiver on game day. Washington excelled at blitzing and led all ILBs with nine sacks last year, but will have to keep his nose clean after a couple of offseason transgressions that have left him with a four-game suspension to start the 2013 season.
4. Offensive Line Upgrades
In 2012 the Cardinals finally began investing some draft picks in the offensive line, and this may be the year it starts to pay off. Fourth-rounder Bobby Massie initially struggled, earning a -25.3 grade in his first seven starts, but rebounded impressively to post a +12.2 mark the rest of the way. LT Levi Brown returns from a torn tricep that cost him all of 2012, but he previously managed a +14.7 grade over the last seven games of 2011. Seventh-rounder Nate Potter got valuable experience with six starts last year and will provide depth behind Brown. With 2013 first-round pick G Jonathan Cooper replacing the struggling Adam Snyder (-20.1), veterans Lyle Sendlein and Daryn Colledge returning, and RT Eric Winston (KC) added for depth, Arizona should certainly see an upgrade over last year’s 32nd-ranked unit.
5. Depth at Running Back
Rashard Mendenhall is now 21 months removed from a torn-ACL that ended his 2011 season and takes over at starting running back for Beanie Wells. His Elusive Rating of 31.9 that year was much higher than the 9.2 Wells managed in 2012. Mendenhall brings a lot of familiarity with Arians, having played under the head coach during his first four years in the league, and could be a valuable resource as his teammates adjust to the new offensive schemes. Rookie Stepfan Taylor was a very productive three-down back with a lot of starting experience at Stanford, and fellow draft pick Andre Ellington demonstrated home-run ability at Clemson. Former second-round pick Ryan Williams hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough to get on the field much during his first two years, but he’ll be given one more chance to fulfill his potential.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Turnover in the Secondary
Lost in the offensive struggles of the 2012 Cardinals was a very solid performance by its defense. However, several pieces of that defense are now gone, most notably with the release of both starting safeties. SS Adrian Wilson had been a defensive rock in the Cardinals’ secondary for over a decade, and FS Kerry Rhodes was our fourth-highest ranked safety overall in 2012 (though a lot of it was built on one performance against the Jets). Former third-round pick Rashad Johnson and UFA Yeremiah Bell (NYJ) are expected to replace them in the line-up, but both come with question marks. Johnson has yet to live up to expectations after four years in the league and got only 166 snaps last year, while Bell is 35-years-old and played better as the deeper safety in the Jets’ defensive scheme than he did in the box in Miami. Add to that the arrival of CBs Antoine Cason, and Jerraud Powers competing to start opposite Peterson, and only a quarter of PFF’s 10th-ranked passing defense remains.
2. Ray Horton Leaves for Cleveland
Highly-regarded Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton left for Cleveland, clearly irked by being passed over for the Cards’ HC position where many considered him the favorite to replace Whisenhunt. Horton did a tremendous job using different schemes in his 3-4 defense to create pressure on the QB, effectively masking the Cardinals’ lack of an elite pass-rusher. OLBs Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield were unable to fill that role, combining for only 53 QB pressures in 557 snaps. Schofield was just released (and claimed by the Seahawks) while free-agent acquisition Lorenzo Alexander was more of a special teams force in Washington. Newly-signed John Abraham will likely have to adjust to playing OLB after spending most of his career at DE. Former Eagles DC Todd Bowles replaces Horton, and few people will be under more scrutiny than Bowles in Arizona while attempting to recreate the success of the 2012 defense.
3. NFC West is a Beast
Gone are the days of 7-9 or 8-8 division champions in the NFC West. Both the 49ers and Seahawks appear loaded and primed for long playoff runs, with the emergence of Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson respectively, and even the Rams have shown significant improvement since Jeff Fisher took over. Regardless of how much better the Cardinals are, it will be very difficult to grab a playoff spot in the West. Progress for the Cardinals will have to be measured in areas other than just the won-loss record.
4. Searching for a Real No.2 Receiver
Ever since Anquan Boldin was traded in 2010 the Cardinals have been looking for a legitimate No. 2 receiver to complement star wideout Fitzgerald. There are expectations that last year’s first-round pick Michael Floyd steps up and fills that role, but he struggled with drops (10% drop rate) and mental errors last year. Fourth-year WR Andre Roberts managed four TDs in September, but just one the rest of the way and finished with a -10.2 grade.
5. Chemistry Test
There are a lot of new faces on the Cardinals, even considering the usual roster turnover a new head coach brings. Arizona could easily have eight or nine new starters in 2013. Continuity is important in the NFL, and it may take some time to get everyone on the same page and functioning as a unit. Arians faced a similar situation in Indy last year and certainly made the best of it with a 9-3 record, but he will have his work cut out for him trying to replicate that sort of success in the desert.
What to Expect?
After finally tasting playoff success in 2008 and 2009, the Cardinals and their fans have now endured three seasons without a winning record, culminating in last year’s 5-11 campaign of offensive ineptitude. The departure of Rod Graves can only be a good thing for the front office, and there is always fresh optimism when a new head coach takes over. Regardless of the rhetoric however, the reality is a major rebuilding project which lays ahead for the Cardinals. The rise of the 49ers and Seahawks in the NFC West only makes matters more difficult, and significant tangible improvement may be hard to find this year.
Despite Horton’s departure, the defense should be at least competent and can hopefully carry the load while the offense gels. Regardless, it will be Palmer’s proficiency in Arians’ offense that will have the greatest impact on this team’s fortunes. Franchises can certainly turn things around quickly in the modern NFL, but even a .500 record would be an accomplishment for the Arizona Cardinals in 2013.
Follow Roland on Twitter: @PFF_RolandB