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Where Can the Arizona Cardinals Improve Most in 2013?

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Where Can the Arizona Cardinals Improve Most in 2013?
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It feels like a long time ago, but remember when the Arizona Cardinals started 4-0 in 2012? Going back to the previous season, the team actually went 11-2 in a 13-game stretch with just a 34-point scoring differential.

That run was fueled by arguably the most improbable stretch of clutch success in NFL history. Arizona scored the game-winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime in nine of the 11 wins. John Skelton and Kevin Kolb were the quarterbacks through it all.

So what happened when the Cardinals finished 1-11 to end the season?

Well, we know late wins are very hard to sustain, especially without stellar quarterback play. The “Cardiac Cardinals” may have received more attention if not for Tim Tebow in 2011, or if 8-8 was good enough to win the improved NFC West the way it was for Denver in the AFC West. It’s that divisional improvement that helped sink Arizona in 2012 as the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers were all better teams.

We also know the Cardinals were not playing all that well during the 4-0 start, particularly on offense. The offensive line was a major issue and the running game was a joke. Arizona beat Seattle with 43 rushing yards and toppled Miami in overtime despite eight sacks and just 28 yards on the ground.

Teams that allow at least eight sacks and rush for less than 50 yards are 1-55 (.018) since 1940. Arizona has the lone win. It also has the latest loss as the Cardinals did the very same thing just four days later in a 17-3 loss to the Rams. The Cardinals only won one game the rest of the season.

The inability to find Kurt Warner’s replacement cost Ken Whisenhunt his job after a 18-30 record in the last three years. Enter Bruce Arians, who won the Coach of the Year award as the interim coach for the Colts last season. This makes Arians just the seventh first-time NFL head coach to debut at age 60 or older since 1970 according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013. The previous six had horrific and short careers.

It’s another new era in the desert with Carson Palmer as the latest quarterback, but there are some major reasons to be concerned before things even get started.

 

Bruce Arians: The Wrong Fit in Arizona

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

He hasn’t even coached a down in Arizona yet, but I have to call shenanigans on this hire. Yes, as offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians went to two Super Bowls in Pittsburgh, winning one and then went 9-3 in Chuck Pagano’s absence with a flawed Colts team last year.

That was Pittsburgh. That was Indianapolis. This is Arizona and there is nothing here that will support Arians’ flawed style of offense that begs for improvisation and succeeding in spite of his calls.

Sure, we can bring up the positives. Arizona had a historically bad offense last season. It’s almost guaranteed to improve in 2013. Larry Fitzgerald will put up better numbers, but more on him later. Overall, there will be more yards, first downs, third-down conversions and points under Arians.

There will also be the same nagging problems that always plague Arians’ offenses, and they should hurt more than usual for a variety of reasons.

 

Problem No. 1: Carson Palmer Is Not Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck

I have something in common with Carson Palmer. We both like to put out our garbage on Sundays.

The reigning king of garbage time, Palmer was money when the Raiders trailed by at least 17 points in 2012. In those situations, he led the NFL with 74 completions, 120 attempts, 930 yards and seven touchdowns. His passer rating was a strong 98.3.

Of course Oakland went 0-8 in those games. If Palmer happened to make it close in the fourth quarter, he blew it with a crucial interception like he did against Tampa Bay. Failing in the clutch is nothing new for Palmer.

In his career, Palmer has had different losing streaks of five, five, seven and 12 games when it comes to fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. His record of 20-40 (.333) at game-winning drive opportunities is one of the worst among active starters.

If you get a pass rush at Palmer, he will crumble under the pressure or throw a poor pass likely to be intercepted. He can’t run very well. He doesn’t make things happen out of the pocket. He’s not going to break tackles.

Palmer can’t do the things that were a necessity for Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck to have success in Arians’ offense. No quarterback on Arizona’s roster can as Drew Stanton has proven nothing and Ryan Lindley was horrific last year.

What Palmer can do is compile stats, often in a context that’s not conducive to winning. In Palmer’s 20 biggest passing days of his career (measured by most yards), his teams went just 3-17. It’s a lot of hollow stats in the end.

He has enough arm talent and recognition left to hit open guys with some consistency if protected, but there’s always been a part of his game that’s been lacking since the knee injury in the playoffs in January 2006.

If he stays healthy, there’s a good chance Palmer will throw for well over 4,000 yards. However, the chances he stays healthy for enough games are slim to none if Arians continues to stress the vertical game. That means holding the ball longer and that time just cannot be afforded in Arizona. That also means few underneath receivers as Arians’ offenses haven’t seen a running back they liked throwing the ball to that wasn’t named Mewelde Moore.

It takes a special type of quarterback for this offense to work. Palmer never really was that type of quarterback and by now he’s certainly too washed up to be that guy.

Some will say Arians was crucial to Roethlisberger’s development based on the admiration Roethlisberger always has shown for him.

Yes, Roethlisberger loved Arians because he was his enabler, giving him power he never had before in the offense. He was more like his buddy rather than a teacher or authority figure. That’s why problems linger in Pittsburgh instead of getting fixed.

Roethlisberger felt like Bill Cowher and Ken Whisenhunt handcuffed him early in his career, so when Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians took over in 2007, Roethlisberger had his best season yet. That was his vindication.

Roethlisberger’s blind love of Arians is eerily similar to the battered wife who can’t or won’t admit her husband is not good for her. While Roethlisberger was initially very successful under Arians, he was also sacked a career-high 10.4 percent of the time in 2007. Under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley last year, Roethlisberger had a career-low sack rate of 6.3 percent.

While he still ended up suffering a serious injury, you could see Haley making a concerted effort to limit the hits on the quarterback. Arians has never done that.

Luck was hit as much as any quarterback in football last year. Yet according to ESPN, his 37.3 QBR under pressure was the best in the league. In Oakland, Palmer had just a 5.4 QBR under pressure, which ranked 20th. Luck’s ability to break out of sacks and make plays with his feet has a lot to do with that difference.

Luck should welcome back his Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton in Indianapolis this year. While losing the Coach of the Year would cripple most teams, it could be a blessing in disguise for the Colts.

Arians helps his quarterbacks with the vertical game, which can make them proficient on third down and obvious passing situations, but he sure makes the game very difficult on them.

The last thing Palmer needs is more difficulty. This wasn’t the acquisition of an elite passer. This is more like the period when the Cardinals added Steve Beuerlein, Dave Krieg and Boomer Esiason in the 90s before finding Jake Plummer in the draft.

 

Problem No. 2: Predictably Bad Running Game

While Arians likes to stress running the football, his passion is still with the vertical passing game. He has reunited with running back Rashard Mendenhall from the Steelers, but the two rarely found success together in Pittsburgh.

Mendenhall has battled injuries, fumbling, off-field problems, a benching and just about everything else in a disappointing career. He’s not tough in short yardage, he isn’t a great receiver and he doesn’t make much happen after contact.

Besides, don’t running backs usually go to the desert to die? See Emmitt Smith and Edgerrin James. If he’s a young player, then the desert usually sucks the life out of him a la Garrison Hearst and Thomas Jones.

In the 25 seasons since the team moved to the state of Arizona in 1988, the Cardinals have averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in 18 seasons. Last year’s 3.42 average was the 18th worst since 1988 for the franchise.

The running game continued to decline in Pittsburgh under Arians. When going to Indianapolis, another team that has failed to run it well since 2007, it was just another down year on the ground for that offense too.

Part of the problem, beyond bad offensive lines, is that Arians is way too predictable with his runs. Defenses know what to expect and make a living in the backfield like Clay Matthews did in Super Bowl XLV to cause a huge fumble by Mendenhall.

According to Tom Gower of Football Outsiders, the 2011 Steelers had the highest ratio of running plays marked as off right tackle or right end compared to left since 2002. The 2012 Colts had the highest ratio of running plays marked as off left tackle or left end compared to right in that time.

Out of 352 teams in the study, the common link here is Arians coached the two most unbalanced rushing offenses. He picked the side he liked and ran it with reckless abandonment (and little success) in a way no other teams in the last 11 years have done.

That’s the definition of predictable coaching.

 

Problem No. 3: Bad Offensive Line

Little needs to be said on this one. It’s funny how Arians can leave the Colts and go to arguably the only situation with a worse offensive line.

When Arians said Levi Brown was an elite left tackle, he must have been using Jonathan Scott as his baseline for average.

There might be more talent now on this offensive line than Arians has had in years, but even if rookie guard Jonathan Cooper becomes an elite player, due to Arians’ style of offense this line can still struggle mightily.

Arians had Alan Faneca in 2007 and there was still poor play overall on the line. He’s had Maurkice Pouncey at center, who allegedly is a very good player. But it’s not about standouts on the line as you need all five guys to play well as a unit for success.

No matter which five-man combination Arians has had, the results have been poor on the line. Why should we expect anything to change now in Arizona with its history at the position?

 

Problem No. 4: Fails to Maximize Talent

A great coach would assess his team’s strengths and weaknesses and build the best possible offense to tailor for each. He would then modify the game plan each week to adjust for the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent.

For Arians, it’s more of a “we do what we do” approach each week, and some of the things he does makes no darn sense.

One of the most annoying things about Arians is his love for bubble screens to wide receivers. They are seemingly the only screen pass he knows to call and he rarely calls them to the right receiver.

Hines Ward would often get these plays in Pittsburgh, despite being the slowest receiver on the team and the best blocker. Rather than use a fast guy like Mike Wallace or a great open-field runner like Santonio Holmes with Ward blocking for him, Arians did it ass-backwards. Those other receivers could easily get 8-10 yards on these plays. Ward was lucky to get four in his later years.

Part of this may have been pressure to help Ward reach 1,000 career receptions in those twilight seasons, but it’s still outright bad coaching by not playing to the strengths of your players.

Now the Cardinals have actually had some success at these screens in the red zone (see New England game), which you rarely see. You probably won’t see it again as a trademark of Arians’ offense is inefficiency in the red zone.

His offenses can march up and down the field between the 20s, but stick them in the red zone and you often get below-average results. That’s why Arians’ offenses do not score a lot of points despite some elite talent at the skill positions. These drive stats are courtesy of Football Outsiders while the red-zone stats are from NFLGSIS:

In Pittsburgh, the team succeeded without scoring an elite number of points due to the defense being so good. When you have that in place, the need to average 25 points per game is not that high.

What’s hard to quantify are numbers in the no-huddle offense. The belief over the years has been that the Steelers are far more successful when Roethlisberger is able to run the no-huddle, which means he is calling the plays. We did see last year how Luck was so great in two-minute drills as well, often pulling out games late on his way to seven game-winning drives.

Part of why we see Roethlisberger and Luck in need of so many game-winning drives is that the regular offense fails to score points, leading to that need to come through in the fourth quarter with big drives.

The more responsibility you take away from Arians, the better.

In a 2009 game against Kansas City that the Steelers had no business being in overtime in, Roethlisberger was injured and had to be replaced at the end by Charlie Batch. With the Steelers facing a 3rd-and-2 situation at the KC 35, the smart move is to run up the middle and set up the field goal should the first down not be gained.

Instead, Arians gets cute with a toss to Moore. It loses three yards and the Steelers are forced to punt. Kansas City immediately drives for the game-winning field goal. It was one of many close losses in a 9-7 season where Pittsburgh missed the playoffs.

When the last thing you can do here is lose yardage, simple physics would tell you not to pitch the ball back to a point that’s six yards behind the line of scrimmage.

It’s those mental errors in situational football along with generally asinine things like going empty backfield on third-and-short that drive you crazy when watching an Arians offense.

If you can’t protect the quarterback, why do you use the minimum five-man protection so much? Why is there one receiver near the first-down marker on 4th-and-5 and the other four are all 10-plus yards down the field? Why is the middle screen to a running back to combat some of this interior pressure never even an option? Why do we only look competent at the end of halves or when we’re trailing by multiple scores?

Get used to asking such questions, Arizona fans. This offense never looks pretty because it makes things too difficult as if that’s the purpose.

The thought of a quarterback like Palmer running this offense behind the type of offensive line we’re used to seeing in Arizona is scary stuff. Without some serious changes to the old Arians formula, it’s hard to see how he’s ever going to find any success here.

 

Larry Fitzgerald’s Greatness Still Requires a Quarterback

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

No one but Matt Millen ever thought an offense just needs a wide receiver to be great. In the case of Larry Fitzgerald, he came to Arizona in 2004 to form an incredible duo with Anquan Boldin.

Give those guys a quarterback like Kurt Warner and a season like 2008 is possible. Fitzgerald had one of the greatest postseasons by any player in NFL history, nearly willing the Cardinals to a Super Bowl win.

When you take away Boldin and Warner, Fitzgerald loses his luster. He still has the great hands and precise route-running, but it doesn’t amount to much for Arizona without competency around him.

Last season Fitzgerald had the worst year of his career with just 798 yards and four touchdowns. He was still targeted 156 times, but never have those targets come with more inaccuracy and difficulty to catch.

I thought it would be interesting to break down Fitzgerald’s career by targets by the quarterbacks who threw him the ball.

As expected, not too many good numbers outside of Warner. Here is the summary by quarterback for all the years combined:

With Palmer in town, you can expect Fitzgerald will make more plays in 2013. The type of resurgence Reggie Wayne showed in Indianapolis last season under Arians is exactly what we may see with Fitzgerald.

Though, at this point we may just be watching a player amassing incredible career statistics a la Barry Sanders instead of someone getting a chance to make a good team great and compete for championships.

You haven’t managed this one very well, Arizona.

 

Lest We Forget: The Todd Bowles Movement

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Defensive coordinator Ray Horton did a solid job in his two years as a first-time coordinator in Arizona. He has moved on to Cleveland, putting ex-Eagles coordinator Todd Bowles in his place in Arizona.

Darnell Dockett is in favor of the change as he had some strong words about Horton’s 3-4 system, via the Cardinals’ official website:

“Personally, I had nothing against Ray,” Dockett said. “But I hated that scheme. I really hated it. I played it because I needed to. But this defense is based on guys and what their ability allows them to be good at. What they were drafted for.”

Dockett will really like the new scheme if it means better individual stats for himself. He’s down to just 5.0 sacks in his last 31 games. He had at least 4.0 sacks in every season from 2007-10.

However, if this defense plays anything like the 2012 Eagles did under Bowles, then Dockett is going to feel embarrassed. That’s the best way to describe how the Eagles played defensively after the team fired Juan Castillo and replaced him with Bowles.

To that point, defense was hardly the problem in Philadelphia, but Castillo was an easy target as scapegoat with his background as an offensive line coach. What would he know about calling a defense?

Apparently it was much more than Bowles. Following the bye week, Bowles made his debut as defensive coordinator in Week 8 against Atlanta. What followed was a six-game losing streak that featured some of the worst defense in NFL history. It has to be the worst six games of pass defense ever.

I like to call it “The Todd Bowles Movement.”

In six games, the Eagles allowed 32.5 points per game and quarterbacks combined for the following stat line: 116 of 152 (76.3 percent) for 1,519 yards, 9.99 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 142.4 passer rating.

That’s as bad as it gets. To put it into perspective, through six games with Castillo in charge, quarterbacks produced this line: 119 of 226 (52.7 percent) for 1,412 yards, 6.25 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 69.4 passer rating.

Sure, Brandon Weeden helped those numbers out with a horrific debut, but the Eagles held their own against Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford.

While things perked up for Bowles in the final few games, Eli Manning finished his season with five touchdown passes against the Eagles in Week 17. Manning’s played 148 games in his career (including playoffs) and it wasn’t until No. 148 that he threw five touchdowns.

Keep in mind that last season Arizona led the NFL with a 71.2 defensive passer rating. That’s the highest mark ever for a team leading the league in that statistic, which is a sign of the times. Still, this was a fairly legit defense with some big performances against top offenses like New England and Atlanta.

Hopefully Bowles has learned from last year’s experience, but it’s hard to imagine he will get superior or even close results to Horton in Arizona in 2013.

With linebacker Daryl Washington’s four-game suspension, there should be about six new starters on this side of the ball come Week 1. Throw in a new play caller running a modified version of the 3-4 and different results are coming on this side of the ball as well.

The offensive improvement by this team could be offset by the decline on defense.

 

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Starters

Credit to Ourlads in help with the creation of this chart of potential 2013 starters:

Obviously the big changes come with Palmer and Mendenhall. Palmer was acquired in a trade with Oakland. The Cardinals traded the 176th pick (sixth round) and a conditional 2014 pick for Palmer and a seventh-round pick (219th overall).

Ryan Williams is still a member of the backfield and the team drafted Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor in the fifth round.

The receivers are still of course led by Fitzgerald. Andre Roberts has steadily improved each season. Michael Floyd was the 13th pick last year out of Notre Dame. He should improve on his 45 receptions for 562 yards as a rookie. Arians’ scheme loves utilizing multiple wideouts.

In this offense that should be a necessity as you won’t see many catches from the running backs and tight end Jeff King averages 1.4 receptions per game. Rob Housler has been more active in the passing game, but he averaged just 9.3 yards per reception last year.

The offensive line is considerably different from the mess of a year ago. Levi Brown returns at left tackle after missing all of 2012 with a triceps injury. Arians called him an elite left tackle, but the only thing elite about Brown is his draft status as the No. 5 pick in 2007. Let’s ask Palmer, off the record, how elite Brown is by the time October comes around, if Palmer’s still upright.

Daryn Colledge was the left guard, but now the team has Jonathan Cooper, the No. 7 pick in the draft. He has yet to sign a rookie deal at press time. Earl Watford was the fourth-round pick and will have a chance to start in the position veteran Adam Snyder held last year.

Reports swirled Wednesday evening that the Cardinals will be signing tackle Eric Winston, who has played with the Texans and Chiefs. We’ll pencil him in for the time being.

It’s going to be a different system with more than half the players changed from last year, so expect new results.

The defense will continue to be a 3-4, with the three-man line intact from the last three years. It’s the best part of the defense, or at least the most proven.

There’s some considerable turnover at linebacker. Lorenzo Alexander comes over from Washington. Karlos Dansby returns after three years in Miami. He started his career with the Cardinals (2004-09).

Jasper Brinkley comes over from Minnesota, but we could see second-round pick Kevin Minter (LSU) win that job. Alex Okafor was another linebacker drafted this year (fourth round), but he’ll play some on the outside.

Daryl Washington was the rising star of this group, but he’s suspended for the first four games in 2013 for violating the league’s substance policy. He also has off-field issues with an arrest for allegedly assaulting a girlfriend, so his troubles may just be starting.

Speaking of trouble, the team drafted LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu in the third round and will play him at safety. If he cleans up his act, this might be a steal, but good luck with that.

Yeremiah Bell, the 35-year-old veteran, comes over from the Jets. Rashad Johnson has 14 career starts in four years. Part of that was Adrian Wilson holding down a spot, but he’s gone to New England. Former first-round pick Antoine Cason comes over after a mediocre five-year tenure in San Diego. The Cardinals also signed injury-plagued Jerraud Powers from the Colts, who grabbed Arizona cornerback Greg Toler.

Patrick Peterson is the only star in the secondary. After a historic rookie season in terms of being a return specialist, he stepped up his game as a cover corner in year two. He’s one of the few cornerstone players on this roster that should be around for a long time.

 

Conclusion: At Least It’s Cool in the Basement, Arizona

Last season I said the Cardinals would not win more than five games in 2012. It was a close one, but 5-11 was the result. Even if one views the changes as significant upgrades, a tough early schedule makes it hard to see this 2013 team winning more than six games.

Before the Week 9 bye, the team could be looking at a 2-6 start. Everyone knows about the talent assembled in Seattle and San Francisco, but the Rams were very competitive in Jeff Fisher’s first year and seemingly improved as well. There may not be another 58-0 debacle in the cards, but the six division games alone are going to ruffle the Cardinals’ feathers.

As the history of the Cardinals shows, they must have a solid quarterback to be relevant. As the history of Arians shows, he must have an elite quarterback to cover up the flaws in his offensive design.

This leaves Arizona in prime position for the NFC West basement, at least until the next great quarterback is found. Maybe that involves a 4-12 record and drafting Teddy Bridgewater or Tajh Boyd in 2014.

At least that would be a plan for long-term success. What the Cardinals have now is a stop-gap setup that should only bring the positives of premium draft picks to build a future winner.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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