When general manager Steve Keim and reigning NFL Coach of the Year Bruce Arians were hired in January, pundits from around the league knew the Arizona Cardinals would be competitive on a weekly basis. The organization had Pro Bowl players on both sides of the ball, and it had experienced limited success in the past with subpar play at the quarterback position.
This, in turn, meant Arians’ first order of business was to find a talented signal-caller who could run his complex offensive scheme. Even though it seemed like an uninspiring trade, at the time, the 61-year-old coach had faith in Carson Palmer. He believed Palmer was a great fit for his offense.
Despite Palmer’s slow start to the season, Arians was right.
Sure, the 11th-year quarterback isn’t a long-term option for the franchise, but he has proven, over the second half of the season, that he can be a menace when he’s coupled with a top-notch defense.
That notion was on full display after the Cardinals stunned the Seattle Seahawks in front of their home crowd this past Sunday. The Gridbirds win wasn’t pretty or easy, yet they did what they had to do keep their playoff aspirations alive.
In addition to keeping their playoff hopes alive, they proved to the nation that they are a real threat in the NFC. As I mentioned above, the competitive nature of their game was expected, but who expected the Cardinals to challenge for a playoff spot after a 5-11 season?
I will be the first one to admit that I certainly didn’t. Back in April, I predicted Arizona would finish the 2013 regular season with a 6-10 record. Shows how much I know. To me, there were too many questions that needed to be answered on the offensive side of the ball.
Palmer was coming off of two unimpressive seasons as a member of the Oakland Raiders, while the offensive line graded out as the worst run-blocking and pass-blocking unit in the NFL, according to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
You can see why I had my reservations about the Cardinals prior to the season.
Nonetheless, you have to tip your hat to Keim, Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Those three men helped Arizona exceed expectations all season long.
Yet, as unfortunate as it may be, the Cardinals aren’t guaranteed playoff glory with a win in the desert, Week 17. If they want to punch their first postseason ticket since the 2009 season, they will need some help from the New Orleans Saints.
Arizona has to beat San Francisco, and New Orleans has to lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home. The Buccaneers have surprised a few teams this season, but the bad news is the Saints haven’t lost at home in 2013.
Moreover, they haven’t lost three games in a row under head coach Sean Payton since the 2009 season. As hopeful as some fans may be, the odds will be stacked against the Cardinals in Week 17.
Regardless of the outcome, Arizona should be proud of the year it has put together.
More often than not, a 10-5 record will get you into the playoffs. This year proved to be an unlucky year for the Cardinals. From top to bottom, the NFC is stacked. Heading into the final week of the season, four of the six playoffs teams in the NFC have at least 10 wins to their name.
This is why the NFL should feature the top-six teams with the best records from each conference. That way no other argument outside of wins and losses can be made. Strength of schedule would be the deciding factor if two teams had the same record. The idea sounds incredibly simple and straightforward, yet I doubt it ever happens.
In all likelihood, the NFL would expand the playoffs before it reordered them.
With the playoff seeding rules being the way they are, the Cardinals may have no other choice than to look ahead to the 2014 season come Sunday. At first it will be a hard pill to swallow, but things will get easier as time wears on. After the hurt passes, Arizona will be able to refocus its energy on the NFL draft.
Furthermore, the Cardinals will realize that they can be a threat and build momentum in the offseason. Yes, games are won on Sundays, but preparation and proper roster alignment starts as soon as the season ends.
Teams who finish with an above-.500 record can’t afford to take a step back the following season. Injuries and abnormal situations happen—that’s the nature of the beast. But those types of problems can easily be masked by continuously putting together strong draft classes.
Keim and Arians drafted extremely well in 2013. Offensive guard Jonathan Cooper will be ready to make an impact in 2014, defensive back Tyrann Mathieu was in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year and running back Andre Ellington has established himself as one of the most explosive tailbacks in the league.
The Cardinals have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. And they are in a prime position to add more flair to their roster, which is why they will be an even bigger threat for years to come.
The road to respectability is often long after a five-win season, but Arians found a shortcut when he took over in Arizona. He addressed and solidified the most important position first, while sprinkling in key contributors elsewhere.
At the end of the day, there’s no magical formula that results in an automatic win. Smart personnel decisions, exceptional coaching, good execution and a little bit of luck go a long way. The Cardinals have benefited from the four things, so it’s only a matter of time until it’s their time to shine.
Playoffs or not, Arizona is on the up-and-up, and better days lie ahead.
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