Perhaps inconceivably, the Arizona Cardinals finished up the 2013 campaign with a 10-6 record, and their performance this year has them set up for greatness next season.
Unforeseen injuries early on hampered what could have been a playoff team’s success. Offensive guard Jonathan Cooper—the team's most recent first-round pick—broke his leg during the preseason and missed his entire rookie year. Outside linebackers Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander went down with season-ending injuries in September.
Then, rookie defensive back Tyrann Mathieu—who could be defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ MVP—went down in December with a knee injury, ending his season as well.
Despite all the injury issues, first-time NFL head coach Bruce Arians had his team on the brink of the playoffs after starting the season 10-5. A Week 17 matchup against the archrival San Francisco 49ers would help determine playoff seeding, but as it turns out, the Cardinals could not fully overcome early mistakes, falling to their foes from the West, 23-20.
Now, the Cardinals (10-6) become the 21st team since the NFL expanded to a 16-game season in 1978 to win 10 games and miss the playoffs. That is not all bad; they could have been just the third team to win 11 and not get in, thanks to the New Orleans Saints crushing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday and clinching the final spot in the NFC.
What we saw this season from the Cardinals is nothing short of incredible. With 28 new players on the 53-man roster this season, as well as an entire new coaching staff and a new general manager, 2013 was supposed to be a “rebuild,” right?
Instead, Arians has himself in the running to win the NFL’s Coach of the Year award for the second straight season—no coach in NFL history has won the award in back-to-back years with different teams. And Steve Keim has a great shot at taking home the NFL’s Executive of the Year award for his work as a rookie GM.
Keim took chance after chance before the season began. He signed retreads to help the defense, traded for a 30-something quarterback with a sketchy on-field history and drafted players like Mathieu, who had been suspended by LSU and missed an entire year of football before becoming Arizona’s third-round pick.
You would have to reach to find a free-agent signing this offseason that did not pan out for the Cardinals. Everyone Keim signed had an impact at one point or another in 2013, which speaks to the type of talent evaluator he was as a scout and leaves no doubt as to why team president Michael Bidwill hired him as the team’s general manager last January.
Greatness is coming for the Cardinals in the near future. Cooper, Mathieu, Acho and others will return from injury; big things are expected from Keim and Co. in re-signing free agents, signing new ones and re-working big, messy contracts; and we can expect another top-notch draft class.
Get ready, Cardinals fans. This offseason will be vastly different from any we have seen in the recent past. No signings that leave you scratching your head (Joey Porter), no draft picks that have you wondering what might have been (Levi Brown over Adrian Peterson) and most importantly, no indecisiveness from the front office. These men have a plan and know how to execute it.
Indeed, greatness is coming. Are you ready?