The 2020 Arizona Cardinals Could Be NFL's Next Overhyped SuperteamMay 15, 2020
We've gone down this road so many times before that we should be familiar with all of the potholes and speed bumps. The road might as well be Cleveland Browns Boulevard, but Dream Team Street would also do.
Basically, we build extreme hype for certain unproven teams based on momentum and/or offseason developments. On paper, said teams look destined to disrupt the elite status quo from preceding seasons, and then the house of cards collapses and we all do our best to hide from the Freezing Cold Takes Twitter account.
Hype arguably consumed the talented Browns last year in particular. At Caesars, they entered that campaign with better Super Bowl odds than all but six teams but were plagued by tumult during a 2-6 start and couldn't fully recover. They're now on a level with the 2011 "Dream Team" Philadelphia Eagles, who entered that season with the league's third-highest Super Bowl odds after a splashy summer but then lost four of their first five games and couldn't get out of that hole.
On smaller scales, many of us made the same mistake with the 2013 Houston Texans, the 2014 Chicago Bears, the 2016 Arizona Cardinals and the 2017 Oakland Raiders.
This year's fastest rising, most heavily hyped team is undoubtedly Arizona.
And for good reason. The Cards have an exciting young quarterback coming off an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, they averaged nearly 30 points per game during a 2-1 finish to the 2019 season, the offense is expected to improve as signal-caller Kyler Murray and young head coach Kliff Kingsbury become more acclimated, and the front office made multiple splashes this offseason.
I've admittedly purchased Cardinals stock. Yours truly ranked them fifth in Bleacher Report's post-draft power rankings. But power rankings are meant to indicate impressions of progress, and most of that progress is on paper. We have to be prepared for the possibility that the meal won't be as good as the ingredients.
Even as they're seemingly the toast of this weird NFL offseason, there's a reason the Cardinals' Super Bowl odds remain pretty long.
Like the 2019 Browns, the 2020 Cardinals have a No. 1 overall pick coming off an encouraging rookie season at quarterback. Like that Browns team, they acquired a superstar wide receiver to bolster support for that quarterback. Like last year's Browns, they've taken measures to complement an elite pass-rusher. And like those Browns, there are questions about the offensive line.
In Cleveland's case, that superstar receiver—Odell Beckham Jr.—arguably became a distraction and failed to prevent that quarterback—Baker Mayfield—from suffering an alarming sophomore slump. The defense suffered to an extent based on its reliance on that elite pass-rusher—Myles Garrett—especially when Garrett was suspended down the stretch. And sure enough, the offensive line was a liability all season.
That's not to suggest that three-time first-team All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins will be anything but awesome after coming over in a trade from the Houston Texans. But there's no guarantee Hopkins jells with Murray, especially considering that contact between the two could be limited by restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. And it's at least worth noting that the 27-year-old's relationship with his former team appeared to be scorched.
Murray might not regress like Mayfield, but his progress as a rookie was actually much less pronounced than Mayfield's.
In the second half of his rookie campaign, Murray's completion percentage rose 1.5 points, his passer rating increased by 3.5 points, his yards-per-attempt average grew by 0.13 yards and his touchdown-to-interception ratio actually declined slightly.
In the second half of his rookie campaign, Mayfield's completion percentage rose 10.1 points, his passer rating increased by 27.3 points, his yards-per-attempt average grew by 1.97 yards and his touchdown-to-interception ratio also shot up substantially.
That trajectory didn't hold up in 2019, and Beckham's presence didn't save him. That has to concern Cardinals fans who find their quarterback in a very similar boat.
The Cards have at least done more than Cleveland did to address offensive line issues.
Mayfield took far more hits and sacks in his second campaign than he did in his first, and he struggled under duress. Offensive tackles Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard were liabilities, and both have since been replaced.
No quarterback in the NFL took more sacks than Murray in 2019, but Cards left tackle D.J. Humphries still at least has upside, they should expect veteran right tackle Marcus Gilbert to return from a torn ACL and they got great value for high-ceiling Houston offensive tackle Josh Jones on Day 2 of the draft.
Defensively, the Browns relied heavily on Myles Garrett, and the Cardinals will continue to rely just about as heavily on reigning Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Chandler Jones. But Jones has a better and more thorough track record, and now he'll be complemented by enticing rookie top-10 pick Isaiah Simmons.
Jones, Simmons and star cornerback Patrick Peterson could form one hell of a defensive trio, and that unit showed major signs of progress late last year before adding Simmons to the fray.
Put it all together and you might conclude that this Cardinals team is better than those Browns, but the element of the unknown always presents a risk. Those 2011 Eagles were stacked but lacked chemistry, while the 2019 Browns had the talent to overcome aforementioned weak spots but lacked focus and discipline.
Nobody can confidently declare that Murray will flourish with Hopkins because we've never seen him throw a pass to him, and because it's not as though the Oklahoma product took off despite Rookie of the Year honors in 2019.
Among 22 quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts in the fourth quarter of one-score games last season, Murray had the third-lowest completion percentage and yards-per-attempt average under those circumstances. Among 30 who threw at least 75 third-down passes, he had the fourth-lowest YPA.
In the month of December, he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes and was one of just seven qualified quarterbacks to post a sub-80 passer rating.
Beyond that, nobody knows if the offensive line is settled. Humphries is as likely to become a bust as he is a steady tackle, the 32-year-old Gilbert might not have much left, and Jones might not be ready.
And nobody can predict that the defense will become an asset with Simmons on board, because even with Jones putting up 19 sacks, and even with marked late-season progress, they ranked 32nd in total D last year. Simmons, too, could require time to develop, and they're curiously and counterproductively restricting one of the most versatile prospects in league history by keeping him at one position. Meanwhile, Jones and Peterson will be trying to cling to their primes on the wrong side of 30.
On top of all that, the Cardinals are stuck in one of the league's strongest divisions.
NFC West teams have represented that conference in each of the last two and five of the last eight Super Bowls. The Los Angeles Rams are coming off three consecutive winning seasons, the San Francisco 49ers are coming off a Super Bowl appearance, and the Seattle Seahawks haven't endured a losing campaign since 2011.
It's tempting to jump onto the Cardinals bandwagon, and it's just as risky to project they'll fall on their face in 2020. But before you anoint this year's trendiest team, be sure to consider the competition, the cautionary tales and the Grand Canyon-sized margin for error that still exists in Arizona.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.