At home against Seattle, Arizona's season hung by a thread. It was a must-win game and Arizona lost. Last week on the road against Kansas City, the game couldn't have mattered less. Players take pride in what they do on the field and no one wants to lose, but the fact of the matter is that the NFC West crown will be contested between the Seahawks and the Rams. As a Cardinals fan, I am pulling for the Rams because they haven't been in the been in the Super Bowl since (drumroll please) Kurt Warner played for them. In this post, I will attempt to break down Arizona as a team and describe what led to them having a 3-7 record after week 11, and likely to finish with a losing record on the year. Since the season is effectively over anyway, I thought a team analysis would be in order.
Ken Whisenhunt is the man for the job at head coach. Don't let one down year fool you. Todd Haley went 1-15 last year, but now he's on the winning track. While Whisenhunt hasn't always made the best decisions, a lot of the blame deserves to go to the assistant coaches and players. A coach can do everything he can possibly do, but if the players don't want to show up on Sunday, the team is going to lose.
A lack of offensive coordinator hurt the team early on in the year. The offense appears to be competent enough in garbage time (a point I'll get to later), so it's not as though Whisenhunt is a bad play-caller. But a guy like Todd Haley on the sidelines getting fired up and demanding more effort out of his team would go a long way. When you get right down to it, more effort is what the offense as a whole needs to give.
The defensive coordinator, Billy Davis, has been terrible. Let me just say this to be perfectly clear: the secondary isn't the problem for Arizona. There have been guys getting burned and such, but the main problem is the lack of a pass rush and the inability to blitz. When you give the quarterback tons of time, he's going to connect with somebody out there, and it doesn't matter how much talent you have in your secondary. Guys look bad on film covering receivers but the truth of it is that without being able to shorten the time limit that the QB has to release it, this sort of thing is going to continue- number one draft picks in the secondary or not.
Based on the performance of his offensive line, Russ Grimm has not done the best job this year. I think everyone knew coming in that Deuce Lutui, despite having a lot of experience in the system, remains a penalty machine and is good for at least one false start every week. Alan Faneca has been capable, but not outstanding. The running game has slowly improved, but it hasn't been nearly as successful as it has in years previous. This goes beyond the passing game: if you think an explosive passing game is all that's needed to get the running game going, go back and take a look at some footage of Edgerrin James running the ball under a Kurt Warner-led offense.
The quarterback has been the biggest issue of the year. Derek Anderson remains the anti-clutch guy. He can deliver when there's no pressure, but in a situation in which he absolutely has to get it done, he fails. If Arizona came into the game up by 21-0 at kickoff, Anderson would probably play better. However, in a close game he doesn't deliver. His passes are generally inaccurate, but I think that has more to do with the mentality he brings to the game rather than any other factor. "Clutch" quarterbacks are described as guys who can get into the end zone often, and how often has Anderson led his team to touchdown-scoring drives?
Max Hall seems like the best option at QB right now (at least to me). I'm willing to let the Tampa Bay game (in which Hall threw 14 points to the defense) as an aberration considering that Tampa Bay shut out San Francisco at home recently. I'd like to see Hall get another chance because while he isn't setting the world on fire with his play, he also is a lot more consistent and reliable. Had Derek Anderson started the game against the Saints earlier in the year, Arizona would have likely lost.
Not much to say here other than LaRod Stevens-Howling appears to be the better of the three RB's right now. Injuries have limited the season of Beanie Wells, and it's hard to know whether Hightower has lost a step or whether he's being underutilized as a result of Arizona always falling behind and needing to pass (this is a situation that dooms the team to failure because they are meant to play with a lead). The lack of a fullback has hurt the team. I'm wondering if it wouldn't have been better to have kept Dan Kreider for another season.
Injuries have also limited this group. The rookie receivers for Arizona- Andre Roberts among them- haven't done a lot to inspire confidence in the coaches. Fumbles on punt returns and a lack of production on the offense have kept them on the bench now that the group of Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet are healthy. I truly believe is a group that can get 1400, 1000 and 700 yards respectively, but that would only happen with a quarterback whose play is the same irregardless of the score on the board.
The lack of a receiving tight end has hurt Arizona this year. Ben Patrick, Steven Spach and Jim Dray have been the guys doing the dirty work here, but none of them are catching a lot of balls. A guy like Jason Witten would make a huge difference in the offense because it would force someone of the opposing linebackers into coverage rather than ignoring a tight end while staying home to protect against the run and/or blitz the quarterback. In the draft, I would look for a talented TE in the second round.
They can't stop the run and they aren't getting pressure on the quarterback. Darnell Dockett is now injured, so that leaves a lot of guys most people haven't heard of before to try and shut down the opposing team's drives. The unfortunate truth is that if they were good, they would have edged out the starters, but that hasn't happened. I don't want to use the term "manhandled" but the statistics would seem to point in that direction.
Joey Porter leads the team in sacks. Does anyone miss Karlos Dansby? I certainly do. He was a playmaker and got all around the field and made tackles everyplace. Porter is more of a guy who rushes the quarterback. In trying to look for new linebackers, Arizona needs to find that guy who goes sideline to sideline and there is on every play. Don't worry about how many sacks or interceptions he gets- just get a guy who tackles everything.
The secondary has been much-maligned, but I'm willing to bet they're also been exhausted quite a bit. Teams are running up the score on Arizona, constantly getting deep passes and first downs. This has to be wearing down the defenders. I don't care how much stamina you have, if the other team puts up 51 points on you, you're not going to be the same ball-hawking guy that everyone expects. I wouldn't change too much on the secondary, because this is a group that with the right coaching can be very tough.
Jay Feely has been invisible thanks to the ineptitude of Derek Anderson. He seems like a good kicker, but he hasn't got a lot of opportunities.
Sadly, LaRod Stevens-Howling appears to be the team's MVP this year. He's always a threat to return it deep and he ought to be getting more time on the offense.
The punt returners have been messy. Arizona still has yet to find that guy like DeSean Jackson who's really dangerous...but then, guys like that don't come along often anyway.
With all that said, the matchup on Monday night against the 49ers looks to be one of the more pathetic games I've ever seen. Both teams are 3-7, neither team is making the playoffs and the only thing left to play for is pride. I know that these two combined for some good games before, but I have a feeling this one will either be one-sided or a shining example of what you don't do in the NFL. As an Arizona Cardinals fan, I'm already looking forward to the draft.