I decided to do a series of articles evaluating the Cardinals performance after 4 games. There will be four of them, once every month. As I write the first one, it is with a sense of maddened frustration over the week 4 loss to the Giants that I evaluate the team from a fan's perspective. This may not be the best frame of mind to be in to draw conclusions about anything, but I will give it a shot.
More after the jump.
I became a Cardinals fan somewhere in the hazy days of 2007 whenKurt Warner was gunslinging his way into the Hall of Fame. This was not the fabled Super Bowl year, but the year was significant in that Warner had an arm injury that didn't require surgery which he chose to play through. Tim Rattay often took snaps near the goaline so that Warner's arm was not jostled or struck in any way in that tight confined space. Edgerrin James led the way in the rushing game, not terribly effective, but doing the job as best he could. It was a year of hope, a year where things finally might start to turn around for the franchise. A Super Bowl appearance in 2008 and a playoff win against the Packers in 2009 gave us all hope that the Cardinals as a franchise had turned the corner and made themselves into a playoff-ready team.
Then, something unexpected happened: Kurt Warner retired. With Warner's departure, the 2010 season turned abysmal. Derek Anderson flashing his gang symbols before the games and laughing on the sidelines as his team was getting beat did little to inspire anyone. Nor did the plethora of injuries to the wide receiving corps, largely caused by Anderson's errant throws. When the 2011 season began with Kevin Kolb under center, there was hope that things might be different. The thought process was that the NFC winning team from 2010, the Seahawks, went 7-9 and the division was wide open. After four games, the San Francisco 49er's are 3-1 and the Arizona Cardinals are 1-3. The Seahawks and Rams both look anemic at times. The division is Arizona's to lose and we may have lost it today with the loss at home against the Giants.
The defense, as usual, is the biggest culprit. With the third defensive coordinator during Whisenhunt's five-year tenure as head-coach, it can no longer simply be that the defensive coordinator is not doing his job. Patterns have begun to emerge within the defensive unit, despite having different personnel. Put simply, Arizona's defense is one meant to choke. Opposing coaches merely have to tell their quarterbacks to throw the ball between twenty and thirty yards when the score is close and a completion will be guaranteed. Arizona's secondary has always given up big plays no matter who the quarterback is and no matter if he is having a good day statistically or not. The defensive unit is anti-clutch and the only way to win for Arizona is to run up the score or hope that the other team makes more mistakes. At present, this does not seem likely.
Arizona as a team has committed 28 penalties through 4 games, average seven per game. Each game Arizona played was decided by a touchdown or less. I cannot help but wonder what Arizona's record would be were it not for the extra yardage given to the opposing offense and the ubiquitous false start penalties. Turnovers have been a major concern, as Arizona continues to be a the same fumbilitis team they were last year. Wide receivers Andre Roberts and Chansi Stuckey have both fumbled the ball late in the 4th quarter in a close game. Stuckey's fumble was a turnover that halted an offensive drive which may have won the Cardinals the game that week. Kevin Kolb has thrown four interceptions in four games, which is not much of a cause for concern except that it hasn't been balanced out by connections in the end zone.
The play from the running back position has been as good as could be expected given the departure of Tim Hightower to the Redskins, who has yet to fumble the ball there despite fumbling it 12 times in his three years in Arizona. Chester Taylor and Alfonso Smith don't look like starters so far, but it is hard to gauge their effectiveness given how few carries they have. Rookie running back Ryan Williams suffered an injury in the preseason, forcing Beanie Wells to carry the load for the Cardinals. So far, Wells has done remarkably well on the times when the offense has chosen to commit to the run. Unfortunately, this is not as often as one might think because the passing game always has to be active since the defense cannot hold a lead and does not dominate the other team on the line of scrimmage. Currently, Beanie is shouldering the load though it's unknown for how much longer that will continue. He is a contact runner and should wear down as the bumps and bruises pile up over the course of the year. Relying on him alone will send him to the injured list no matter how well he plays.
The play from the wide receiver position begins and ends with Larry Fitzgerald. At this point in the year, Early Doucet has not proven that he is a capable number two option. As long as opposing defenses know that Fitzgerald is the only person on offense worth worrying about, the passing game is easy to shut down. Nor has Whisenhunt attempted to use La-Rod Stevens Howling as a pass receiver back to get around the blitz and give defenses something to think about. Howling showed in 2010 that he is very good in open space and could prove to be a valuable asset to the offense in the same way that Kevin Faulk was all those years for the Patriots. Through week 4, seven of Kolb's sixty completions went to running backs. Beanie Wells often dropped passes that he should have caught, and which Tim Hightower would have easily had. Arizona's offense needs to be flexible; it needs to gain yardage in whatever way is available. Relying on the same strategies every game will only lead to disappointment.
The play from the tight ends has been the biggest improvement this year. Tight End Jeff King has caught two of Kolb's five touchdown passes because no one bothered to cover him. Todd Heap has proven to be a safety valve Kolb can turn to when all other options are exhausted. If he can stay healthy, Heap has a chance at making the Pro Bowl this year. Rookie tight end Robert Housler is probably being under-utilized. I think Arizona could try putting a tight end in the slot to create match up problems in a nickel or dime defense. I would personally have no problem seeing all three tight ends on the field at once, as they all have something to contribute to the offense.
Kicker Jay Feely has struggled through the year, though I personally attribute his struggles to Whisenhunt's anti-clutch mentality of late than anything else. It's true that he has been asked to make long field goals and has not done so, but there are other kickers in the league who can make those. Feely has had a long field goal of 55 three years running, so he has proven he is capable of hitting from 49 and 51 yards out. This year, his performance has mattered more because the team has been in closer games. Jay Feely is a good kicker, but on Whisenhunt's team, he is another anti-clutch player.
That brings me to the coaching. Ken Whisenhunt has had his choice of what kind of gameplan to put together every time. He has chosen to pass rather than run. The days of the deadly four wide receiver set under Kurt Warner are gone, but at the same time, the Cardinals do not have the personnel to pursue a strong running attack such as was evidenced by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010. When it comes to play-calling, there are very few things that Whisenhunt can do which will help the team win. If he calls a lot of passing plays, the team might move the ball down the field and score a lot but then the other team will pass a lot too, showing once again, dissecting the secondary as it has always been dissected. Choosing to run the ball with one primary back increases that person's risk for injury in a league where you can get injured just falling to the ground. (Ask Matthew Stafford.) The one gameplan that Whisenhunt has not pursued might be the one that will find the most traction in the current offense. I'm talking about an unconventional break-all-the-rules type of offense like the Wildcat...or a three tight end set which is not a goal line formation. What's being tried now certainly isn't working.
A Look Ahead
Arizona is currently 1-3 and two games back of San Francisco. Fortunately, Arizona has had only one division game at this point. Two games with the Rams, two games with the 49ers and one game with Seahawks remain. These are all winnable games. The next weeks on Arizona's schedule do not look all that favorable:
Week 5: @ Minnesota
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: Pittsburgh
Week 8: @ Baltimore
Do I need to mention that all three of these teams have been known for their strong running defenses? Where will Arizona be if Kolb does not throw the ball in the end zone? Are we going to see entire games without touchdowns? By the way things are shaping up now, the week 6 bye appears to be the best week on Arizona's schedule. The Cardinals can't afford to let the 0-4 Vikings beat them. They need to enter the bye week at 2-3 because they might not get another win until week 9.
On the other hand, winning all three of these games, two of which would be considered upsets, would give Arizona a major boost of confidence. They would then be 4-3 heading in their week 9 showdown with the Rams.
The next four weeks are the most important weeks of the season for the Cardinals. It will define them as a team that can beat the best teams in the NFL or a team that gets steamrolled over everybody ending up 1-6 going into week 9. In order to win, the anti-clutch mentality that has been the hallmark of Ken Whisenhunt's time at Arizona needs to disappear. Poof! Let's have a team that gets the scores when they need to and doesn't give up big passing plays to the other team. Let's have a team that doesn't leave points on the board and capitalizes every opportunity. Let's have a team that can both run and pass the ball, not one or the other in an unbalanced way. Anything less than this will not be enough to defeat the Ravens and the Steelers, perhaps not even the lackluster Vikings. Certainly, the anti-clutch attitude that prevails today will not get Arizona into the playoffs.