The NFL lockout, the only topic of conversation with any relevance over the past seven weeks since the NFL draft concluded it something that is going to hinder the progress of every team in the league, the missed training time, rookies not being able to work out under the watchful eye of strength coaches, and more importantly positional and head coaches. But the Arizona Cardinals might be feeling the strain of the lockout more than most, here is why.
Horton and the new coaching staff could mean a tough transition for the Cardinals
1 - New Defensive Coaching Staff
Probably the biggest and most obvious is the new members of the defensive coaching staff, from Deshea Townsend to Louie Cioffi and finally Ray Horton. Horton has talked in his interviews about keeping the "language" or terminology of the defense similar to that of the Billy Davis run defense to give his team a smoother transition, but that does not mean it is going to be easy. Even at the best of times the installation of a new defense is hard, and we are currently far from the best of times. It is likely that in the few days between his hire and the lockout Horton was able to get a simplified version of his playbook to some of the veteran defenders which in turn have likely been passed onto rookies, but the best place to learn is on the field, and unless you are in full pads going full speed the learning is nothing like a game. For a defense based on confusion in the front seven and technique and teamwork in the secondary the work as a unit and of a unit is far more important than the feats of any one individual, and the lack of work that the Cardinals defense have been able to do as a unit is no doubt going to hinder them especially early in the season, and it is also going to force the team to stick to less complicated schemes to save from mental mistakes hurting the team. In the end the 2011 Cardinals defense is likely going to struggle to adapt quickly to a new scheme with new landmarks, new blitzes, new coverages it could look ugly early.
2 - The Quarterback issue
The other obvious issue that is going to cause the Cardinals a lot of strife thanks in large part to the lockout. Whether they install a player already on the roster to the starting position or they bring in a veteran the learning curve is going to be very steep for whoever steps into the role. Like it or not, if the Cardinals were to step onto the gridiron tomorrow the Quarterback who is the best prepared mentally is Derek Anderson. Now we can safely rule him out of any competition for the starting gig in 2011, but it does paint the correct, and dire, picture of the current situation at QB for the Cardinals. If you end up with John Skelton under center in the first week of the season, the development time that has been lost for a 2nd year QB is huge, the entire offseason that could have been spent with coaches, at the facility, with a full playbook in hand and the film room. The development that could have taken place is immense, but due to the lockout Skelton has been at home, probably with a couple of tapes he already had, no coaches and tossing balls at his receivers during player organised workouts. At the most important position in football, the offseason between 1st and 2nd years can be a key development time; Skelton has lost most if not all of that due to the lockout. However it is more likely that a free agent is bought in or a trade is made to find a quarterback, but ultimately the same issues will arise, Skelton is not mentally polished at this stage of his career, but he is still further ahead in our offense than any other player bought into the situation. There will be less time to let the playbook soak in, develop the timing with your receivers, find out where receivers like to catch the ball, how far to lead receivers on deeper routes, how long it take Fitzgerald to make the cut at 10 yards as opposed to Roberts or Breaston. The most underrated aspect of any passing game is timing, and any new QB is going to need a crash course on the playbook to even contemplate starting the first game of the season with some momentum.
3 - Reliance on Youth
This is a maybe, maybe not situation, but if you look at the roster of the Cardinals and look at the players that need to step up their game a theme becomes clear. Daryl Washington to translate into a full time starter, O'Brien Schofield making the move to starting OLB, Sam Acho to get time at OLB, Greg Toler to develop at Corner and Peterson getting good minutes or starting at corner, Andre Roberts, Max Komar and Stephen Williams stepping up at WR to give a solid 3rd option for the team, or worse case scenario even a starter at receive, Dan Williams stepping into the starting Nose Tackle role, Rob Housler possibly getting good minutes at TE, Brandon Keith stepping up and solidifying his starting job at RT.
All of those players are young players, having spent little time in the system or actually on the field, and the Cardinals are relying on this group of players to step up from Day 1 and produce, after all the coaching time they have missed out on due to the lockout this task is just going to get even harder, specifically on defense where a major overhaul is shaping up and to top it all off, as mentioned earlier a new scheme is being put in place. The players who are losing the most from the lockout are the players that still have plenty of learning to do, and those are also the same group of players that the Cardinals are hoping step up in 2011 to help pull the team out of the 5-11 whole they created for themselves in 2010.
4 - Consequences
So what are the consequences of this. One look to see a lot of veteran and olders players keeping starting spots and bigger roles on the team where possible. If Early Doucet can stay healthy, his time with the team and in the system could lead him to starting opposite Fitzgerald if Steve Breaston is not with the team next season, and could also lead to him having the inside track to the #3 job over Roberts if Breaston stays. It likely means that despite the salary Joey Porter is around for another season, we are not going to cut him, and I doubt he will voluntarily take a pay cut. His experience in the NFL, and specifically in the Zone-Blitz aggressive 34 style defense that Horton is trying to install is going to give him a huge leg up on the competition, do not be surprised to see Haggans and Porter starting at OLB week 1. Patrick Peterson is probably not going to start too many games in 2011. Think midseason as the earliest start point, while Toler has lost learning time too, he has been on this team for two seasons and has started for one and he will have the inside track to the job again in 2011 and unless Peterson shows he can absorb the playbook instantly and minimize his mistakes it could be week 8 or 10 before he starts a game. The offense is going to be vanilla. Whether we get in a new QB or Skelton starts the offense is going to be very vanilla, basic plays so that we can ease whoever the QB is into the job easily, this could also mean a heavy reliance on the ground game, but we will not forget that the biggest playmaker on this team catches passes. The offensive line could be even worse than last season, one of the most underrated aspects of offensive line play is how the group work as a unit. If you have five players all on the same page who all know their jobs then the unit plays well and the rest of the offense benefits. It is possible that the Cardinals will see three new starters on the offensive line in 2011, and getting the new starters and the existing players to play well together as a unit in such a short space of time is going to be very difficult.
5 - Conclusion
Quite simple, but also grim, 2011 is going to be another long season for Cardinals fans. They have, as always, a relatively half and half schedule, with teams such as Washington, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Carolina on the out division schedule, but the Cardinals also see the likes of the Eagles, Giants, Steelers and Ravens. The easiest part of their schedule is the beginning and end, with Minnesota, Seattle, Washington and Carolina in four of the first five weeks and the run from week 13 through 17 filled by four home games against Dallas, SF, Cleveland and Seattle, with a trip to Cincinnati. Unfortunately the first 5 weeks of the season are likely going to be some of the worst for the Cardinals, with their opposition having a more established base of veterans despite four of their first five opponents also having Quarterback issues. A brutal six game stretch in the middle, sees only two games at home and trips to Baltimore and Philly while also seeing road divisional games at the Edward Jones Dome and Candlestick Park. It is not beyond the realms of possibility to see Arizona begin their season with a 2-7 start and heading into divisional road games with the Rams and 49ers., and a worst case scenario could see Arizona searching for their first win of the season as late the week 13 home tie with the Cowboys.
I see six or seven wins as the high point for this Arizona team in 2011 regardless of whom the QB realistically is, it does not bode well for fans this season, but with one eye to the future, 2012 and onwards could be the time for the Cardinals to fall back into the offseason routine and begin to head the NFC West again.