The end wasn't so bad at 8-8, but it was not too long ago that all hell had broken loose with how poorly the Arizona Cardinals began their season. They won their Week 1 game over the Carolina Panthers, but were not spectacular in doing so, and then proceeded to lose their next six games.
With a huge turnaround, they almost crept their way into the playoffs before being eliminated in the penultimate week of the regular season.
The question is -- what can be to blame for how the season started, if we must pinpoint one thing more than others?
We have a few candidates:
1) Kevin Kolb
The biggest need the team addressed in the offseason was the quarterback position. They went out and acquired Kevin Kolb to fill the and paid a high price of a second round pick in the upcoming draft and starting cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Kolb started strongly but had struggles with the offense, turned the ball over some and looked uncomfortable in the pocket. He personally had a chance to have game-winning drives on four occasions early in the season and could not do it.
When he went down, John Skelton came in and the team started winning. One could say that Kolb did not inspire better play of his teammates, while Skelton was able to do that -- something of a Tim Tebow effect, only that he looks like a real NFL QB when he does it.
2) Offensive line play
This is something that Cardinals fans have been complaining about for decades -- even back to the days of Neil Lomax (that's as far back as I remember). Levi Brown looked like a turnstile in many games early in the season, along with Brandon Keith. As Keith got hurt, Jeremy Bridges played more. Levi Brown, right about the time the team started winning, started looking a lot better. One could say that had they been more consistent on the line earlier in the season, Kolb would have felt more comfortable, would have made better decisions and played better, thus making the Cards' start better than it was.
3) The play of the defense
Early on in the season, the defense was atrocious. They gave up 20 TDs in the first seven games. They had an eight-point fourth quarter lead against the Redskins they gave up. They led by 10 in the fourth against the Giants and couldn't hold on. They led by 21 points against the Ravens and still lost. They gave up big play after big play. Then, suddenly, the big plays stopped and so did the TDs. In their last nine games, they allowed 11 TDs. Coincidentally, they went 7-2 in that span.
Mike Miller being promoted to offensive coordinator did not excite anybody except him and likely his family because of the likely pay increase. Early on in the season, the playcalling was predictable and too pass-oriented. They weren't running the ball enough and were trying to do things like run LaRod Stephens-Howling up the middle. People still criticized the playcalling later in the season, but the results were better.
What do I blame?
I blame the defense. Kevin Kolb was put in a difficult situation with the lockout and ensuing rules afterward. He did not get a playbook until after he was traded, and then could not practice for the first part of training camp, even though he was on the team. He was learning a new and complex offense and did okay early on. However, when he and the offense had built up leads early in the season, the defense failed.
Now, it would have been nice to see some clutch offense early in the season, but the offense had done its job in getting leads. The defense gave them up.
Now, the defense certainly turned itself around and became the strength of the team, but it was the turnaround by the defense that led to the Cardinals run. Had they been at lead decent over the first seven games, we would be getting ready to see them on the road in a playoff game. They were terrible at the start.
The other factors played a part, as football is clearly a team game. You cannot point to one factor and lay the blame in one spot.
But if I have to pick the biggest reason? It wasn't Kevin Kolb. It wasn't the offensive line. It was the terrible defensive play to start the year. If you change that one factor, you see much different results. They played better and the team won. The quarterback play did not improve and the team started winning. The quarterback play did not improve statistically with the improved offensive line play. The playcalling never really changed.
It is clear to me that it was the defense that was the biggest factor in the early-season misery.