One of the aspects of the Arizona Cardinals that has always frustrated me has been the decision to call more passing plays than running plays. To be sure, neither the running backs nor the quarterbacks proved effective in the 2012 season, but any analysis of why almost every offensive coach and assistant got fired (with the except of Freddy Kitchens, the tight ends coach) has to involve the playcalling. It all starts with the offensive philosophy of the Cardinals.
With Kurt Warner under the helm, the Cardinals felt comfortable throwing it as much as ever they liked. In fact, with running back Edgerrin James getting stuffed more often than not, calling pass plays was to the Cardinals' benefit. Even with the addition of Tim Hightower to the roster, matters didn't improve considerably in the running game. Perhaps because of this, Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Mike Miller felt that passing the ball would prove beneficial. The track record was there. The Cardinals made the playoffs twice using a pass-heavy offense. Unfortunately, the swan song of both Whisenhunt and Miller in Arizona proved to be the inability to recognize talent on the offensive line, which led to Kevin Kolb getting hurt once again, which in turn led to the inept performances of John Skelton and Ryan Lindley.
Don't get me wrong on this point. I think John Skelton can be a good NFL quarterback, even if his play in 2012 would indicate otherwise. Skelton, unlike Kevin Kolb, works best when a strong running game is in place to complement the passing game. As for Ryan Lindley...well, it's time to be brutally honest. Ryan Lindley has no place in an NFL uniform. The day might come when he is an effective quarterback, but that day is not today. Brian Hoyer outperforming both of Arizona's quarterbacks says many negative things about the coaching staff, the first and foremost of which is that they selected and played quarterbacks who were not very good. In a league where the quarterback might be called upon to throw the ball at least 500 times a year, this oversight led to the coaching staff's dismissal.
But what other opportunities were there? Was it possible for the Cardinals to rely less on the passing game than they did in 2012? Between four quarterbacks, the Cardinals passed the ball over 600 times, more than Peyton Manning did. Like the Cardinals, the 2012 Denver Broncos weren't exempt from injury at the running back position. No one rushed for more than 200 attempts individually. The team didn't have a 1,000 yard rusher. Three of Denver's four running backs rushed for less than 4.0 yards per carry. Yet, among those four running backs, they together managed 432 attempts.
Arizona, on the other hand, ran the ball only 316 times among their top four running backs. Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams and LaRod Stevens-Howling all dealt with injuries during 2012. However, William Powell- the team's most effective runner- played in all thirteen games from week 3 to week 17, but only carried the ball more than 10 times twice in any one game. When he did, he consistently moved the chains. Given that Powell ran for 249 yards in the preseason with a 5.9 yards per carry rate, it is surprising that Arizona did not turn to him more often when Howling kept getting stuffed in the backfield or proved unable to execute the ill-formed runs up the middle that were clearly designed for a bigger, more bruising running back. Whatever mistakes he may or may not have made, the tangible results were clear: Powell moved the chains, even when no one else on the offense could.
Among Arizona's 11 losses, four of them were by one score or less. In particular, the game against the New York Jets would have been the perfect time to run the ball relentlessly without regard of the consequences given that Mark Sanchez just could not put it in the end zone. Instead, in what has to be the worst game-calling any NFL team has seen, the team called upon Ryan Lindley to throw the ball 31 times (out of which he only managed 71 yards) while 20 run plays were called. Beanie Wells didn't appear very effective in this game, but it must be admitted that the running game as a whole churned out 81 yards that day- forty of which came through a fake punt run. In this game, William Powell managed a 4.5 yards per carry rate on four carries.
It's not as though there wasn't reason to believe that Arizona's running game could be effective. In a week three rout of the Philadelphia Eagles, Ryan Williams had a big day gaining 83 yards on 14 carries. In a week 7 loss against the Minnesota Vikings, Howling rushed for 104 yards on 20 carries. He also ran for 127 yards on 23 carries in a week 11 loss to Atlanta. In week 15 against the Lions, Beanie Wells ran the ball for 67 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries. The problem was not that Arizona's running game could not compensate for a lethargic passing offense, merely that the coaches chose not to call the run.
In a four-point game against Seattle in week 1, Arizona called 36 passing plays. In week 4 against Miami, Arizona called 48 passing plays. Two of these passes came in the overtime period. In week 5 against St. Louis, Arizona called a whopping 50 passing plays. The game was 10-3 until the fourth quarter. The overriding theme here seems to be this: if the Cardinals are close or trailing, Whisenhunt leaned on the passing game. If the Cardinals are well ahead, he will then call running plays. This philosophy did not fit well with two ineffective quarterbacks.
The Chicago Bears quarterback situation was not much better than Arizona's for 2012. Jay Cutler turned the ball over 18 times in 15 games. Jason Campbell, the Bears' backup, was as dismal as everyone (save for their coaching staff) expected. In the two games he played, the Bears managed only 13 points total. However, the Bears went 10-6 this year in large part due to their defense generating turnovers and the effectiveness of their running game. Between their top four running backs, they called over 400 running plays. The moral of the story with the Bears: even if your quarterback isn't very good, you can still have a winning record.
Seen in this light, it's clear that Arizona's losing season wasn't the fault of the players, though there were some sub-par performances. The blame lays entirely with the coaching staff. The round of dismissals we've seen on Black Monday is a sure sign that the Bidwell family is dedicated to providing a winning team in Arizona. If the team's leadership is unwilling or unable to recognize talent successfully or utilize that talent to its maximum extent, it really won't matter if Kurt Warner does come back. Even supposing the team manages to land its all-pro franchise quarterback, without a coaching staff that knows what they are doing, everything will be for naught.