Let me start by saying that the Cardinals FAR outperformed the expectations of most, my own included. Going into the season, I thought we were an eight win team at best. That is something to be proud of. A few other assorted thoughts on the 2013 Arizona Cardinals:
1.) This is an under talented roster over performing. As a biased Cardinals fan, I saw us play the Niners twice and twice I left thinking that SF had the more talented roster. Let me clarify: as of late, we have been playing as well as any team, and we are the better "team" than SF; that we have better chemistry, coaching and play better together (and the Niners are still a great team). However, it's obvious that SF has the best LBs inside and outside in the league, a better OL, more receiving threats, a secondary at least as good as ours (really that one is more apples to oranges - hard to top Honey Badger and Peterson but we have holes elsewhere) and most importantly, they have the a quarterback who hasn't even reached his ceiling. The fact that we were able to beat Seattle in Seattle and nearly beat SF twice despite self-inflicted wounds (missed FGs, turnovers) says to me that we have a superb coaching staff. Graves neglected the OL for years in the draft and almost every other position in free agency ("oh goody, we signed Jeff King!") and yet with a bunch of first and second year players, journeymen on one year contracts (Mendenhall, Bell, Winston and other signings that were for longer I.e. Powers, Abraham.) They cobbled together something that handily would've won the NFC East or North with 11 or 12 wins. The good news is that if Arians can do this with what we all know would've been a 7-9 team in this division at best with Whiz is reason for optimism - a few draftees and FA signings and we will be looking even scarier, when most teams already didn't want anything to do with us by year's end.
2.) An automatic upgrade to the roster next season, free of charge. that's right, no draft picks or new contracts involved. cCan you guess what I'm talking about? That's right, the return of Jonathan Cooper. Cooper's elite potential will solidify protection for Palmer - a big deal not only because Arians had to rein in his deep passing offense due to our OL struggles (another testament to the guy's talent - the things he can do for you with a hand tied behind his back) but also because it will mean Colledge can move back to his spot on the other side of the line, where he is much better suited to play from multiple reports. Couple that with the fact that Keim has refused to ignore the OL in draft and FA, and the future is looking bright. if we go could get this much production out of Palmer playing with Sowell protecting his blindside, just imagine what it will look like when Arians and Palmer are playing with a full deck...
The most glaring discrepancy between us and SF right now is the OL talent. Fix that, and we will be giving these guys fits the next few years. They can barely contain us as is. Time to give them a taste of their own medicine with the same type of beastly OL that they have built.
3.) As good as the defense is, it still has a lot of holes. I am not satisfied with our depth at CB. Powers has played extremely well at CB at times but at other times has looked overmatched. In a division with Boldin, Crabtree, Davis, Harvin, Tate, Austin and Cook, Jerraud is a very nice backup who can be pressed into duty, but ideally his position would be upgraded. However, Powers is far from being our Achilles heel: a much bigger hole is at SS and OLB. Bell is under talented in coverage and has been a serious liability at times. We absolutely have to be able to cover tight ends. OLB was ravaged by injury early, and Abraham is a great rusher, but is aging. Benard was a nice no-name acquisition and has filled in admirably, but his position as a starter should certainly be challenged in training camp, even though Marcus could be valuable depth. Cards must upgrade OLB through draft or FA, Alex Okafor's speed intrigues me but he is far from a proven commodity and our pass rush can't wait. Who knows when an aging Dockett's production will fall off a cliff and Dansby is likely gone. Minter needs to step up big time, and as I say from the quality of his special teams hits, needs to get a few opposing TEs and RBs "Minted". Fortunately, I think we have enough of a nucleus to continue and build upon our defensive success with a few departures and tweaks. They won't be neglecting this side of the ball in the draft, that's for sure. Mathieu has been huge and while we all know Peterson isn't the best quite yet he has steadily improved every year.
3.) The balls simply didn't bounce our way enough this year. The schedule makers didn't do us any favors (playing Seattle at home after a rough bout with SF on the road on four days rest and no practice? Ouch.) However, the NFC West isn't going to get any easier. That said, some years the ball simply doesn't bounce your way. Even in other games, I.e. Ryan and Falcons' pick six last week, Kuechly's incredible non called PIs versus NE and MIA that essentially own CAR the games and a few others that escape my mind right now. They'll balance out in the future, that's just the way it works some years. We over performed and didn't get much help from the caprices of the game. What this allowed however, was for our team to grow and learn that we can't leave it up to chance. We have to go into SF and SEA and beat these guys. I had a sinking feeling after the week one game that the loss would come back to bite us in the end. It was the only game of the year where it felt like we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and I ended up being right. This team has no excuse next year for a slow start and we'll have an infusion of talent to bolster our cause. This run at the playoffs was all on borrowed time. It was only months ago we were still smarting from 58-0.
4.) Palmer will give you ulcers with 90 percent of his throws, dangerous as they are, but he deserves the inside track to be our starting QB next year. The INT totals will logically regress to more sane levels - a lot of them were early season rust related, and not just on his end (receivers running bad routes). He makes incomprehensible decisions at times, but the past two games he stepped up to make big TD throws late, good enough to win the game. His most endearing trait by far is his short memory. I will live with sub-elite level QB play because we have a good enough team around him and he did enough to help us win most games, even if bailed out by the defense. When Warner had his one or two 4 pick games a season, it was ugly and you knew the game was over - not just because our D wasn't good enough to recover, but because he looked like he needed to hit the "reset" button on his brain and couldn't. Palmer's in Seattle was a signature win. I would like for us to draft a young QB to push him (if one Keim no did Arians like is available, that is), but not someone to start week one unless of course Palmer is horrid in preseason. I think he will respond well to a little pressure in the offseason. That, and let's not forget how disjointed the offense looked the first six weeks. Palmer was learning, the receivers were learning and the OL was awful. Fitzgerald played with two injured hamstrings while trying to learn two new positions and a new offense and develop chemistry with Palmer. Give them another offseason to develop and what finished 2013 as a good but not great offense may look much improved next year.
5.) Don't sleep on Andre Ellington who will get more touches, bulk up and be used more at WR. With OL protection, defenses are going to be scared crapless to see Fitzgerald, Floyd and Ellington streaking down the field at them frequently. Housler, while disappointing, deserves one more season, as it was his first under Arians and he accounted for more production out of here TE position than the Cards have had in about two decades. If he can just get his head on straight, hang into the ball and be in the right place, he could easily have about 900 yards receiving, 70 catches and 7 TDs in this offense. I would like to keep Roberts here, but if he leaves, look for a burner in the draft. Also would like to see if Golden or teddy Williams can become that guy with a full offseason with Carson. I am way too excited about seeing a full Arians play book with all the downfield passing in all its glory if the OL can simply hold up better. better run blocking will also account for lethal play action. A dialed in Housler and Ellington would simply kill defenses underneath and the WRs can take the top off.
There you have it, Cardinals fans. Nothing to hang your head about. This team overachieved, and WILL get better. The Niners and Seahawks are thill the ones with the targets on their backs, don't forget that. They're now on on notice and are here ones that have to worry about us, not vice versa. The future is bright, and much sooner than we ever would've expected last December. I'll end this post by asking a question of you all: when was the last time any of you were this confident in our coach and GMs ability to improve our chances next year instead of feeling the gnawing doubt of regression? When were any of us last this confident that we'd be back next year after our season was over? With Whiz and Warner, we knew it was lightning in a bottle. But when you build a team from the inside out, beginning with the front office, coaching staff and offensive and defensive lines in the trenches, you know we'll be back in 2914. The Seahawks caught fire at the end of 2012, finished 10-6 (albeit with a postseason berth) and carried that momentum into the offseason and were the closest thing to an NFL juggernaut this year. Let's see if ewe can one-up them. I like our chances.