As far as I am aware, when the schedule was announced for the 2013 season, none of us anticipated in our wildest dreams that the Arizona Cardinals would be sitting here where it's all said and done with a 10-6 record, and were still alive in the NFC play-off mix right at the death. Sure, they have been helped along with the catastrophic demise of preseason powerhouses like the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons, but nonetheless, this season, however it may end, should be regarded as a resounding success.
This year's success really comes down to the decisive nature of first-year General Manager Steve Keim. I tip my hat to you, sir. His negotiative nous in free agency was something clearly a lot of unattached players respected, and it was the brashness of his approach which really struck a cord with players. Going against the grain, in a fashion which oozes a 'you need us more than we need you' attitude, which ended being a sort of tone-setter for the season to come.
The Cardinals picked up a number of players that were cast aside by former teams, eager to prove they had enough in the tank to still make an impact in the NFL. A roster assembled with 28 players that were not part of the team in the previous regime out there to find a home; it was this drive which was the quintessential force behind their season.
And where do I even begin with Bruce Arians, my and many others' Coach of the Year. In all honesty, I was skeptical following the announcement. I was unsure about whether he could cut it as a head coach. Even a few short weeks into the season, I grew frustrated with his stubborn approach to the offense, taking unnecessary shots downfield instead of playing to secure points. Not implementing the right protection, and most notably, not utilizing the skill-set of Andre Ellington enough, in favor of trotting out Rashard Mendenhall drive-after-drive.
Boy did he prove me wrong.
His determination to stick to his guns, develop the scheme in place eventually paid off down the stretch. As players grew accustomed to it, it inevitably had more success. From Week 8 onwards, the Cardinals have managed to score at least 27 points in all but two games, having failed to surpass that score in the preceding seven games, and over this stretch, the Cardinals are 7-1. Just goes to show, practice makes perfect.
The undoubted strong point of this team is the defense, masterminded by Todd Bowles, who has put himself in the reckoning for a Head Coaching job for his stellar performance as Cardinals Defensive Coordinator. When Ray Horton skipped town for Cleveland having been snubbed for the HC job, Bowles was brought in as many thought was yet another example of nepotism in the NFL.
Yet again, I was wrong.
The guy has outperformed Horton's defense by a country mile. Fair play to the guy, he's done it without four of the top five players on the teams secondary depth chart from the previous year, a group of players who were among the league's best. With the recruitment done from Keim and Arians, Bowles has taken a load of, lets face it, journeymen players such as Antoine Cason, Jerraud Powers and Yeremiah Bell, as well as finding a place for possible Defensive Rookie of the Year Tyrann Mathieu, has created a formidable unit on the back end of Football Outsiders second ranked defense.
How can I forget the front-seven, that if in any other division in football would be the best by far but struggle to crack the top two in the NFC West. A group led by the inspired (All-Pro) play of Karlos Dansby at the heart of the group, coupled with the rebirth of John Abraham on the edge who is also putting in a Pro Bowl shift rushing the passer. Both of these players were picked up off the scrap head like many of the current Cardinals roster, the unprecedented success they have enjoyed is only a testament to the marvellous job Steve Keim has done, worth of Exec of the Year recognition.
At this all happened in the wake a several notable injuries to key players on the roster. Pass rushers Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander both went down early in the yeah with season-ending injuries, meaning the defense had to play third stringer Abraham, who still managed 11.5 sacks and four forced-fumbles on the season, and then a host of waiver-wire pick-ups or practice squad members across from him, just goes to show the what an effort this team made this year.
Factor in the fact the team really had next to no production from any of their draft picks this year. First-round pick Jonathan Cooper went down in pre-season with a broken leg. Second-round pick, linebacker Kevin Minter struggled with injuries early on and saw very little snaps on defense. Fourth-rounders Earl Watford and Alex Okafor we're inactive virtually every game, and seventh-round pick D.C. Jefferson was cut mid-way through the season. Only the impressive play of Tyrann Mathieu - before he tore his ACL - and rookie runners Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor playing and role of significance for the Cardinals in year one.
And then you add the burden of being in the NFC West, the toughest division in football. Joined by two Super Bowl contenders in the 49ers and Seahawks - who both won 12 or more games this season - There wasn't really much optimism from these four games. Before the Week 14 win against the Rams, the team had lost eight-straight divisonal games, a trend which has since been bucked. The ability to win in the division was the key to success, it held the team back.
Nothing more epitomized this than the impressive road win in Seattle in Week 16 to keep the season alive going into the final week. Doing what no team had done in the Russell Wilson era, and coming from behind showing great belief in themselves and pulling it out of the bag when the chips were down and the odds were against us. That has to be commended.
The Cardinals have set out the blueprint to success for next season: error-free football. No surprises here, right? Well the team really reaped the rewards when Carson Palmer reeled in the interceptions and began slinging the ball with intent and accuracy, with the main recipient of this being Michael Floyd. The second-year wideout had a break-out season, seeing him go over 1,000 yards and become a featured target in the offense. The Cards had a lot of players step up when they needed them most, not to mention the efforts of rookie running back Andre Ellington who captured fans' hearts from Day 1.
The team will feel disappointed on a season which, to many, ended prematurely, but when they look back on what they achieved this year, they can be proud. No one gave this team a chance, especially in the West, but they pulled through. The ability to win in clutch situations was something this team was not used to since Warner skipped town, giving some hope going into next season. It's not often we can say we underachieved, at 10-6, only the 21st team in NFL history to fail to make the play-offs after a 10-win season - and all this happened in a season many tipped as a 'rebuilding' year?
This offseason is filled with optimism, more than seasons past, under the guidance of Keim and Arians.
As Aristotle once said - 'We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit'. If the Cardinals organisation continues to follow the path they are heading down, they will undoubtedly endure habitual success.