Entering the 2012 season with great hope and aspirations of a potential play-off run, the Arizona Cardinals had reason to believe they would be an NFC dark horse. Winning four straight to open the year, including impressive victories at New England and against Philadelphia sent shock-waves around the NFL. The Cards had arrived. Well.... not exactly. A nine-game losing streak followed, ending all play-off hopes and essentially ending the tenure's of Ken Whisenhunt and Rod Graves in the desert. Finishing 5-11 may have been a little unjust, especially on the defense, a unit bound together by guru Ray Horton, which came on leaps and bounds from 2011, recognized league-round as one of the top defensive units around.
Almost every season, it seems that there is at least one team that goes from the cellar to the penthouse, winning their division after being in last place. Could the Cards turn it around and be the next team to do that, and do it in a very tough NFC West?
Biggest Issue In 2012:
The offensive line. Say what you want about the quarterback play, fact of the matter is, you cannot make a pass without adequate protection and time to throw. I'm a firm believer that Kevin Kolb would've won a significant amount of games, should he have received solid offensive line play. Adam Snyder, now off the team, was a liability in the middle at guard, incapable of reliable protection throughout a game. Levi Brown's loss for the season at left tackle was felt harder than estimated, resulting in the Cardinals having the league's worst offensive line.
As a consequence of this, the quarterback play was below par. With four individual starters throughout the season, none really amassed acceptable stats, barring Kolb during his 'OK' spell with decent protection, recording 8 TDs to 2 INTs in the first four games of the season. The combination of Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer created a seasonal stat-line (including a collated passer rating of 63.1 (32nd), which saw the Cardinals last or second last in nearly every offensive category: Total Yards: 4209 (32nd), YPG: 263.1 (32nd), Total Rushing Yards: 1204 (32nd), PPG 15.6 (31st). Three of the aforementioned quarterbacks are off the roster, following the Arians/Keim overhaul.
Their run game play on both sides of the ball was abysmal also. As stated, the Cards rushed for a league low 1204 yards, which to put into perspective, ten NFL players rushed for more than that on their own. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams were unable to stay healthy enough to get into any sort of rhythm, coupled with the poor OL play, unable to create any sort of running lanes for backs to exploit made rushing tough. The defense also couldn't play the run well, allowing 137 rushing yards p/game, 28th in the league. Essentially, the Cardinals entire offensive output was their reason for their downfall in 2012.
With Whiz/Graves out the door, a new era had begun in Arizona under the capable leadership of Bruce Arians, the 2012 coach of the year, and new GM Steve Keim. Quickly identifying the two key areas of need, quarterback and offensive line, these were addressed as soon as. Wasting no time cutting their ties with Kevin Kolb, who has now found a home in Buffalo, and backup quarterbacks John Skelton and Brian Hoyer are now employed over in the AFC North, with Cincinatti and Cleveland respectively. Swiftly trading for Raiders QB Carson Palmer was a move to improve the position short-term. An excellent fit in the offense Bruce will be bringing over from Indy, and acquiring ex-Colts, Lions QB Drew Stanton to compete was a key piece of business.
Next: Offensive Line. The Cardinals cut flop Adam Synder, who re-signed with the 49ers, left a gaping hole at LG. Addressed through the draft, utilizing the number seven pick to select Jonathan Cooper, and returning to offensive guard in the fourth round to select Earl Watford easily upgrades the interior line. The return of Levi Brown on the left side reassures the line somewhat, and the emergence of Bobbie Massie on the right side, coming on strong in the second half of the season, gives reason to believe there is hope.
Releasing a lot of players this offseason was all part of the roster revamp, while maintaining the standpoint that 'we are in it to win it'. Veterans such as Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, Beanie Wells and Early Doucet were all released in an attempt to make the roster younger and more cap-friendly. Replacing these and many others with short-term replacements ideally to add depth to positions of need, such as DE/OLB. The likes of Frostee Rucker, Lorenzo Alexander and Matt Shaughnessy will give competition and provide rotation in-game to keep everyone fresh, and aim to revitalize a slacking pass-rushing unit.
The league's fifth-best secondary lost four key components in Greg Toler, William Gay, Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes this past offseason, which will take its tole in 2013 no doubt. Going about their business in an orderly fashion, Arians and Keim identified some value targets to bridge the gap for 2013. Antoine Cason and Jerraud Powers notably from San Diego and Indianapolis respectively, possess the versatility to play in the slot and out wide, coupled with the drafting of Tyrann Mathieu who can play both corner and safety. UDFA Tony Jefferson and trade pick-up Javier Arenas will also be early contributors in the new-look secondary.
Looking to address the poor run-defense, acquiring Jasper Brinkley and Karlos Dansby through free agency fill the void left at middle linebacker when Paris Lenon was released, and Daryl Washington's four-game suspension likely results in game-time for second round pick Kevin Minter in the middle of the defensive unit. Speaking of defensive unit, the loss of DC Ray Horton cannot be overlooked. Schematically, he was excellent. The impact of a change in system will likely not improve the unit initially.
The Cards have been designated the seventh-toughest schedule for 2013, when looking at the oppositions combined record from 2012, coupled with the fact they play in the league's toughest division which is always improving, doesn't look to provide much ambition. They also face off against the NFC & AFC South divisions, which will test the Cardinals previously poor run game. Oppositions such as Houston with Arian Foster, Tampa Bay with Doug Martin, Tennessee with Chris Johnson, not to mention the divisions own San Francisco and Seattle, two very run-first teams. Also facing off against Detroit, Atlanta and New Orleans will test the new-look secondary.
It's a tough ask for the Cardinals to put themselves into playoff contention. With an easier schedule, possibly, but I see this being a too tough a task to embark on right now. The future looks bright heading into 2014, where given a year under the new system, may be the year of the Birds.