The Cardinals are off this week, which means they enter their bye week at the midpoint of the NFL season with a disappointing 2-6 record. We certainly didn’t think they’d be this bad—unlike Vegas. (The house always wins. Sigh.)
We’ve gone through two offensive coordinators, two starting quarterbacks, one Patrick Peterson trade demand (and withdrawal), one 45-10 stomping on national television, and two wins against the lowly 49ers to get here. It’s been an exhausting 8 weeks—and the second half of the season isn’t looking like it’ll be much better.
We’ll look ahead to the rest of the season (and beyond) next week. For now, it’s report card time! We’ll hand out grades for the coaching staff and each position group and then give the team an overall grade.
Warning: This ain’t gonna be pretty.
Steve Wilks and his staff have struggled mightily in their first year on the sidelines. Mike McCoy has already been fired for helming a historically bad offense (since replaced by Lord Byron). Al Holcomb’s 4-3 conversion has gone sideways, turning run defense—formerly a strength—into the defense’s biggest weakness. And Wilks himself has already had a couple 4th-quarter meltdowns and there have been rumblings of discord in the locker room. Last week’s comeback win seems to have quelled that a bit, but it’s unclear whether the comeback was due to coaching adjustments or simply an inferior opponent. But at 2-6, this team has fallen well short of even modest expectations.
Grade: F. Even Leftwich’s promotion and the two divisional wins can’t keep the staff from flunking. A 2-6 record is simply inexcusable for the talent on this roster. Wilks and Co. have looked in over their heads thus far. Are they coaching for their jobs in the second half?
Sam Bradford was absolutely putrid to start the season. But until the 4th quarter last week, rookie Josh Rosen hadn’t been much better—suggesting the problems with the offense ran much deeper than the guy under center. Still, despite his struggles (55.6 completion %, 6.3 YPA, 6 INTs), his 38.1 QBR is actually ranked ahead of all the other rookie starters... but it still ranks #29 in the league. Can he improve on that in the second half under Leftwich?
Grade: C-. Bradford gets an F, Rosen gets a C+ (graded on a rookie curve), so we’ll call it a C- between the two. Quarterback isn’t the reason we’re 2-6, but it’s certainly not a strength either.
David Johnson simply hasn’t been the same player he was in 2016 (pre-injury and pre-Mike McCoy). He’s on pace for a paltry 788 rushing yards (at 3.2 YPC) and 48 receptions for 414 yards—well off his 1000/1000 preseason goal. But he’s been making it count in the red zone with 6 total TDs so far, so at least he hasn’t been a total fantasy bust. And he did get 100 total yards (on the nose) last week, perhaps a sign of better days ahead under Leftwich. Rookie backup Chase Edmonds has been ineffective in his limited usage (22/61, 2.8 YPC) and fullback has been as much an afterthought as it was under Bruce Arians.
Grade: C-. DJ’s touchdown total saves this grade from the D range. Hopefully he can get it going in the second half of the season under the guidance of Lord Byron.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Second-round pick Christian Kirk has had a solid rookie season thus far, catching 31 balls on 44 targets for 410 yards (13.2 YPR) and 2 TDs—including last week’s game-winner. He has shown great chemistry with Rosen and looks like he’ll be a key contributor on offense for years to come. Larry Fitzgerald has been hobbled by injuries for most of the year, but he emphatically broke out of his slump last week, going 8/102/1 TD, which was highly encouraging. Ricky Seals-Jones has been… fine (19/216/1 TD). Outside of those three, the rest of the WRs/TEs have combined for 21 catches on 48 targets for 202 yards (9.0 YPC) and 1 TD. Yikes. This unit is going to need a lot of reinforcements this offseason. Especially if Larry retires.
Grade: D+. Solid play from Kirk and one good game from Larry is enough to prevent a failing grade, but the rest of the group drags this grade—and the offense as a whole—way down.
LT D.J. Humphries has been mediocre at best, RT Andre Smith, LG Justin Pugh, and RG Mike Iupati have all struggled with minor injuries and have been generally unimpressive, rookie C Mason Cole has been decent, and backup T/G John Wetzel has struggled when pressed into extended action (especially at guard). The result is the 10th-most sacks given up in the league (22) and the worst rushing offense in the league by 10 yards (67.5 Y/GM), to go along with the lowest YPC (3.4). This group needs a dramatic infusion of talent this offseason.
Grade: D. Some of the numbers above may be partially due to the Mike McCoy effect, but no one watching Cardinals games this season would mistake this line for even a league-average unit.
Grade: F. Even with several mitigating factors (first-year HC, fired OC, rookie QB, lack of talent at WR/OL), this offense has been atrocious—#31 in passing yards per game, #32 in rushing yards per game, #31 in points per game. There’s talent on this offense, but it’s been utterly misused thus far. The only sign of hope is that 4th quarter against the 49ers last week. If Larry is healthy, Rosen has clean pockets, and we play with a bit more tempo, the offense can get to a passing grade in the second half of the season. In Lord Byron we trust?
DTs Corey Peters, Robert Nkemdiche, and Rodney Gunter have all been average or better per Pro Football Focus, so it’s hard to pin the team’s struggles against the run on them. (Although getting Peters and Nkemdiche fully healthy over the bye week would be a huge boon.) Chandler Jones is in the midst of another strong season, and he should find himself in the top 10 in sacks again by the end of the year (he’s currently #11). Opposite Jones for most of the year, Benson Mayowa has been a pleasant surprise, consistently getting pressure on the QB and holding up well in the run game. Markus Golden doesn’t look quite all the way back from his torn ACL, but he’s come on of late and should get even stronger as the season goes on.
Grade: B+. This unit has been a strength thus far. I’d just like to see a bit more explosiveness out of these guys—more penetration from the DTs and a monster second half from Jones.
It’s tough to properly grade this unit since Wilks and Holcomb have been playing much more 4-2-5 than true 4-3. Of the LBs, Josh Bynes has seen by far the most snaps, and he’s been a pleasant surprise, ranking third on the team in tackles and scoring a TD on a fumble return in the Week 5 win in San Francisco. Former 1st-round picks Haason Reddick and Deone Bucannon have seen their playing time fluctuate, with the former outplaying the latter of late, but neither has distinguished himself. Overall, the team’s struggles against the run are probably equally traceable to the 4-2-5 scheme as to the play of this unit.
Grade: C. Bynes has been solid and Reddick is coming on, but this group has been the Achilles’ heel of the defense a bit. Can Wilks and Holcomb figure out how to use them best down the stretch?
This unit has been the true strength of the team—especially the safeties. Budda Baker is playing at a Pro Bowl level (72 tackles, 8 for a loss, 2 sacks, a fumble return TD), and Antoine Bethea (67 tackles) and Tre Boston (3 INTs) aren’t too far behind. Patrick Peterson has mostly adjusted well to Holcomb’s zone-heavy scheme, and Bene Benwikere has solidified the CB2 spot opposite him. Overall, these guys have only given up only 9 passing TDs in 8 games—second-fewest in the league.
Grade: A-. You can’t really ask these guys to do much more than they’ve done. But they’ll need to keep it up in the second half, with Patrick Mahomes II, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, and Matthew Stafford coming up after the bye.
Grade: B. Run defense has been our bugaboo thus far, but we’re actually about league-average on a per-play basis (4.3 YPC, #18 in the league). However, since our offense hasn’t been able to stay on the field and we have struggled a bit on 3rd down, we’ve faced by far the most rushing attempts in the league (268). As a result, we’re dead-last in total rushing yardage. This gulf between per-play effectiveness and total yardage likely explains why we’re actually up at #13 against the run in DVOA. So I’m giving the team a bit of a pass on that facet of defense. Combine that with our 24 sacks (#2 in the league) and those 9 TD passes against, and Cardinals fans should be relatively happy with the way the defense has played overall.
Special teams were long a weakness under Bruce Arians (and Amos Jones), but I’m pleased to report that they have been merely mediocre this year, ranked #19 in DVOA. Phil Dawson obviously struggled against Seattle in Week 4, but he hasn’t missed a kick since then or an extra point all year. Andy Lee has been rock solid, as has return coverage in both phases. You’d like fewer penalties and more out of the return game, but maybe T.J. Logan will give us a boost there in the final 8 games now that he’s out of purgatory.
Grade: C. There’s not much to rave or complain about in this phase for the first 8 games. I think most Cardinals fans would be happy if we remained in the top 20 of the DVOA rankings the rest of the season.
Overall Team Grade
Grade: D+. Look, this has been one of the worst teams in the league the first half of the season. No one was really expecting a playoff berth, but there’s too much talent on this roster to be languishing at 2-6 with one of the worst offenses in the league in decades. There’s no way this team has earned a passing grade thus far, and only the relatively solid play of the defense keeps it out of the F range.
Going into the second half of the season, the offense needs to build on that 4th quarter against the 49ers, the defense needs to button up their issues against the run, and special teams needs to get a spark in the return game out of Logan and Kirk. Do those things and a passing grade—and a, say, 6-10 record—are achievable. Whether or not we do so is up to Wilks and his staff. If we can’t, they may all be looking for jobs in a couple months.
So how would you grade the team’s performance the first half of the season, Redbirds fans? Does a D+ sound right? Is to too low—or too generous? Hand out your own grades in the comments!