Eight games into the season, the Cardinals are hovering around .500 at 3-4-1. Most Cardinals fans seem to be relatively happy with the team’s performance thus far, as we’ve already equaled last season’s win total.
So with the season’s midpoint upon us, it’s time to assess where the team is at. Walter already handed out some hardware earlier in the week, so I’ll take some time today to hand out some grades for each unit and the team as a whole. Has the 2019 team earned a passing grade so far? Let’s find out.
Kliff Kingsbury has been a bit of a mixed bag in his debut season on the NFL sidelines. He has unquestionably rejuvenated the offense, but he’s also badly mismanaged 4th down and red zone decisions, leaving gobs of points on the field in close losses. He almost seemed to overcorrect with his decision to go for it on our own 30-yard-line last week in New Orleans. I love the call in a vacuum… but maybe not in the Superdome with an RB who just signed the week before. But overall, it’s clear he’s not in over his head like the one-and-done Steve Wilks last season. I mostly like what I’ve seen so far. Elsewhere on the coaching staff, Vance Joseph’s hold on the DC position is looking tenuous at best, as his unit has been bottom-5 in the league. Will he be one-and-done as well? Special teams haven’t been a strength under Jeff Rodgers like they were last season, but they also haven’t really been a liability. Getting key contributors healthy again might be all that is needed in that phase.
Grade: B-. This team has been vastly more competitive than last season’s squad, already winning three games and hanging around in the second half in each of the losses (although some late collapses have not been pretty). The offense has been playing entertaining, if not overly efficient, football, while the defense has been a sore spot for most of the season, which drags this grade down—but not too far. I’m relatively pleased with the coaching thus far.
Kyler Murray has been an enormous upgrade at the league’s most important position—but his game still needs some work as well. For example, his 1,988 passing yards ranks #14 in the league… but his 7 TDs ranks all the way down at #27. To put it into perspective, that’s tied with Marcus Mariota and one ahead of Joe Flacco. Yuck. So he needs to be more efficient, especially in the red zone (the offense’s Achilles’ heel). He’ll be hard-pressed to make many strides in that area this year with a mostly uninspiring group of secondary targets behind Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. Getting David Johnson healthy again would really help here. The O-line has mostly held up in pass protection, but we have given up 27 sacks (6th-worst in the league), although that’s on Kyler as much as the line.
Grade: B. Kyler and Co. have been able to move the ball easily in most games, and that’s half the battle. But I expect red zone struggles to continue to be an issue, as we don’t really have a true red zone receiving threat on the roster. And we have to take fewer drive-killing sacks. All in all, this unit has been such an improvement over last year that even these semi-major flaws seem like nitpicking.
You know about the DVOA numbers by now: #4 in the league even after Sunday’s ghastly 11 carry, 40 yard effort against the Saints (which is an even worse 10 carries, 21 yards after removing a 19-yard Christian Kirk run). So, yeah, this unit has been a strength. We all thought Kingsbury would bring aerial pyrotechnics to the desert, but the offense has almost been more ground-and-pound thus far. Second-year RB Chase Edmonds has especially been a revelation. But he and DJ are both banged up, and the 49ers defense we’ll be facing tonight has been a buzzsaw. And we face them again in two weeks with, wait for it, Tampa Bay’s #1 rushing defense in between. Unless our two RBs get healthy in a hurry, our rushing numbers could plummet in the second half. (I have no confidence in the likes of Kenyan Drake, Zach Zenner, or Alfred Morris.) But that’s more of a concern for the season-end report card. For the first half, this unit more than makes the grade.
Grade: A. You can’t really ask for anything more than what we’ve gotten in the run game. DJ has been productive, Edmonds has beasted, and Kyler has chipped in effectively. All behind a better-than-expected O-line. Let’s hope this keeps up in the second half (although I’m not holding my breath).
I felt better about the direction of this unit before Drew Brees came back from injury and absolutely shredded it last weekend (373 yards, 8.7 YPA, 3 TDs). At the halfway point, this pass defense ranks #29 in the league (#27 by DVOA), and our problems defending tight ends are well documented. There are a lot of factors at play here: Patrick Peterson’s suspension, poor safety play, inconsistent pass rush, a league-low 2 INTs (both by Peterson in the past two weeks). But guys like Byron Murphy and Kevin Peterson have stepped up in the secondary, and Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs have been a force off the edge at times. Although this unit has mostly been a liability, it performed better than I thought it would without Peterson—and hopefully he can lead them to drastic improvement in the second half.
Grade: C-. This unit has gotten burned by Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees. Hey, it happens. They’ve been mostly competent otherwise, especially given they were without their best player for most of the first half. The minus is for the Kyle Allen game though—perhaps the true low point. You gotta do better against backups.
Our rush defense has been similarly poor to our pass defense—#24 YPG, #26 DVOA. And like I said above, this unit was trending better before the Saints game. But then Latavius Murray and Co. gashed us for 137 yards on 29 carries (4.7 YPC) without Alvin Kamara. Murray is a better backup than most, but still. To me, the problems start with the D-line—a position harped on by many in the offseason as needing more reinforcements. None have really arrived/stepped up around Corey Peters, meaning our LBs are having to make too many tackles downfield, and our safeties are making too many even further downfield. While I think the secondary will improve as the season goes on, I’m not so sure about this unit—especially with five games left against divisional opponents with historically strong rushing attacks.
Grade: D+. The secondary at least had the excuse of Peterson’s suspension. There is no such easy excuse here. We’ve given up 100+ yards in each game so far, even to Cincinnati and Atlanta, two of the worst rushing offenses in the league. This has been the most disappointing unit on the team so far.
Zane Gonzalez has been a pleasant surprise, although his three misses have all been painful. Andy Lee has dealt with injuries and hasn’t quite been his usual All Pro–level self, but he’s still been reliable. Both return and coverage units have been okay. DVOA has us down at #28 in the league, but the -2.4% figure isn’t *that* significant. Is it meaningful? Yes, but over 8 games it doesn’t really mean a ton. This unit has been fine.
Grade: B. Not a lot to complain about here, but not a lot to rave about either. Trent Sherfield has been fun to watch on punt coverage, which is not something you can say about most gunners, and we have some talented returners, one of whom must be due for a big play soon. Right? But if not, I’ll take steadiness from this unit in the second half.
As mentioned above, this team has already equaled last season’s win total. That alone earns these guys a passing grade. But this squad has also been (mostly) fun to watch, has been competitive in every game, and has the Valley buzzing about Cardinals football again. That bumps them up another letter grade in spite of a losing record and some obvious flaws that Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim will need to address in the offseason. Regardless, this has been a successful first half of the season overall. Let’s hope they can keep it up in the second half.
It’s good to feel good about Cardinals football again, doesn’t it? Even after Sunday’s rough loss in New Orleans, I feel good about this team—much better than at this point last season. I’m looking forward to the second half of the season, despite what looks to be a tough home game against a resurgent 49ers team tonight. But it’s a road divisional game for them on a Thursday… on Halloween. Stranger things have happened!
But for now, it’s time for you to weigh in, Cardinals fans. Put on your best sweater vest, dust off that chalkboard, and play teacher. How would you grade the team’s performance in the first half? Higher than a B-… or lower? Hand out your own grades in the comments!