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Flatlining: A prognosis for a backsliding Cardinals team

Sunday’s crushing loss to the Rams seemed all too familiar. Wasn’t this year’s team supposed to be much improved from last year’s? So why are we still stuck on 3 wins?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals
This sack of Kyler Murray perfectly encapsulates how quickly things have gone downhill for the Cardinals this season.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Things were supposed to be looking up for the Cardinals.

Coming off the bye week and a series of competitive losses, they were supposed to have a good chance to beat a Rams team that had been humiliated by the Ravens the week before.

Or so we thought.

With Patrick Peterson back from suspension and one of the best pass rushers in the league, the defense was due for a turnaround.

Or so we thought.

With an exciting rookie coach/QB combo, the Redbirds’ offense was supposed to be getting back to their high-flying days of old.

Or so we thought.

By and large, the fans, the media, and the team itself had seemingly convinced themselves that this was a vastly improved product from last year’s pathetic 3-13 squad. I’ll certainly cop to being guilty of this.

But in reality, are the 2019 version of the Cardinals really that much better than the 2018 team?

Before Sunday, the answer clearly seemed to be “yes.” But the myriad problems that had been plaguing this team all season came to a head in the season-shaking 34-7 beatdown at the hands of the Rams. The embarrassing loss—our fifth straight—stripped away the sheen that Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray had provided earlier in the season, laying bare the fact that this is still a 3-win team with massive roster holes, talent deficiencies, and coaching issues.

Kliff and Kyler have clearly injected life into this team, but they flatlined against the Rams, looking like last year’s team that was dead on arrival. With that in mind, let’s look underneath the skin at the numbers and compare the two teams. Are we really that much improved? If not, what needs to be done to give this franchise a new lease on life?

The Offense

Overall Comparison: 2018 vs. 2019

Statistic 2018 Avg. 2018 Rank 2019 Avg. 2019 Rank
Statistic 2018 Avg. 2018 Rank 2019 Avg. 2019 Rank
Total Offense 241.6 YPG 32 331.8 YPG 23
Pass Offense 157.7 YPG 32 217.7 YPG 22
Rush Offense 83.9 YPG 32 114.1 YPG 14
Points Scored 14.1/game 32 21.3/game 23
Note: 2018 numbers are for the season, 2019 numbers are through 12 games.

This year’s offense is about 90 yards and a touchdown better on a per-game basis, which is enough to lift the unit from the league’s basement all the way to… the outer edge of the bottom 10. That’s certainly progress—Kyler is a dramatic improvement over Sam Bradford/Josh Rosen, and the running game has actually been a strength at times in spite of a revolving door of contributors—but perhaps not as much progress as hoped/expected.

But Kliff’s system has shown that it can work (so far), and Kyler looks like a future star, so the problems with the offense can likely be chalked up to personnel issues. Our stable of running backs has been a strength, but the wide receiver room has been a weakness—Larry Fitzgerald isn’t an alpha anymore, Christian Kirk has been inconsistent both health- and production-wise, and we’ve gotten almost nothing from receivers beyond them. Tight end is an afterthought, and the O-line has been playing over its head for most of the season. This unit has had several hiccups this season—including Sunday—but you can’t really blame the offense for the team’s struggles. I expect continued growth going into next season (as long as reinforcements are provided in the offseason).

The Defense

Defensive Comparison: 2018 vs. 2019

Statistic 2018 Avg. 2018 Rank 2019 Avg. 2019 Rank
Statistic 2018 Avg. 2018 Rank 2019 Avg. 2019 Rank
Total Defense 358.8 YPG 19 426.3 YPG 32
Pass Defense 203.9 YPG 4 307.5 YPG 32
Rush Defense 154.9 YPG 32 118.8 YPG 24
Points Against 26.6/game 26 29.3/game 31
Note: 2018 numbers are for the season, 2019 numbers are through 12 games.

You want to blame a unit for the team’s struggles, look no further. This is the worst defense in the league. Miami gives up the most points at 31.4 per game, but they have to contend with an offense that constantly turns the ball over and gives opposing teams short fields. The Cardinals defense has no such problem to deal with. There is not a worse defense in the NFL than Vance Joseph’s unit.

The numbers in the table above are worse than the numbers that got Al Holcomb fired in the offseason, and on par with the numbers that got Mike McCoy fired midseason last year. I don’t see a scenario where Joseph is with the Cardinals in 2020. That won’t help the final four games this season, but it’s at least a silver lining. Former 1st-round pick Haason Reddick has also (hopefully) played himself out of seeing a single defensive snap the rest of the season, which actually should help down the stretch. Also potentially playing his way out of the desert is future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson. How far his star has fallen. Bottom line: Expect a ton of new faces on defense in 2020. Again. At least things can’t get any worse than this, right?


Overall Comparison: 2018 vs. 2019

Statistic 2018 Total 2018 Rank 2019 Total 2019 Rank
Statistic 2018 Total 2018 Rank 2019 Total 2019 Rank
Turnover Diff. -12 T29 3 T11
Points Scored 225 32 340* 23
Points Against 425 26 468* 31
Point Diff. -200 32 -128* 29
Record 3-13 32 3-8-1 27
*: 2019 point numbers are 16-game pace. The other 2019 numbers are through 12 games.

Two things stand out here. One is the turnover differential. Kudos to Kliff and Kyler for taking care of the football on offense (just 9 turnovers, third-fewest in the league). But the other thing that stands out is that the rest of the numbers aren’t really *that* different. Yes, the offense is improved, but the defense has completely bottomed out, resulting in a team’s still stuck on 3 wins and that is still among the worst in the league. We’re possibly headed for yet another top-5 pick.

Should the man who drafted Kyler—and who is also the architect of a team that’s 6-21-1 over the past two seasons—be the one to make it? GM Steve Keim was seemingly given a reprieve after last season, when he survived the offseason culling that included most of the team’s coaching staff after the 3-13 debacle. Given how little this team has progressed since then, the answer clearly seems to be “no.”

But then, nothing about this team is clear anymore. The thrill of the Kliff hire and Kyler pick are gone—and the games go on, long after the thrill of new faces is gone.

Kliff and Kyler were some much-needed cosmetic procedures, but it’s clear that this organization needs more than just a facelift. It needs an entire heart transplant to give this team new blood throughout all its extremities. And there’s only one man who can save us now.

“Paging Dr. Bidwill. You are needed in surgery.”

Let’s just hope he’s busy sharpening his scalpel instead of scheduling more plastic surgery.