You’ll take a 4-2 start, every time. After the dominant victory over the remnants of the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, the Cardinals are two games over .500 for the first time in forever and in the thick of the NFC playoff race. How we got to 4-2 might not be how most fans envisioned it before the season, but you have to be pleased with the record after six games.
The stats back up the record, too—the Cardinals boast a top-5 offense by yardage (if not by scoring, where we’re #11), and, shockingly, the #2 scoring defense in the league. (We drop to a still-respectable #13 by yardage.) Despite some struggles with accuracy and turnovers, Kyler Murray is nonetheless in the MVP conversation, DeAndre Hopkins leads the league in receiving yardage, and Kenyan Drake is in the top 5 in rushing yards after Monday’s big game.
So, yeah, you could say we have looked pretty good after these six games. We’re even a top-10 team by DVOA.
But—and please bear with me—but how good is this team REALLY? Do we have any idea after these six rollercoaster games? There are a few interrelated factors so far in this young season that make it difficult to evaluate this team. Let’s start with the obvious one.
Simply put, the Cardinals have had the easiest schedule in the league so far—their opponents are a combined 11-24 (9-20 not including games against the Cardinals). We’ve faced an injury-riddled 49ers team, a rebuilding Washington team, a supposedly rebuilding Panthers team, a middling Lions team, the just-end-the-season Jets, and a comically shorthanded Cowboys team. The 49ers game was still a good win, but the rest… yikes. Washington and the Jets are among the worst teams in the league, and the Cowboys were without their starting QB and most of their O-line, as well as several key defenders. The Lions seemingly have our number, and the Panthers are better than people thought—but still, those are two disconcerting losses. It’s hard to make heads or tails of this 4-2 start given who we’ve played. But things are about to get much tougher—our remaining schedule is the 8th-toughest in the league, mostly by virtue of five divisional games. We’re about to find out what this team is really made of as the competition gets increasingly more difficult.
This is related to schedule, obviously, but the quality of opposing QBs merits a separate discussion. Here are the starters we’ve faced thus far: Jimmy Garoppolo, Dwayne Haskins, Matthew Stafford, Teddy Bridgewater, Joe Flacco, and Andy Dalton. Yeah… it’s hard to have too much confidence in those defensive rankings given this sorry crop of opposing passers. Garoppolo, Stafford, and Bridgewater are all solid NFL QBs, but they have a combined two Pro Bowls between them (one each for Stafford and Bridgewater). The two former Pro Bowlers beat us, and Garoppolo nearly did. Losing to the likes of Haskins (since benched), Flacco (a backup), and Dalton (also a backup) would be inexcusable, so this team deserves credit for at least taking care of business in those games. But other than Daniel Jones and likely Tua Tagovailoa, the rest of the QBs we’ll face are probably superior to anyone we’ve faced thus far. That starts with MVP frontrunner Russell Wilson at home on Sunday.
Even with the solid start to the season, the Redbirds have been consistently inconsistent so far. Two wins... two losses... two more wins. Other than the Jets game—which doesn’t really count, as ASU could probably give them a run for their money—we haven’t really had a consistently strong game on both sides of the ball yet this season. That starts with Kyler Murray and the offense. Kyler is already halfway to matching his interception total from last season and has only shown modest upticks in completion percentage and yards per attempt. He had 3 INTs against the Lions, was laughably inefficient against the Panthers, and started 3/12 against the Cowboys. Can he become a consistently effective, efficient passer like, I don’t know, Russell Wilson? That’s probably an extreme comparison, but that’s the caliber of player we all hope we have on our hands, right?
Then there’s the defense, which was admittedly impressive on Monday night—but, again, look at who we were playing. Granted, we were without Chandler Jones and Dallas still has impressive skill position talent, but they were playing their backup QB and basically a practice squad–caliber O-line. Let’s maybe hold off on the Vance Joseph redemption story for now. If this is still a top-10 defense at the end of the season, I’ll never write a negative word about the man again. But I can’t get the second-half struggles against the 49ers, Washington, and Detroit out of my head. And while the Dennis Gardeck story is a good one, we all know he’s not a replacement for Jones. Add in mediocre cornerback play, the ongoing Isaiah Simmons experiment, and constant penalty issues—this unit has more question marks than the surface stats indicate. Not a good sign as the schedule ramps up.
I was pleased to see a lot of RotB commenters preaching caution in the comments of the postgame articles after the Cowboys game. Too many of us, myself included, got a little too high on this team early in the season—and then probably too low after the back-to-back losses.
Is this team as good as its 4-2 record and gaudy surface stats indicate? I tend to think not given quality of competition they’ve faced thus far. But the good thing is that those four wins are already banked and this team has a lot of room for improvement with more efficiency and discipline. Whether or not they can do so against tougher competition remains to be seen.
We’ll find out quickly when Russell Wilson and the 5-0 Seahawks come to town this weekend. I think any outcome is possible in that game. Surprise Cardinals blowout win? Sure, why not. Unsurprising Seahawks blowout? Obviously in the range of outcomes.
However it turns out, we’ll learn much more about this team than we have from these first six games. I’ll be back with some thoughts on this pivotal matchup later this week.