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For real?: Separating fiction from reality after the Cardinals’ 2-0 start

The Cardinals are 2-0 and have the NFL wondering if they’re for real. Let’s try to figure out what’s real and what’s fiction about this team so far.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Arizona Cardinals
Kyler Murray has the look of an MVP candidate so far this season.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals got to 2-0 on Sunday with an emphatic home win over the rebuilding Washington Football Team. (Even if Scary Terry McLaurin did go off.) Predictably, the national NFL media has already begun to take notice.

It’s only a matter of time before we see the first “Are the Arizona Cardinals for real?” piece. Although it’s a clichéd phrase, it’s still worth taking a look at what’s real—and what’s fictional—about this team. Well, as much as we can tell through two games, anyway. Let’s start with one of the more disappointing developments of this young season.

FICTION: Isaiah Simmons is a legitimate DROY candidate.

Going into the season, I thought Simmons would displace someone in the projected starting lineup—De’Vondre Campbell, Devon Kennard, Jalen Thompson? He was just too talented to keep off the field, right? Wrong. As Walter pointed out, Simmons has played just 25 snaps total in the first two games as DC Vance Joseph has given priority to playing established veterans over breaking in the 1st-round rookie. It’s worked out so far, with newcomers Campbell and Kennard helping lead a much-improved defense. Thompson is banged up, but Simmons doesn’t seem to be part of the plan at safety this season. He’s going to have to earn his time at LB—and I’m not counting on any of the veterans giving way to the rookie anytime soon. The best-case scenario for Simmons seems to be making a few splash plays here and there as a backup before taking advantage of a full offseason to enter next season as a starter.

REALITY: Kyler Murray is a legitimate MVP candidate.

Kyler Murray is off to a scorching hot start, having both thrown and rushed for a TD in each of the first two games. In fact, even if his passing numbers aren’t quite elite so far, he’s on pace for the first 4,000-yard passing/1,000-yard rushing season in NFL history. I’m not sure he’ll actually get there—the passing yards seems like a foregone conclusion, but only two QBs have ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a season—but he doesn’t need to reach that lofty plateau to enter the MVP conversation. In fact, he’s already there. But this doesn’t look like some sort of early-season flash-in-the-pan, not with DeAndre Hopkins already putting up huge numbers and the team around Kyler looking massively improved. If this team gets to double-digit wins, Kyler should be a lock for a top-3 finish on the MVP ballot.

FICTION: Haason Reddick is finished.

Color me as surprised as anyone. I thought Reddick would be an afterthought on defense this year after the team declined his 5th-year option, brought in the likes of Campbell and Kennard in free agency, and drafted Simmons. At one point, it was 50/50 whether he would actually make the regular-season roster. But Reddick survived and has played about half the defensive snaps in the first two games. He made several clutch plays against the Niners and notched a sack of Dwayne Haskins on Sunday. He’s actually been on of the team’s highest-graded defensive players per PFF so far. If he can be a productive role player this season, it’ll be a boon to the defense—and perhaps he can make himself some money in the process if another team likes what they see. Reddick was miscast as a starting LB, but he could still have an NFL career as a solid reserve.

REALITY: Penalties are a major issue for this team.

The Cardinals’ undefeated start is even more impressive when you consider how many penalties the team has had to deal with. Through two games, the Cardinals have the most penalties (20) and second-most penalty yards (199) in the league. They were able to overcome the deluge of yellow laundry against a compromised 49ers team and an inferior Washington squad, but how long can that continue? They have a relatively easy three-game stretch coming up (DET, at CAR, at NYJ), but you don’t want mistakes to cost you a winnable game. And these issues better be buttoned up by the time we the schedule ramps up and we have to face teams like the Cowboys, Seahawks, Bills, and Patriots. The margin for error against elite teams is razor thin, so hopefully Kliff Kingsbury and his staff can get this team to play with more discipline moving forward.

FICTION: This is a top-10 defense.

After two games, the much-maligned Cardinals defense is #8 in yards against (341.0) and an amazing #2 in points against (17.5). The advanced metrics back it up, too, as the Redbirds have the #9 defense by DVOA so far. However, I’m going to be cautiously pessimistic about this defense for a few reasons given how much of a trainwreck it has been for several seasons now. For one, the DVOA picture isn’t quite as rosy—the Cardinals are a more middling #14 in PFF’s DAVE rankings, which take into account preseason expectations (which are, of course, based on past performance). Then, it’s worth pointing out that the Cardinals have faced a 49ers team without its top-two receivers (and George Kittle injured for most of the game) and a Washington team helmed by one of the least-imposing starting QBs in the league. Sterner tests await this unit, starting with Matthew Stafford this week—and, later, MVP candidates Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, and Josh Allen, among other solid QBs. I’d be very happy to be wrong about this, but I don’t think this unit will be in the top 10 when all the dust settles. But we don’t need a top-10 defense be a playoff-caliber team—a #15-#18 unit would suffice, and would be a huge improvement from last year.

REALITY: This team is a playoff contender.

Speaking of playoffs, I don’t think it’s too early to say that this team is already a playoff contender, especially with the added wild card slot. The two wins we have—one within the division, both within the conference—are already banked, and we have a slew of winnable games coming up. I think if we can get just 8 more wins to get to 10 on the season that we’ll wind up with one of the wild card berths. I don’t know how realistic winning the division is—not with the Seahawks and Rams both 2-0 and the Niners still formidable even with the injuries—but this team already has the look of a playoff squad. Plus, many of the other potential NFC wild card teams are off to shaky starts (PHI, MIN, DET, TB, ATL). The stage is set for this team to take the conference by storm and return to the postseason.

Final Thoughts

This has been an incredible start to the season—just what Cardinals fans needed in this trying year. I hope the team continues to prove that it is for real and banks another conference win against the Lions on Sunday. I’ll check in later this week with a preview of that matchup.