With the NFL in the slow part of the calendar and the Suns nursing their wounds from another unceremonious playoff exit, there are probably a ton of Valley sports fans like me who have been watching a lot of Diamondbacks baseball.
Not many thought the D-backs would be where they are here about halfway through June: 1st place in the NL West and with the second-best record in the National League. Before the season, the young Snakes had a whiff of friskiness and some thought they could be a factor in the wild card race—but no one thought they’d be an actual contender. Hence, the main narrative around the team’s surprising start is that they are “ahead of schedule.” They were supposed to be good next year, not this year.
That got me thinking about the Cardinals. To say the team has low expectations heading into the 2023 season would be an understatement—most think we’ll be among the worst teams in the league. But what would it look like if the Cardinals were “ahead of schedule” this season?
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that “ahead of schedule” would be different for the Cardinals than it is for the D-backs. There’s just no way this team is going to compete for the best record in the NFC. If this team were to be “ahead of schedule” in 2023, that would most likely mean flirting with a .500 record and staying out of the NFC West basement. Gotta adjust expectations.
That said, here are five things that would have to happen for the Cardinals to exceed expectations and be “ahead of schedule” in 2023.
Kyler comes back earlier than expected
The most important factor in the Cardinals outperforming expectations is to get their starting QB back. I know not everyone is the biggest Kyler fan, but if it’s Colt McCoy or Clayton Tune or whoever starting most of the season, this team is dead in the water. Simple as that. While that would be better for our draft status next year, this organization will still be trying to win this season. So if Kyler beats expectations himself and comes back early in the season and shakes the rust off quickly, the team has a fighting chance.
Jonathan Gannon gets the little things right
Former coach Kliff Kingsbury had plenty of flaws, but a big one was a tendency to flub critical game/time management decisions. He cost the team at least a handful of wins in his four seasons in the desert. New coach Jonathan Gannon can’t repeat those mistakes. It’ll be tough since he’s never been a head coach, but he has to make the right calls in the red zone, on 4th down, late in games, etc. He just can’t cost this team any games with boneheaded decisions. He also needs to make sure the team is prepared and ready to play every week (something that Kingsbury also seemed to struggle with).
Budda Baker doesn’t go anywhere
Simply put, for this team to be ahead of schedule, we need our best defensive player—and perhaps our best player overall. If the organization decides to trade him, they’ll basically be waiving the white flag on 2023, which would kill any chance for the team to beat expectations. But if Budda puts his contract situation behind him until the offseason and continues to be the fiery leader he’s shown himself to be, it could kickstart a surprising season. He’s already reported to minicamp, which is a great start.
Nick Rallis gets more out of the defense than Vance Joseph
Having Budda as the centerpiece to the secondary would be a huge boon for new DC Nick Rallis. Assuming he’s still around when the season begins, this unit will be fairly similar to the 2022 version. Yes, there are a couple big names missing on the D-line (J.J. Watt and Zach Allen), but much of the rest of the lineup is the same with only a few additions (Kyzir White, some rookies). The question then becomes whether Rallis can get more out of these guys than former DC Vance Joseph did. Joseph’s defenses were borderline top-10 in 2020 and 2021 but bottomed out last year. If Rallis can somehow get this unit to the middle of the pack, we just might be able to stay out of the basement.
The young guys step up
This is probably the second-most important factor in the Cardinals being ahead of schedule in 2023. The D-backs have exciting young players like Corbin Carroll, Gabriel Moreno, and Geraldo Perdomo performing better than expected. The Redbirds need their own young guys to do the same. That means rookies like Paris Johnson Jr., B.J. Ojulari, Michael Wilson, and Garrett Williams making an instant impact. That means guys like Myjai Sanders and Cameron Thomas stepping up in Year 2. That means Zaven Collins thriving as a pass rusher and Marco Wilson making a leap to CB1 status. And that means Isaiah Simmons proving the team wrong for declining his 5th-year option. For the team to be ahead of schedule, we need a lot of these young guys to also be ahead of schedule. (Or back on schedule in Simmons’s case.)
So if Kyler comes back, Gannon proves to be a shrewd hire, Budda keeps being Budda, Rallis gets the defense playing well, and the young guys step up… we *might* win 7 or so games. That’s a LOT of ifs, but this column is built on ifs. So let’s see if the Cardinals can follow in the D-backs’ footsteps and be ahead of schedule in 2023.