NFC West Check-In: Arizona Cardinals

Cards players are so unknown, they put their names on everything.

I'm taking a brief moment to update you on the state of the teams that we must be better than in order to return to the playoffs in 2012. Well, we don't technically have to be better than all of them, but given the state of the NFC West over the last decade, we must assume that a Wild Card isn't coming. Winter is coming, but probably not a wild card because in that case we'd have to be better than a whole lot of teams.

Yesterday I went over the likely cellar-dweller of the division, the Rams but the Cardinals all of a sudden look like a formidable opponent. I actually kind of think that the Cards will be the "hot pick" for many analysts as winners of the NFC West when those predictions come out. As the 49ers regress to normalcy and Alex Smith throws more than five interceptions, San Francisco will be in danger of not repeating their division crown. But will it be the Cards, Seahawks, or even Rams that take that crown?

Probably not the Rams but the Cards might just be legit. After winning seven of their last nine games, Arizona is rollin' and feelin' good. Have they done enough to win double-digit games for only the second tiem since 1976? Let's see...

2011 Record: 8-8

Standard League Offensive Rankings: 24th scoring offense, 19th total offense, 17th passing offense, 13th passing touchdowns, 27th in interceptions, 24th in rushing offense, 16th in rushing touchdowns, 17th in yards per carry, 28th in turnovers, 28th in turnover differential.

Standard League Defensive Rankings: 17th in scoring defense, 18th in total defense, 17th in passing defense, 5th in passing touchdowns allowed, 26th in interceptions, 21st in rushing defense, 23rd in rushing touchdowns allowed, 16th in yards per carry, 26th in turnovers forced.

Football Outsiders: 31st in Offensive DVOA, 27th in Weighted Offense, 30th in passing, 16th in rushing, 25th in Defensive DVOA, 14th in Weighted Defense, 14th against the pass, 23rd against the run.

2011 Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt (39-39) enters his sixth season as head coach of the Cardinals. GM Rod Graves also enters his sixth season with Arizona. Mike Miller enters his second season as offensive coordinator and Tacoma-native Ray Horton enters his second season as defensive coordinator.

Key Free Agent Additions: CB William Gay, G Adam Snyder, S James Sanders

Losses: DB Sean Considine, DB Richard Marshall, G Deuce Lutui

Key Draft Picks: WR Michael Floyd, CB Jamell Fleming, T Bobby Massie, G Senio Kelemete, QB Ryan Lindley

Outlook:

The Cardinals were 8-8 last season but their overall numbers are poor. Arizona, basically, does nothing great. They don't do a lot of terrible, but they're average-to-below-average all over the field. They lack elite players and they'll have competition at the most important position but do they go with their gut or their wallets? John Skelton's numbers weren't as good as Kevin Kolbs (and they were both pretty awful) but Skelton recorded five game-winning drives per Pro-Football-Reference. The team was 3-6 when Kolb started, but he just received a $7 million roster bonus rather than letting him go.

Last season the Cards had a very large swing of how good or how bad they could be and in the end they wound up at .500 but many of their games were incredibly close. Their first three losses (Washington, Seattle, New York Giants) were by a combined eight points before they lost 34-10 to the then-winless Vikings. They beat the Rams on an OT 99-yard punt return by Patrick Peterson and the Cowboys on an OT 52-yard pass to LaRod Stephens-Howling. All told, they went 4-0 in overtime last season and that could always just as easily be 0-4.

Their signature win of the season and their only win over a playoff team, was a 21-19 victory over the 49ers after Skelton again led a 4th quarter comeback with unanswered touchdown passes.

So, while they finished hot and with an 8-8 record, the Cardinals were very close to winning 3 or 4 games, again, as the Cardinals tend to do. But are they going to take the next step, build on momentum, and improve from within? Well, they'll have to because they had no 2nd round pick and were almost silent in free agency.

They made some low-key moves by adding a guard and some defensive back help but mostly the team in 2012 is the same as it was in 2011. The key will be who starts at QB and how well he performs, because you either go with the expensive guy or the unknown that led you to all of those wins. Picking a QB and sticking with him might just be the entire key to the Cards playoff chances.

Beanie Wells finally had a breakout season at running back (I say "finally" but it was only his third year) totalling 1,047 yards in 15 games but he was wildly inconsistent. He gained 228 yards in one game against the Rams and only had two 100+ yard games total in the year. In fact, after week four, he only had one game in which he gained 90 or more yards. For that reason, the Cards will hope for a healthy return of 2011 2nd round pick Ryan Williams, who missed all of his rookie season with a ruptured patella tendon.

As for the receivers group, Larry Fitzgerald is still one of the top five at his position in the game if not one of the most physically-gifted players to ever line up on the outside. He's coming off of his fourth 1,400+ yard season and has performed no matter who is throwing the ball. He'll have major help though for the first time since Anquan Boldin left with the first-round addition of Floyd, a big and agile receiver from Notre Dame that I thought was the best receiver in the 2012 draft. It takes some time usually for receivers to adjust, but A.J. Green and Julio Jones showed that it's not always the case. Floyd's presence will pay major dividends for Fitzgerald.

On the line, the team cut and then re-signed Levi Brown and added Adam Snyder from the 49ers. Their line is good but probably not going to go down as one of the best in the league.

Offensively, the Cards were not very good last season. Even during their winning second half the most points they scored was 23. They don't get shutout, necessarily, but they won't blow you away. If Floyd steps in to perform soon and Ryan Williams is healthy, they could become a more potent offense but again that will heavily rely on who is taking snaps and if that guy becomes better than he was in 2011.

On the defensive side of the ball, I had heard somewhere on Twitter or something that one of their players declared that they were about to be "elite" or something. Their first goal should probably be to become good first.

The Cards offense didn't score 30 all season but their defense gave up 31 to the Giants, 34 to the Vikings, 32 to the Steelers and 30 to the Ravens. (Okay defense doesn't give up all points but you get it.) They were "okay" against the pass but not good against the run.

Their biggest move of the off-season was re-signing Calais Campbell to a five-year deal. Campbell had 52 solo tackles, 19 assists, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and ten pass deflections last season. He's a force on the outside and the key to the front seven. Also around the line, Darnell Docket is about to turn 31, Nick Eason is about to turn 32 (joint birthday party?), and former first-round pick Dan Williams is returning from injury. On his Wikipedia page it says, "No notable achievements."

Daryl Washington, Paris Lenon, and Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield are the linebackers. Funny, maybe it's my perspective or maybe it's just the major differences in the two defenses, but it seems like the Cards and Hawks had similar needs and we addressed them and they didn't. The Cards are looking for pass rush to come more from the LB than we are but where are the dynamic players outside of Campbell? Acho was interesting as a rookie last season and maybe one to watch.

In the back, Patrick Peterson is the other dynamic player on Arizona's defense. As a rookie, they eased him into the defense (and he improved as the year went along and could be a Pro Bowl CB in his own right) but he was the best punt returner in the league last year as well. Gay and the return of Greg Toler could make this a very good stable of cornerbacks and the ever-steady Adrian Wilson at safety could make it an excellent secondary overall.

It seems that secondaries reign supreme in the NFC West and maybe that's why all of the quarterbacks suck.

On special teams, haha remember when you were a Giant Jay Feely?

2012 Schedule:

Seattle Seahawks

@ New England Patriots

Philadelphia Eagles

Miami Dolphins

@ St. Louis Rams

Buffalo Bills

@ Minnesota Vikings

San Francisco 49ers

@ Green Bay Packers

Bye

@ Atlanta Falcons

St. Louis Rams

@ New York Jets

@ Seattle Seahawks

Detroit Lions

Chicago Bears

@ San Francisco 49ers

Again, I don't like to make predictions on records but remember yesterday I mentioned that you'd rather play the good teams on the road and the average teams on the home if you're an average team looking for wins? Yep. The Cards get the Eagles, Dolphins, Bills, Lions, and Bears at home. Those teams aren't all bad but they're all beatable.

I don't think that the Cards are nearly as good as their 7-2 finish and maybe weren't as good as their 8-8 record in 2011 but if certain players stay healthy, if Kolb wins the job and improves like Matt Cassel did during his second season with the Chiefs, if Ryan Williams stays healthy, Patrick Peterson gets better, and Floyd performs early in his career, they could be right around the same mark again.

I'll say five wins on the low end and nine wins on the high end. In the absolute best-case scenario, I see ten wins but that's in the best case scenario. They didn't get worse but what did they really do to improve besides save some money on Levi Brown and draft Floyd?

Follow me on Twitter, k?

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