Thursday, January 2, 2014
Arizona Cardinals season wrap-up
By Josh Weinfuss
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 9
Preseason Power Ranking: 26
Biggest surprise: No one expected Arizona to struggle like it did throughout the first half of the season because an offensive mastermind, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, was in charge. Likewise, nobody expected the Cardinals to go on a tear through the final nine, going 7-2 to finish 10-6. A 10-win season for the Cardinals isn't to be ignored. They're tough to come by, but Arians was able to accomplish it in his first season, which nobody expected. He proved himself as a head coach at 61 and showed how great his offense is when a team can learn and execute it.
• NFC season wrap-ups: N | S | E | W
• AFC season wrap-ups: N | S | E | W
Biggest disappointment: Arians was dead set on riding running back Rashard Mendenhall this season with rookie Andre Ellington as his backup. And while Mendenhall was serviceable, it wasn't a successful move. Mendenhall finished with 687 yards on 217 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per carry -- just 35 more than Ellington on 99 more carries. Partially to blame for Mendenhall underachieving was a turf-toe injury that limited him for most of the season, but when he was healthy, he showed his true speed in only two games. Other than that, he struggled to break through the line as often as the Cardinals needed him to. He's not the future for Arizona at running back. That belongs to Ellington.
Biggest need: Everyone thinks the most obvious need is a left tackle, but with how the offensive line played during the last eight games, it may be the least of the Cardinals' worries. Arizona needs a big, fast safety who can defend tight ends. The 29 tight ends who faced the Cardinals this season accounted for 1,247 yards and 17 touchdowns on 98 receptions. The yards accounted for 30.7 percent of the total by opposing receivers and the 98 receptions were 26.7 percent of the catches made by opponents. But the most telling stat, and the difference between wins and losses, are the 17 touchdowns by opposing tight ends, which are 58.6 percent of the 29 total allowed by the Cardinals' secondary.
Team MVP: There were a handful of Cardinals who had good seasons on both sides of the ball, but there was one who really kept the pulse of the team alive. Veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby was shunned by Miami and took a huge pay cut to come to Arizona, and he proved to everyone in the league that, at age 32, he still had it. He was second in the NFL with 114 solo tackles, 6.5 sacks -- his most since his eight in 2006 -- and a career-high four interceptions. But his ability to impact a top-six defense near the line of scrimmage, sideline-to-sideline and then dropping back in coverage made him the most important player on the team.
GRADING THE ARIZONA CARDINALS
Carson Palmer played the way Arizona hoped he would for most of the second half, with the exception of two road games. The NFL is about winning, and he came through when the Cards needed him most, making big plays while getting crushed in the pocket.
While Mendenhall brought the grade down because of his underwhelming, injury-prone season, Ellington kept it afloat. The two combined for a thunder-and-lightning combination, but Ellington's speed and breakaway ability overshadowed Mendenhall all season, and it showed in the stats.
It took the receivers half the year to figure out where to line up, but when they did, Larry Fitzgerald had his most touchdowns in four years and Michael Floyd finished with 1,041 yards. Andre Roberts was consistently the odd man out.
By far the weakest part of the offense after getting hit with injuries throughout the season. Rob Housler never lived up to expectations and Jim Dray didn't develop as an offensive threat, although he was serviceable as a blocking tight end. The addition of Jake Ballard added some depth, but he wasn't utilized.
There were major strides made in the second half of the season. The Cards allowed just 18 sacks in the final eight games compared to 23 in the first half. Once the line found its rhythm, the whole offense began to flow.
What else can you say for the top-ranked defense against the run? The turnaround from 28th last season to first started up front behind Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams. They adopted Todd Bowles' single-gap scheme with open arms and made life miserable for quarterbacks on a weekly basis.
Injuries to two starters couldn't slow down the Cardinals' linebacking corps. And when two of the four 'backers make the Pro Bowl, it's a good season. Inside, Dansby had a career season and Daryl Washington made the Pro Bowl as an alternate playing in just 12 games. Outside, John Abraham moved into the top 10 on the all-time sack list.
Overall, the secondary was efficient despite weaknesses at the cornerback across from Patrick Peterson. Missed tackles marred too many drives in 2013, but the safeties found a rhythm when rookie Tyrann Mathieu started before getting hurt. Peterson played well enough to make his third Pro Bowl.
Punter Dave Zastudil and Pro Bowl gunner Justin Bethel gave the Cards' defense prime real estate to work with on every punt. Kick returner Javier Arenas pressed too often, chomping at the bit to return a kick no matter the circumstances, and kicker Jay Feely struggled in the season finale.
Arians stayed patient and it paid off with Arizona winning eight of its last nine in large part because his sophisticated offense finally caught on. He stayed true to his beliefs, adjusted the scheme when necessary and showed why he should be a two-time NFL Coach of the Year.