Coming off an NFC Championship game in 2015, expectations were sky high heading into the 2016 season for the Arizona Cardinals. But few teams disappointed more.
The Cardinals dropped from 13-3 to 7-8-1, missing the postseason altogether.
Injuries, illness and poor play all played a role in the 2016 collapse. Can Carson Palmer and the gang clean up mistakes to make another run at the Lombardi Trophy? Or did the window close on this team’s chances when the Panthers took them down in 2015?
Alex Mann, a staff writer with Revenge of the Birds, shares his insights.
Zoneblitz: The Cardinals went from 13 wins in 2015 to just seven in 2016. What went wrong?
Mann: There were several factors in the Cardinals poor 2016 season. The most obvious was their special teams unit. The Cardinals averaged 40 yards per punt, with a net yardage of 36 yards, and surrendered two blocks, one of which was a huge blow in their attempt to beat Seattle in Arizona. Chandler Catanzaro missed two game winning field goals, one against New England, and another against Seattle. While his kickoffs were still good, the Cardinals allowed 23 yards per return, including a 104-yard return for a touchdown against the Vikings, which ultimately spoiled the Cardinals comeback attempt.
Offensively and defensively, the Cardinals just could not find ways to win. Whether it was a breakdown in coverage, or a drop by a receiver, the Cardinals shot themselves in the foot too often, which cost them games.
Zoneblitz: Carson Palmer wasn’t horrible in 2016 but he did start showing his age at times. How much time does he have left and what is the plan for replacing him?
Mann: Carson Palmer was contemplating retirement this past offseason. And understandably so. Palmer was hit 127 times, and sacked 41 times. At 37-years-old, those hits take a toll. It’s very possible that Palmer can play past 2017. It will really depend on how many hits he takes this season, and how the Cardinals address the 2018 Free Agency period.
As for replacing him, that’s an entirely different worry. It would be easy if newly acquired Blaine Gabbert somehow lives up to his 10th overall draft selection. But that’s unlikely. The Cardinals will have four compensatory selections in the 2018 Draft, which will give them a lot of leverage to make a move for a Quarterback if there is a guy they love. There is also the upcoming 2018 free agent group. Arians love for Geno Smith is well known, and as he will be a free agent, the Cardinals could make their move there. There are a lot of routes they could go, but free agency or trading up in the 2018 draft seem the most likely.
Zoneblitz: David Johnson was great in 2016, but can he handle the additional load it sounds like Coach Bruce Arians plans to put on him?
Mann: There’s no reason to doubt him. David Johnson had 293 carries to go with 80 receptions. 373 touches all season long. That number would likely be close to 400 if he had not gone down with a scary knee injury in the season finale. He was well on his way to holding onto sole possession of the most consecutive games with 100-plus yards from scrimmage record. Johnson will be all right with his additional workload.
Zoneblitz: Larry Fitzgerald is still great, but aging. Michael Floyd is gone and John Brown missed time with a significant illness last season. Does this team have the offensive skill players needed to rebound?
Mann: When you have David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, you’re already two pieces ahead of the defense. When you add in John Brown, who appears to be fully healthy, JJ Nelson who built up a strong relationship with Palmer late in the season, Jaron Brown coming off his knee injury, and Jermaine Gresham, the Cardinals appear to be stacked with talent at the skill positions.
Zoneblitz: The offensive line was projected as a strength heading into 2016 but ended up 26th in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. What went wrong and what is the fix?
Mann: Losing Evan Mathis early in the season put them back a few steps. Nagging injuries to Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati never allowed the left side to gel the way it should have. And then DJ Humphries was still going to have growing pains, despite sitting out his rookie season. Once that all came to a head, the Cardinals were never able to recover.
This past offseason, the team moved Veldheer to right tackle, and Humphries to his natural left tackle position. They drafted Wil Holden and Dorian Johnson as well. Johnson figures to come in and compete right away with Evan Boehm, the center-turned-right-guard from 2016. On paper, the Cardinals look like they will be set on the offensive line. But as we saw last year, the game isn’t played on paper.
Zoneblitz: The defense slipped from seventh to 14th in points allowed and lost several key cogs in free agency – Calais Campbell, Tony Jefferson, Kevin Minter, D.J. Swearinger, etc. – how will the team fill those holes?
Mann: The holes may not be fully repaired, but the Cardinals did apply a nice bandage over them. Tony Jefferson and Swearinger were replaced by Antoine Bethea for their veteran leadership. Guys like Harlan Miller, Tyvon Branch, Tyrann Mathieu, and Budda Baker will all compete in the secondary as well.
Losing Minter was not a huge loss. He was a thumper against the run, but a liability in coverage. The team added Karlos Dansby for his third stint to be a stopgap, and adding Haason Reddick will help in coverage situations. The team has yet to replace Calais Campbell, both as a player and leader, showing that they trust the depth they’ve built at the position, and both Frostee Rucker and Corey Peters to lead the young guys.
Zoneblitz: Certainly LB Haason Reddick and S Budda Baker will be asked to help – what did you think of the team’s approach to the draft and free agency and do you expect them to sign any other free agents before the season?
Mann: The Cardinals attacked the draft to add versatility. That showed right away with their first two picks. Haason Reddick is a guy who can play inside, outside, and with his hand in the dirt on the line. Budda Baker can play both safety and slot corner, and can play in the box as well. Adding Dorian Johnson and Will Holden give the Cardinals two offensive linemen who have played multiple positions on the line. Rudy Ford, the teams-sixth round selection, will play cornerback for the team, but spent time at safety as well.
When the team attacked Free Agency, they added veterans who have “been there and done that”. They added guys who they believe have enough left in the tank to make one final push for a Super Bowl in 2017. Now that it is after the Draft, it’s time for one of Keims famous “Keim Time” signings. A veteran who comes in and shocks fans with how productive they still are.
Zoneblitz: What’s the prognosis for Tyrann Mathieu in his first full season back from the ACL?
Mann: Tyrann appears to be full go. The knee brace is gone and he’s confident and hungry for 2017. If he can have a similar season to his 2015 campaign, minus the injury, the Cardinals would be ecstatic.
Zoneblitz: Special teams was a thorn in the side last season. Has the team fixed those problems?
Mann: That is still TBD. The Cardinals added two punters, Matt Wile and Riche Leone, who both have strong legs, and will compete for the roster spot. The team also did not bring back Chandler Catanzaro, and replaced him with 18 year veteran Phil Dawson. Now it will be time to see if these guys can produce.
Zoneblitz: Is the window still open? Arizona lost a lot of close games in 2016, but some core people are aging. How far is this team from contending for a deep playoff run?
Mann: If you had asked me within the first couple days of free agency, I would have told you we are looking at a rebuilding phase. But after a little time looking back, I think the Cardinals are in a good position to make a run. They added the veteran talent, drafted most of their replacements. Carson Palmer still has an arm, John Brown is healthy, Larry Fitzgerald is still the ageless wonder, and the offensive line is healthy and has until September to gel together. Defensively, they still lack a legitimate option opposite Patrick Peterson, but with Chandler Jones and Markus Golden teaming up as Edge rushers, that may not be a huge worry for the team. If the Special Teams can avoid game killing mistakes, this roster is ready to compete with the Seattle Seahawks and the rest of the playoff caliber teams.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Mann: Want to thank you for the opportunity. It’s been a pleasure and these were some really thought provoking questions.
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