Friday, February 24, 2012

NFL Offseason Preview -- Arizona Cardinals

One whole year and Cardinals fans already want a replacement...I'd say this turned out about as expected.
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.

We continue the previews with a team that still owes Kevin Kolb approximately $9 billion, the Arizona Cardinals. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:

*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  Estimated cap is $124 million.*

Arizona Cardinals

2011 Record:  8-8
PPG For: 19.5 (24th)
PPG Against:  21.8 (17th)
2012 Cap Number:  $118,787,639
Draft Position:  #13 Overall Pick

There are teams that make no sense, and then there are the Arizona Cardinals. Tell me, how does a 5 win team botch its biggest offseason move and still finish with 8 wins? How is that even possible? Yet, that’s exactly what the Cardinals did in 2011. The high profile acquisition of Kevin Kolb was supposed to be the catalyst for improvement, but it was seemingly everything other than Kolb that led to the uptick in wins. In fact, it’s possible that Kolb isn’t even the best QB on the roster! That dynamic will certainly be a major subplot of the Cardinals 2012 season, as the team tries to build off its magnificent 7-2 finish.

The Good: 

It really doesn’t seem to matter who’s throwing to him; Larry Fitzgerald is just going to keep churning out 1000 yard seasons. Despite some VERY uneven QB play (again), Fitzgerald posted the second highest yardage total of his career (1411 yards), and the highest YPC of his career (17.6…by far his best). At this point, I’m convinced they could put me behind center and Fitzy would STILL top 1000 yards. And since we’re on the topic of people topping 1000 yards, it has to be mentioned that Beanie Wells topped 1000 yards (with 10 TD’s) for the first time in his career. Fitzy and Wells, along with Early Doucet (if they can keep him) and Andre Roberts, form the core of a potentially explosive offense. Whoever the QB is next year will have a lot to work with, and it’s possible that Arizona could have the makings of another surprise run on the back of the offense.

Also, Patrick Peterson. I love, love, love him, both as a defender and a return man. He’s still an unfinished product as a cornerback, though I think he’s going to be an All-Pro sooner rather than later, but he already rivals Devin Hester as the best punt returner in the game. Forget about the numbers for one second, because I’m not even sure that they do justice to just how impactful he is in that facet of the game. While watching my Cowboys choke away a game to the Cardinals, I remember very distinctly the abject fear I felt every time we lined up to punt. To be fair, some of that is because nobody on the team knows how to snap the ball, but most of it was because I was convinced that Peterson would score on every single return. All of them! I was actually afraid of this! Petrified! That, my friends, is a good punt returner. And, oh yeah, he was just a rookie.

The Bad:

It’s a bit of a statistical oddity to finish 8-8 with a negative scoring differential. It’s not a huge oddity – their Pythagorean W-L record is 7-9 – but it does suggest they were the beneficiary of some good fortune. For example, the win against the Cowboys, where Jason Garrett decided that getting yards was unnecessary…and then iced his own kicker. But hey, I’m not bitter! Anyways, the point differential wasn’t terribly off, but it’s worth pointing out.

The bigger concern for Arizona is obviously the Kevin Kolb thing. The team invested heavily in both acquiring him and then subsequently locking him up. Given the size of the investment, the return was simply unacceptable. What was most surprising wasn’t that Kolb struggled (even I saw this one coming!), but HOW he struggled. Touted as an accurate passer, Kolb completed just 57.7% of his passes. Known as a strong pocket QB, Kolb had the second highest sack rate in the NFL. For Arizona to take that next step towards contention, they simply have to get better play from the guy they’re paying to be the franchise player. More on this later.

Key Free Agents:  DE Calais Campbell, WR Early Doucet, K Jay Feely, LB Clark Haggans, CB Richard Marshall, P Dave Zastudil

3 Key Questions:

#1 – Kevin Kolb or John Skelton…or Peyton Manning?

First and foremost, let’s get this John Skelton thing out of the way. Yes, he was 5-2 last season. No, he’s not good. If you haven’t already figured it out, I hate the QB Wins stat. It’s useless, and it tells us absolutely nothing worthwhile. Skelton is a turnover machine, is extremely inaccurate, and is pretty much bad. So no, he’s not the answer.

As for Kolb, the answer could be a bit more complicated. I’ve already said that I don’t believe he’s good, but I’m actually a bit more hesitant on this stance than I was prior to last year. I know that sounds weird since he seemingly proved me right, but just hear me out. The sack rate being as high as it was is indicative of a pocket awareness problem, but it can’t all be pinned on Kolb. The line did a pretty poor job, especially early in the year. As a comparison, Kolb had a sack rate of 7.4% in 2010, and that was behind a similarly bad Eagles line. I think it’s safe to say that the sack rate should come down, and that honestly is a much bigger deal than people might think. The other key problem area was accuracy, and I have no doubt that Kolb will perform better in this area. He was at 61% in Philadelphia, and I expect him to be much closer to that number in 2012. Now, if he were just returning to normal standards, I wouldn’t be hesitant in calling him bad. However, it must be noted that Kolb had a marked improvement in his Y/A, jumping from just 6.3 Y/A in 2010 all the way to 7.7 Y/A last season. Since he finished 35th in percentage of passes thrown more than 15 yards downfield, I’m dubious of the figure, but it definitely must be noted. I guess what I’m saying is that maybe, just maybe, Kevin Kolb can be a perfectly average NFL QB.

Finally, there’s the issue of Peyton Manning. Rumors linking the two parties are flying about, though NFL insiders such as Adam Schefter are saying it is very unlikely that Manning ends up in Arizona. For what it’s worth, I think Manning would be a great gamble for the Cards, and it seems like it would be a perfect fit for Manning. The offensive pieces are certainly in place, and the team is essentially one QB short of competing in the NFC. Could be Kurt Warner 2.0.

#2 – Can they protect the QB?

This is a serious problem for Arizona, and I wonder if it could be a roadblock if they do pursue Manning. Arizona allowed just one less sack than St. Louis, and finished 27th in adjusted sack rate. No wonder Kolb got hurt! And it’s not like you can pinpoint two or three guys that dropped the ball…all five of them were awful! Above all else, this has to be addressed.

#3 – Was Beanie Wells actually good, and can they depend on him?

Over 1000 yards and 10 TD’s, right? That’s pretty good, right? In total, the numbers sound fine, but a look at his game logs suggest that he might not have been as impactful as you think. For starters, 228 of his 1047 yards came in one game…against St. Louis! Besides that game, Wells had just one other 100+ yard game. And after posting 5.0 Y/A, 6.6 Y/A, and 5.1 Y/A in the first three games, Wells wouldn’t see 4.0 Y/A on 10 or more carries but one more time. That doesn’t sound like a big time player to me.
Draft Thoughts: 

I’m going to go against my better judgment here and say that Arizona needs to ignore the BPA philosophy and get someone, ANYONE, to help out on that joke of an offensive line. If either Jonathan Martin or Riley Reiff falls to this spot, then they won’t need to worry about reaching for a player, as both would be excellent values at #13. However, if they’re gone, as I expect them to be, then they’ll be in a bit of a tough spot. Are they willing to go against the grain and draft a guard, David Decastro, far higher than where a guard would typically go? Will they be willing to reach on a tackle like Mike Adams? A trade down would obviously be the ideal situation, but it’s always tough to predict those things. I personally would go with Decastro in this spot if Reiff and Martin are both gone.

Summary Thoughts:

As with many of the teams drafting in front of them, and even some drafting behind them, the Cardinals success in 2012 will be determined by what type of QB play they get. If Kolb and Skelton are both doing Kolb and Skelton things, then I don’t even think they can match their 8 wins from last year. If either player, most likely Kolb, steps up his game, or if they get a reasonably healthy Peyton Manning, then this team could absolutely sneak up on a lot of people.


  1. The Kolb Y/A thing is exactly what has me curious about next year, too. I watched several of his games, and I still can't tell you how that happened! Most likely we need to just attribute it to Fitzy running after the catch, which is what I think you were hinting at... but still, you have to wonder.

    Welcome to the NFC West, the first division ever with a 1,000-yard rusher on each of its teams! Wells was by far the most suspect of them, and you're right to doubt his long-term viability as a top rusher. However, this may not be that important if they could just get a real QB.

  2. I was definitely hinting at a fluky Y/A for Kolb. There's just no reason to expect a 7.7 Y/A when you're only throwing the ball downfield 16% of the time. But it would be far too biased of me to ignore the Y/A.