At this point last season, the Arizona Cardinals sported an identical 4-4 record. However, the situation in Glendale is much different in 2013 than 2012. Last season, after exploding to an improbable 4-0 start, the Cardinals entered Week Nine on a four game losing streak. That wouldn’t be the end of their struggles, as they would go 1-7 on the home stretch, causing complete franchise overhaul to take place in the offseason.
That overhaul brought in several new faces, all met with mixed reception; and at a .500 record in 2013, it could be argued that the jury is still out on most of them. New general manager Steve Keim started off strong, winning draft day, as Tyrann Mathieu and Andre Ellington have emerged as difference makers for the 2013 Cardinals. The rest of the faces, however, have had mixed results.
Specifically, it is really tough to grade Bruce Arians’ performance thus far. Sure, this Cardinals team has not been an easy out in 2013. But for a man who was lauded as an offense-first coach, it is really disappointing to see the Arizona Cardinals still in the bottom third of the league in almost all offensive categories.
Their 20 points per game is good for 24th in the NFL right now, and their 314.5 yards per game is good for 26th in the league. Those marks are increases from 2013’s ranks of 31st and 32nd, respectively, but the offense has still stalled quite often. A lot of that is Carson Palmer, Rashard Mendenhall and a shaky line, three experiments in the “mixed bag” category, but I think it’s also worth noting that there are other “good” experiments to be had in 2013.
One of those is defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. A lot of outcry came in the wake of his hiring at the expense of Ray Horton, who had fashioned Arizona into an above average defensive unit during his tenure in the Valley. Bowles took those pieces and turned it into an elite defensive unit in 2013.
Fifth against the run in the NFL and tied for third in the NFL in turnovers caused, Bowles has done an impressive job harnessing the talent on this Cardinals’ roster and turning it into something great. Another experiment gone right for Arizona.
Now, I could knock down Carson Palmer, Mendenhall and the offensive line for some pretty poor performance, but it really doesn’t feel right. The Arizona Cardinals as a team have exceeded expectations in 2013, and harsher criticism doesn’t feel fair in light of steady improvement all around from the unit these past couple weeks. Instead, I want to recognize an MVP on each side of the ball and maintain some positivism.
Offensive MVP – Andre Ellington
This one may be a little knee jerk, but Ellington has been a ticking time bomb to stardom ever since he stepped on the football field. That time bomb exploded against the Atlanta Falcons, and he gets my game ball over Palmer and Fitzgerald because of it.
After running for 154 yards on 15 carries (one of which was a glorious cutback for an 80 yard touchdown), Ellington leads the team with 333 rushing yards on 43 carries for a whopping 7.7 yards per carry. He trails only Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy for the NFL rookie lead, but Arizona Cardinals fans know who they’d rather have. Ellington has been electric this season, and promises to be a huge impact the more touches he gets.
Defensive MVP – Karlos Dansby
Unlike the offensive MVP, this is not an easy decision. So many players have distinguished themselves as stars, and all have legitimate cases. Sixth year defensive end Calais Campbell leads the team with four and half sacks, and is on pace for nine sacks on the season, which would be a career high for him. He also leads the team with six tackles for loss. Darnell Dockett has been just as solid opposite him, with four sacks of his own.
Even Daryl Washington has a case despite missing the first four games of the season. Since his reinstatement, he has been a human wrecking ball, displaying why he was a Pro Bowl selection in 2012. But it is fellow linebacker Karlos Dansby that has distinguished himself the most in 2013 for the Red Birds. The ten year pro leads the team in tackles with 71 and pass deflections with 10, and has been everything the Cardinals expected and more after he rejoined the team that drafted him.
If he keeps up this pace, he will notch a career-high 142 total tackles. His 10 pass deflections already are more than he’s ever had in his career, but that doesn’t mean he should or will slow down. The old man isn’t playing so old, and he gets my defensive game ball.
Looking forward to the rest of 2013, the Red Birds find themselves in an extremely auspicious position.
In the first half, their losses have come from teams with a combined record of 22-9. That’s hardly “panic-mode” material. Sure, if the Cardinals want to be Super Bowl bound, they will ultimately need to win some of those games, but all of their losses make sense and should not cause a great deal of unrest in the organization, and by extension the fanbase.
Looking at the wins, on the other hand is an inexact science. The wins against Atlanta and Tampa mean less and less as the season progresses it seems, but with Carolina and Detroit picking it up, those wins by contrast mean a lot more, and could become Cardinals tiebreakers come wild card selection time.
Going into the last two weeks of the season (which are rematches against the Seahawks and 49ers), the Cards have a legitimate shot to be 9-5 at that point. Let’s look at their schedule:
St Louis (3-5)
San Francisco (6-2)
Outside of Indianapolis and the aforementioned NFC West rivals, every team the Cardinals play has a losing record for the first half. It’s never as easy as just assuming the Cards are going to win all those games, but if they do just that, the Cards can end the season 10-6 if they beat one of the winning teams on their schedule. Two of those in Indy and San Francisco will be home games as well, so some forces are in the Cardinals’ favor for the home stretch.
Considering how competitive the Cards have been outside of the New Orleans loss, it’s not a horrible prognosis; as a matter of fact, the Cards should feel like they are in pretty good position. Sure, 10-6 doesn’t automatically get you a playoff spot in the NFL (see ’12 Bears, ’10 Buccaneers, Giants), but for a first season under Bruce Arians, that’s an excellent spot to be in moving forward to 2014 and beyond.
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