Shuffling the Cards

In a now time honoured tradition, the Gents are setting out to look back on the last, and forward to the next, season for every team. Over the coming weeks, we’ll cover every team in the League, from Atlanta to Washington. We’ve tried before, and we’ve failed before (twice). This year, however, will be different. Oh yes. Mark my words! (if it all goes wrong, complain to Dan, ok?)

So let’s get this ball rolling with our first of the 32, and my look at the Arizona Cardinals.

Shuffling the Cards

After a 2014 season that had started strongly and then slowly ground almost to a halt as they limped in to (and straight out of) the Wild Card weekend, there were several changes for the Cardinals coming in to the 2015 season, both on and off the field.

Mike Iupati had joined from division rivals San Francisco to bolster the offensive line, primarily for run blocking duties, but also in an effort to keep the 35-year-old Carson Palmer upright on his return from the extensive knee surgery that had ended his previous campaign prematurely.

3rd round Rookie running back David Johnson had impressed early in camp and hopes were high for both he and Andre Ellington to create a 1-2 punch in the Arizona backfield to further help Palmer and the passing game with the three starting receivers of Fitzgerald, Floyd and Brown possibly as good as any trio in the League.

Off the field, Todd Bowles had moved on from his defensive co-ordinator role, finally getting his shot at a head-coaching gig with the New York Jets. It was undoubtedly a loss for the Cardinals, but the front office and coach Bruce Arians were confident in linebackers coach James Bettcher being able to step up and prove his worth calling the plays.

The change paved the way for a ground-breaking move for the Cardinals as they added Jennifer Welter to their coaching staff – the first female coach in any capacity in the history of the NFL.

Bettcher himself would have his work cut out to maintain the defense’s effectiveness however after the departures of linemen Dan Williams (Raiders) and Darnell Dockett (49ers), as well as veteran cornerback Antonio Cromartie (Jets); all significant pieces from a defense that had ranked 5th overall for points allowed in 2014

Despite the changes, in an NFC West that was looking somewhat less competitive than in previous years, there was confidence around the camp that a return to the Playoffs again in 2015 was a realistic goal.

So how did things pan out?

It’s fair to say the season didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts, even before Week 1 had rolled around on the calendar.

The Cardinals 1st Round draft pick, Offensive Tackle DJ Humphries, suffered a hyper-extended knee before the pre-season games were underway and would ultimately be red-shirted for his Rookie campaign. He wasn’t the only one to suffer injury woes either.

Andre Ellington picked up a hamstring injury around the same time and, with David Johnson and Marion Grice also carrying hamstring injuries, Bruce Arians looked to the free agency market to add some cover on the depth chart at running back. Arians opted for veteran Chris Johnson, who had become an unrestricted free agent following the Jets choosing not to exercise their option on the 30 year old back.

Several eyebrows were raised around the League as news of the one-year deal broke. Just five months earlier, Johnson had been involved in a drive-by shooting that left the driver of the car he was in dead and Johnson himself with a gunshot wound to his right shoulder. Many considered his best years to be behind him and even more so after that incident, but Arians saw a back with a similar skillset to Andre Ellington and one who had still averaged 4.3ypc in 2014. Indeed, Johnson had never averaged less than 3.9 yards per carry throughout his career.

As it turned out, it was a move that would serve the Cardinals well as Chris Johnson once again returned a season of over 4 yards per carry (4.2) and led the team with 814 yards on the ground despite missing the last 5 weeks of the season. His young namesake David overcame his injuries to feature throughout the season, albeit on a limited basis through Week 12, and repeatedly demonstrated his ability to turn short plays in to big gains, both with his feet and his hands gaining over 1,000 combined yards on the season.

Not everything on the Cardinals offense was about short gains though.

The returning Carson Palmer showed that there was still plenty left in his arm and regularly tore holes in opposing secondaries as he repeatedly led the high powered Cardinals offense down the field and ended the season ranked in the Top 5 for just about any stat that mattered.

Most notably, he led the League (among QB’s who had played more than a handful of snaps) in average yards per completion (8.7) and 1st down percentage (43.0). He also amassed 35 touchdowns on the year and could likely have had more but for an injury sustained in Week 15 against the Eagles when he dislocated the index finger on his throwing hand.

It derailed what had been a career year for Palmer with his name regularly mentioned in the MVP discussions. He struggled with his accuracy from that point on and in the Week 17 blowout against the Seahawks he recorded just a 60.2 QB rating, throwing 1 TD and an interception, and his lowest average per completion of the season. The Cardinals offense still finished the season with a League high 408.3 yards per game but the hitherto high-powered offense had somewhat run out of gas as a result of Palmer’s injury.

A 9-game win streak that began in Week 7 had already largely secured Play Off football however and the loss to Seattle came too late to prevent the Cardinals from wrapping up the NFC West.

Defensively the traditionally strong Cardinals unit continued to thrive under James Bettcher’s guidance in his first year as DC.

Calais Campbell had another outstanding year up front and made a second trip to the ProBowl in as many years. He was joined by an equally impressive Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu from a secondary that had terrorised opposing Quarterbacks all season, the latter having played lights-out football for almost all of the season before being robbed of post-season action by a torn ACL late in December.

It wasn’t all about the big names, either. Bettcher made his mark on the defense, moving Deone Bucannon to inside linebacker from strong safety and used the veteran Dwight Freeney (who had arrived from San Diego in the off-season) as a situational pass rusher. They both added up to another level of confusion from a blitz happy defense for his opponents and allowed them to dominate on a regular basis (with one or two notable exceptions).

At no point throughout the season were the Cardinals’ credentials as a serious contender questioned, and only the injury to Palmer managed to cast any doubt over their ability to beat anyone put in front of them.

Ultimately, despite being somewhat deeper in to the PlayOffs, the Cardinals 2015 season would end in much the same manner as the 2014 season had, with defeat in North Carolina. Despite making the Championship game this time around, the 49-15 mauling at the hands of the Panthers left them with something of a sense of “what might have been”.

So where do they go from here?

There is very little, if anything, to suggest the Arizona Cardinals will be any less of a force in 2016.

The addition of veteran Guard Evan Mathis from Denver will help bolster the offensive line, which may prove to be useful with DJ Humphries set to challenge for the starting right tackle spot. Effectively still a rookie, Humphries played the majority of his football on the left end of the line, so the transition and step up to the NFL will be a test of his abilities and athleticism. Mathis will almost certainly slot in at right guard and his experience inside Humphries will be invaluable.

Perhaps the biggest move of the Cardinals off-season was the trade with New England for Chandler Jones. It gives the defense a genuinely disruptive edge rusher and, with Arians using his first draft pick on Robert Nkemdiche, the defensive front has the potential to dominate right across the line this season.

The secondary will be just as effective, especially after the addition of Tyvon Branch from the Chiefs. Matheiu is expected to be back in action some time during training camp and the addition of Branch would suggest the Cardinals are taking no chances on his fitness. He’s in the last year of his current contract and negotiations are on-going as I write, likely due to the Cardinals wanting to see how he recovers before handing him a new deal somewhere in the vicinity of $10M a year.

Another in the last year of their contract is Calais Campbell. The 30 year old carries a significant cap hit this year so it may be in everyone’s interests to get a new deal done sooner rather than later. With Nkemdiche and his questionable off-field past, I think Arians and the Cardinals would be well served to keep Campbell around for a while longer to help with educating the talented Rookie.

The offense remains largely unchanged outside of the front 5 but, with Palmer now 36 and the indomitable Larry Fitzgerald 32, some might question how much longer that offense can fire at full pace.

Chris Johnson, David Johnson and Andre Ellington all return to the Arizona backfield, but it’s hard to imagine Chris returning quite as an effective season as in 2015. Andre Ellington’s continuous injury woes will be an ever-present concern and both mean the running game could be the only potential weakness.

Age and injury aside, the off-season trades and Draft moves would suggest the strongest team in the NFC West in 2015 perhaps just got even stronger.