Last year’s Amazon-produced documentary on the Arizona Cardinals was entitled “All or Nothing.” Amazon could do a sequel this year. Suggested title: “Really All or Nothing.”
Coming off a 7–8–1 season, it’s debatable whether there even is a Super Bowl window open for the Cardinals. Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald aren’t getting any younger, and a good argument can be made that Arizona peaked two years ago when it reached the NFC Championship Game.
But the Cardinals don’t believe that’s the case. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have signed 32-year-old safety Antoine Bethea, 35-year-old linebacker Karlos Dansby and 42-year-old kicker Phil Dawson in free agency. They wouldn’t have gone through seven rounds of the draft without picking the heir apparent to Palmer, who will be 38 when the season ends.
The Cardinals are all in, knowing that Fitzgerald and Palmer are more likely than not to retire after the season. The question is, does Arizona have one last run in it?
Two seasons ago, the offense belonged to Palmer and Fitzgerald. This year, it will be in the hands of running back David Johnson. And why not? Johnson is arguably the best all-around back in the NFL; last year he led the league with 2,118 all-purpose yards. Johnson is such a threat in the passing game — he caught 80 passes last year — that he is the team’s second-best receiver behind Fitzgerald.
Coach Bruce Arians has said he wants Johnson to get 30 touches per game. That’s all well and good, but there comes a point where that kind of workload could backfire on Johnson and the Cardinals. If the often-injured Andre Ellington can’t be counted on to give Johnson a break at times, Arians needs to find a running back who will fill that role.
Palmer regressed in 2016, throwing 14 interceptions to go along with 26 touchdowns, but that’s in part because the stubborn Arians kept asking his old quarterback to take five- or seven-step drops behind a leaky offensive line. For Palmer to be effective, Arians has to limit his play calls down the field and call for more short and intermediate passes. The question is, will he? Arians loves to throw the deep ball, and he has the speedy receivers — John Brown, J.J. Nelson — to stretch defenses. But the offensive line is still a concern, particularly on the interior. D.J. Humphries showed last year he could handle the left tackle position, and Jared Veldheer, coming back from injury, could be a dominant right tackle. But Mike Iupati isn’t a great pass blocker, and the right guard position is unsettled. Then, too, there’s the question of whether the ageless Fitzgerald can have another 100-catch season. At some point the years will catch up to him.
But if Palmer stays healthy... and injuries don’t decimate the line like they did last year... and Fitzgerald is still Fitzgerald... and Arians tempers his high-risk philosophy, there’s enough talent on offense to envision a lot of 30-point Sundays.
That’s a lot of ifs, of course. But there’s one more: If all else fails, give the ball to Johnson.
For all the talk about finding Palmer’s replacement in the draft, the Cardinals knew their only chance to play meaningful football in January was to improve the defense. Arizona lost five defensive starters in the offseason, including two starting defensive backs and franchise icon Calais Campbell up front. It was no surprise, then, that the Cardinals spent their first two draft picks on defensive players, linebacker Haason Reddick and safety Budda Baker. Both should play immediately, if not start.
Reddick will complement Chandler Jones and Markus Golden to give Arizona one of the best pass rushes in the league. Jones and Golden both had double-digit sacks last year, and the presence of Reddick as a third-down blitzer should be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
But will the Cardinals be able to stop the run? Campbell was a beast up front, often taking on two blockers and freeing up space for Arizona’s linebackers to make plays. Arizona has to hope second-year pro Robert Nkemdiche, who was a bust as a rookie, has grown up and is ready to tap into his potential. If not, the Cardinals could be vulnerable to teams with a strong line and running game.
The other big question is at cornerback, where either Justin Bethel or Brandon Williams will line up opposite Patrick Peterson. Because teams rarely throw at Peterson, the other corner gets a lot of work, and neither Bethel nor Williams has proven to be up to that responsibility yet.
The Cardinals should be able to withstand the loss of safety Tony Jefferson in free agency, because Tyrann Mathieu finally has had an offseason in which he’s not rehabilitating from an injury, and Bethea, while up there in years, can still play effectively. The drafting of Baker also will allow the Cardinals to limit Bethea’s snaps so he doesn’t wear down over the course of the season.
Perhaps the most important addition defensively was the signing of linebacker Dansby, now a Cardinal for the third time. Although the Cardinals have some vocal leaders, no one on the defense seemed to be able to hold others responsible last year. Dansby, who has the respect of everyone in the locker room, will have no trouble making sure his teammates are accountable and putting the work in.
The Cardinals special teams were, in a word, disastrous last season. The kicking game, the return game, coverage teams — there was little that went well, and it became such a problem that one of the biggest stories to emerge was Arians’ refusal to fire special teams coach Amos Jones, a longtime friend.
At least Arizona didn’t sit still in the offseason and just hope things would get better. It said goodbye to placekicker Chandler Catanzaro and signed the 42-year-old Dawson, who made 85.7 percent of his field goals last year. The tradeoff: Dawson doesn’t have as strong a leg as Catanzaro — Dawson was 8-of-11 on tries 40 yards or longer, and he had just four touchbacks last season, the lowest number of any regular kicker.
Don’t be surprised if the Cardinals look for a punter as the summer rolls on. In his three-game tryout last season, Matt Wile averaged a net 37.5 yards per kick and had a punt blocked. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, a dependable punter is a must, and right now there’s not one on the roster.
The kickoff return game should be stronger with the addition of sixth-round draft choice T.J. Logan, who averaged 32.9 yards per return for North Carolina last year and took two to the end zone. Logan didn’t return punts at North Carolina, however, so that job likely will again fall to Peterson. Peterson once was a dynamic threat — he returned four punts for touchdowns in 2011 — but last year he averaged just 6.2 yards per return with a long of 17. The Cardinals would be better served finding a bigger threat with the ball in his hands.
A lot of the Cardinals’ wounds in 2016 were self-inflicted, particularly on special teams. Had a couple of field goals gone in, Arizona might have snuck into the playoffs as a wild card. But that doesn’t mean a few roster changes have solved all of the team’s problems. There was a sense of entitlement and a lack of physicality on last year’s team. That has to change. Palmer has to play better. Fitzgerald has to continue to ward off the calendar. The defense has to be dominant, and not just play well in spurts. Is all of that possible? Sure. It’s not a stretch to envision the Cardinals winning 10 or 11 games and putting themselves in position for a deep playoff run. But you can make just as convincing an argument that the window has slammed shut. The best guess: A nine- or 10-win season — assuming Palmer stays healthy.