The Arizona Cardinals: Let's just chuck it

One of the more exciting and underappreciated teams in the NFL needs to take the next step - a Super Bowl win - to get its due respect.

Shai Landesman ,

Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals
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The personality of the Arizona Cardinals is best exemplified by their Head Coach, Bruce Arians. He is brash, direct, and adventurous. It's gotten him in trouble in the past. He was pushed out of his job as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers due to a refusal to bend to the wishes of the higher-ups that he change the way he runs the offense

Arians' personality is reflected in the Cardinals' style of play. It's also reflected in the perception that surrounds them. The Cardinals never get the credit they deserve, just like Arians. Sure, experts and stat geeks point out how great they and Arians have been in the past few years, but the casual fan doesn't think of them as a really great team and a Super Bowl contender. All that may just change this season, if Arizona can take the next step and win it all.

What happened last year: Great, but not quite great enough:

2015 Arizona Cardinals

Record: 13-3

Total: 3rd

Offense: 4th

Defense: 3rd

All rankings by DVOA (see Note about stats)

The Cardinals were the best team in the league for the majority of the regular season in 2015, though they never quite got the credit they deserved for it. Led by a resurgent Carson Palmer at QB, a surprisingly competent running game, and a solid defense featuring superstars on the line and in the secondary, they easily won their division and a first-round playoff bye.

It was in the playoffs that Palmer's old bugaboos seemed to return. In the Divisional round game against the Packers he looked very shaky, throwing an extremely untimely pick, but the Cardinals eventually triumphed in overtime. The NFC championship game against the Panthers was a bit of a disaster for Arizona, as they were crushed 49-15.

Quarterback situation: Stable and pretty darn good. For now.

Palmer is a veteran who's gone through several career incarnations. His first was as a #1 draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, where he was a budding superstar until he got his knee blown out in his first playoff game. He then was fairly mediocre over several subsequent years with the Bengals and Raiders, before coming to the Cardinals, where head coach Arians has managed to coax elite play out of him again, at the age of 35.

Palmer seems to have taken to Arians' go-for-broke, just-chuck-the-ball-down-the-field style, but injuries and age mean there is significant concern whether Palmer will be able to maintain his recent high level of play for long. Let's hope so, it's super fun to watch.

Note on team culture and feel

I still find it difficult to think of Palmer as an elite QB. Even though I saw it many times last year with my own two eyes, it's weird to try to think of him as one of the best Quarterbacks in the league. It's because of the larger historical arc of his career. He'd been so mediocre and disappointing for so long, that it's difficult to change your view of him.

I think the Cardinals as an organization suffer from a similar problem. Football fans got used to thinking of them as paragons of mediocrity over the past 20 years - with the brief interlude of the Kurt Warner era circa 2007-2009 - that the negative perception of Arizona persists. The uniform puts one in mind of terribly overthrown passes by John Skelton or Max Hall. A championship would change all that, and another season of excellence would certainly help.

Style of play: Open and daring on both offense and defense

No offense threw the ball down the field more than the Cardinals' last year (27% of passes went beyond 16 yards, and Palmer's average pass traveled 11.1 yards, highest in the NFL), and this makes for a highly entertaining brand of football. Arizona's two speedy young receivers, John Brown and J.J. Nelson, are expected to have even bigger roles this year. Second-year running back David Johnson has the makings of an absolute beast, and should see the ball much more.

On defense, the Cardinals have had to blitz (have more than 4 players rushing the opposing QB) a ton, but this was partly due to the lack of good individual pass rushers. This might change this year with the arrival of former Patriot sack-master Chandler Jones via trade. It remains to be seen whether the Cardinals will play it more conservative on defense with the expectation that they'll need less blitzing to generate pressure.

Players to watch who will teach you to love football more:

DE Calais Campbell

Rule #1 for more intelligent football viewing: For God's sake, take your eyes off the ball. When the Quarterback drops back to pass or is handing off to the running back, the real action is happening on the line, where talents such as #93 Campbell show their stuff. He's just a monster. It is so much more exciting to watch a running play that goes for no gain when you watch a guy like Campbell just blow up the blocking scheme and close in on the RB than if you just stare at the runner going nowhere and have no idea why it happened.

S Deone Bucannon

Bucannon represents a burgeoning new development in football. He is the prototypical "dollar" linebacker, meaning a safety who functions as a hybrid linebacker. As the age of freakishly athletic receiving tight ends wears on, defenses have a need for players who are big and physical enough to play the run like a linebacker, but athletic enough to cover speedy tight ends, like a safety. This kind of versatility is prized by great defensive minds like Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Bucannon, #20 for the Cardinals, has become the stock example of what teams are looking for.

Conclusion and prediction

Over the past few years, the Cardinals have been the best team that people don't realize is really good. Since arriving in 2013, coach Arians has brought a new culture of success and stability to a formerly erratic franchise. But in order for the team to win it's first-ever Super Bowl, a lot of things need to go right; some would say too many. Palmer and star safety Tyrann Mathieu simply must remain healthy. Chandler Jones and rookie Robert Nkemdiche have to help produce a pass rush without having to rush 6 players on every 3rd down. Most importantly, Palmer must perform in the playoffs as he never has before.

The Cardinals will bring a great deal of excitement and flair to the coming season; together with the compelling story of a franchise trying to get over the hump to make up for past futility, and a head coach trying to show that his stubborn methods can win the big one. Watch for them to continue chucking the ball down the field in hopes of making something happen, and often succeeding. Also look for the entire state of Arizona's heart to stop every time Palmer gets hit. Winning their division will be difficult, as they will have to overcome the juggernaut Seattle Seahawks, who will be looking to bounce back from last year's (relatively) disappointing performance.

Predicted 2016 record: 11-5

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