Can you believe it? The Arizona Cardinals just finished up their 24th season of football in the Valley of the Sun.
It wasn't the best year in Cardinals' history and it certainly wasn't the worst, either. After a dismal 1-6 start, the Cardinals rallied to go 7-2 over their last nine games, the 2nd-best record in the league during that span (only the Patriots, Packers and Saints had better records).
But in the end, the Cardinals' quest for the postseason fell short when they lost on the road at Cincinnati in Week 16 -- a game that mirrored the entire season. The Cardinals dug a 23-point hole, but came back, giving themselves numerous chances to win before falling 23-16.
The season was full of highs and lows for Ken Whisenhunt's team, and one that ultimately planted the seed for a promising 2012 campaign.
So, in lieu of an end-of-year banquet to hand out awards, I'll just do it myself...
Best win of the season: While beating the Dallas Cowboys is always a feel-good event (and that did happen this season), the Cardinals' 21-19 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 14 was the signature 'W' of 2011. The 49ers had owned the Cardinals, winning five straight by a combined score of 132-45. San Francisco had also shut down the Cards in a 23-7 win in the Bay Area earlier in the season, in what was likely Arizona's worst offensive performance of the year.
But in Week 14, the Cardinals came back from a 19-7 second half deficit on two second half touchdown passes from John Skelton. And the defense did their job as well, holding the Niners to 78 yards of offense in the 2nd half.
Worst loss of the season: Yes, getting your heart ripped out of your chest at the end of a football game is tough to take, and the Cardinals' loss at Baltimore in which they blew a 24-6 lead to lose on a field goal at the gun certainly qualifies. As do blown leads and close losses at Washington and against the New York Giants.
But the Cardinals' worst loss of the season, and one that they undoubtedly "want back" is a 34-10 pasting handed to them by the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5. The Vikes came into the game at 0-4, quarterback Donovan McNabb wasn't adjusting well to his new surroundings (an understatement) and receiver Bernard Berrian had been benched with little explanation. But none of it slowed down Minnesota, who exploded for 28 first quarter points on the way to their first win of the season. The fact that they'd only win two more the rest of the way made this Cardinals' loss sting even more.
Best Rookie: No doubt, it was Patrick Peterson. The 5th-overall pick out of LSU stumbled early as a cornerback, but made an immediate impact as a punt returner, taking back an 89-yarder for a score in Arizona's opening day 28-21 win over the Carolina Panthers. Peterson ended up tying a record with four punt return touchdowns, and had two other pivotal punt returns in wins over Seattle and Cleveland. He's on his way to the Pro Bowl as the kick returner.
Honorable mention: OLB Sam Acho - the 4th round pick out of Texas made a mark with 7 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He should be the full-time starter when 2012 rolls around.
Best Newcomer (non-rookie): This was a tough one...left guard Daryn Colledge, a free agent signing from Green Bay, started all 16 games on the line and did a credible job. But we're going to give the nod to cornerback Richard Marshall, who came over from Carolina. Marshall started nine games, led the team in interceptions (3), ranked 3rd in total tackles (78) and had 11 passes defended.
Late in the season, defensive coordinator Ray Horton lauded Marshall for his performance. "He allowed us when Kerry [Rhodes] was hurt to function with speed on the field and for me, he was my most valuable player just with what he allowed us to do."
Can't argue with that.
Quote of the Year: "I think towards the tail end of my career, I'm gonna start stealing some stuff out of his locker to put on eBay." -- Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett after the season finale while raving about the consummate professional teammate Larry Fitzgerald is on a day-in, day-out basis.
Play of the Year: You can watch football from now until the end of time, and you'll likely never see a 99- yard punt return for a touchdown in overtime like you saw Patrick Peterson deliver in a Week 9 win over the St. Louis Rams.
Honorable Mention: Larry Fitzgerald had many amazing plays, but no catch was better than his stretched-out one-handed stab in the final drive of the year that led to a game-winning field goal against Seattle. And he did it with a bruised lung.
Best Opponent's Play: Cincinnati's Jerome Simpson and his ridiculous somersault over Daryl Washington into the end zone during the Bengals' Week 17 win at Paul Brown Stadium. It's another example of a play you'll likely never see again now matter how long you watch the sport.
Biggest Diappointment: It has to be the season of new quarterback Kevin Kolb, although it wasn't entirely his fault. Kolb started the first seven games of the year, and despite numbers that were okay, the Cardinals went just 1-6. He suffered a turf toe injury in the Baltimore game and missed the next four games. Kolb returned to the lineup and played a very good second half in a win over Dallas, but after just three snaps the next week against San Francisco, he was kneed in the back of the head, suffered a concussion, and didn't play again.
In all, Kolb threw for 1,955 yards, 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, and more importantly, left the door open for John Skelton to possibly create a quarterback controversy heading into 2012.
Special Teams Player of the Year: Peterson. Next!
Defensive Player of the Year: Even though he didn't even garner Pro Bowl alternate consideration, defensive end Calais Campbell was consistently the Cardinals best player on defense. Campbell led the team with 8 sacks, forced two fumbles, recovered one, had one interception, knocked down 10 passes at the line of scrimmage, and blocked three field goal attempts, including one to preserve a win against St. Louis.
Honorable Mention: Linebacker Daryl Washington is a star in the making, and led the Cardinals in total tackles with 106 and tackles for loss.
Offensive Player of the Year: Despite having his lowest catch total since 2006, Larry Fitzgerald is this year's winner of the award. Fitzgerald averaged 17.6 yards per catch, by far the highest of his career. This was due to the fact that Fitzgerald is now better after the catch. He consistently bounced off of tackles and spun away from defenders, turning mundane plays into big gainers. He became just the fourth player in NFL history to register four seasons of 1,400 or more receiving yards, joining Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison in that exclusive club.
Also factor in that Fitzgerald has caught passes from four different starting quarterbacks (and five total) in the last two seasons, and it strengthens the school of thought that he's the best receiver in the sport.
Honorable mention: Beanie Wells had a very good season for the Cardinals, finishing with a career-high 1,047 yards on 245 carries. Wells ran for ten touchdowns (tied for 8th in the league) while losing only two fumbles and played injured most of the season, quieting two of the biggest knocks against him.