ArizonaSports.com's very own Mark Asher penned a column today that pointed out the things that he now knows about the 2011 NFL season.
The first item was this:
The AZ Cardinals are a worse football team this year than they were last year.
I got to thinking...is he right?
Certainly we can point at the team's 1-6 record compared to their 3-4 mark through 7 games last year. That is, after all, the ultimate number to gauge progress. But there are others.
The Cardinals are better offensively this year. Sure, Kevin Kolb has been a disappointment as the Cardinals quarterback. But the Cardinals passing game is averaging over 52 yards per game more, and Kolb's individual rating is 15 points higher than Derek Anderson's was through seven games in 2010.
Beanie Wells, now healthier than he was a year ago, is a better option than what the Cardinals were putting on the field at running back last season.
The Cardinals have finally started to use their tight ends as part of the passing game, adding a wrinkle that they didn't have last season (or any season since Jackie Smith left St. Louis).
Defensively, this year's numbers are a tick off from last year's. Neither defense has been all that great. But this year, at the very least first round pick Patrick Peterson looks like he's getting better and better every week at his cornerback position.
And his ability to change games with punt returns has already led to a victory. He leads the league averaging 19.1 yards per return.
So what does all this mean? A 3-4 team compared to a 1-6 team pretty much is a wash, right? Neither mark is one to be proud of.
What this means to me is that this is a case where you can throw out the records. I believe this year's Arizona Cardinals team is improved over last year's. Slightly, but improved nonetheless.
Through seven games last season, the Cardinals had three wins. Three fluky, non-convincing wins. Think about it. Opening day 2010 featured a 3-point win against a St. Louis Rams team with a rookie quarterback making his first start. It also featured a strange play during which Steve Breaston (remember him?) prevented a Rams defensive score that would have put St. Louis up by 10 points in the 3rd quarter with an unbelievable hustle play.
The Cardinals' early season win over Oakland was punctuated by Raiders' kicker Sebastian Janikowski missing three field goals including the potential game-winner from 32 yards.
And you'd be hard-pressed to find a stranger win than the Cardinals' 30-20 triumph over New Orleans that featured two Arizona defensive touchdowns and a Levi Brown fumble recovery for a score. In fact, in that game the Cardinals became only the 2nd team in the history of the NFL to score 30 or more points without throwing or running for a touchdown.
The point is, that team very easily could have been 0-7 after 7 games. This year's team, with any breaks, could have 5 wins.
Now stop laughing and pick yourself up off the floor. We'll eliminate the Minnesota and Pittsburgh games, which were both one-sided affairs.
Think about it. In the Washington game (a 1-point loss), Chansi Stuckey fumbled on what could have been the go- ahead drive. A week later in Seattle, again the Cardinals had a chance to tie or win, but Kevin Kolb threw an interception at the Seattle 36-yard line. Who can forget the goofy Victor Cruz "gave himself up" play at the end of the Giants' game? And then there was the Baltimore game, which could have been different if not for Torry Smith burning Richard Marshall on a 36-yard catch on what turned out to be the Ravens' game-winning drive.
Football is a game of inches. We hear that all the time. We've also heard Cards' head coach Ken Whisenhunt offer the "we just didn't make enough plays" excuse several times this season. He's right. A few made plays here or there and we're talking about a different season.
I'm not saying the Cardinals are not a good football team right now. They've got a lot of deficiencies. But they very well could be a 5-2 team with those same deficiencies.
The record doesn't show it, but the Cardinals have made some improvement this season.
Now it's time for the improvement to translate to some wins.