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Dan Bickley

Untrustworthy preseason at least presents hope for Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) carries in the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Preseason football is a blur of blah. Trust nothing when the final score doesn’t matter.

But every now and then, there’s a play that changes everything. Like David Johnson’s nine-yard touchdown run against the Saints on Friday, when there was no room to run but plenty of friends to follow, when he simply churned along with a moving pile all the way into the end zone.

It was the first highlight-reel moment for the Cardinals’ offensive line. Maybe their first declaration as well.

There are well-worn paths to NFL superiority. An elite quarterback is the fast lane. A great defense is a pickup truck plowing through mud. A juggernaut offense is the sports car that goes fast but not far, not to be trusted in inclement weather.

Or you do it the hard way. Like the 2018 Cardinals.

Of all the changes accompanying the new regime in Arizona, there is something afoot, something the eyes can trust. There is a new physicality that quickens the pulse, mostly from an offensive line that has long been the scourge in these parts.

The loss of center A.Q. Shipley hasn’t been a problem because Mason Cole is just what you hoped from a Michigan rookie, hard to move and eager to please. Left guard Mike Iupati is once again healthy and hard as steel, a bulldozer in the running game.

The unit set the tone in New Orleans, in the first road game of the preseason, inside a hostile building full of passionate fans. The Cardinals made it look easy. Like they could pave the way for David Johnson, NFL MVP.

It’s dangerous to feel too comfortable about their 20-15 victory over the Saints. But Josh Rosen is thriving between the ears, ahead of the game and not behind. Sam Bradford moves quickly and seems in full command, despite Rosen’s presence. The quarterback room is trending in the right direction, built on quick hits, smart reads and extremely accurate passing.

While a forearm injury kept Mike Glennon out of Friday’s game, you wonder if a trade is imminent and inevitable, a good-faith gesture to a player who showed up first but has found little opportunity in Arizona.

A maligned group of wide receivers just took a big step in soothing our worst fears. Christian Kirk could have posted two jaw-dropping touchdowns in his first two preseason games, had he not tripped over the grass on his inaugural punt return. In the post-game glow, offensive lineman Justin Pugh compared him to Odell Beckham Jr., his former teammate in New York.

That was an unexpected sound bite, and it seemed to settle the search for a viable No. 2 receiver. The rest of the crew is still benign and non-threatening, but at least they catch the football when thrown to them, likely a byproduct of pinpoint passing from their quarterbacks.

The defense remains something of a mystery — up and down, too often gashed in the running game. They are also rich in playmakers credited with eight turnovers in the first two games.

Tackle Robert Nkemdiche remains enigmatic, inconsistent and susceptible to lower leg injuries. Third-year corner Brandon Williams will be fighting for his job in the coming days while end Markus Golden has yet to take the field. But safety Tre Boston is a gem, Bene Benwikere is a surprising addition at cornerback and the new head coach is surely saving a few surprises.

After all, if Steve Wilks is so impressive with all the other stuff, it’s fair to assume his area of expertise (defense) will follow suit in the near future.

It’s also important to breathe deep and remember the delusions of low-risk football, how all that glitters will mean little in September. Too many NFL impact players are slow-rolling their way into the regular season, and once they get down to business, it will completely change the landscape and the optics. Play callers and defensive coordinators know better than to try hard and show too much, thereby luring rookies into a false sense of security. The greatest team in NFL history – the 1985 Bears – went 1-3 in the preseason, starting with a 10-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

But for a team predicted to rank among the bottom feeders of the NFL, the 2018 Cardinals couldn’t look better after two preseason games. The running back without a contract extension seems unstoppable and exhilarated. The quarterbacks are better than expected. Larry Fitzgerald’s advice to bet the over in Las Vegas, where Arizona is on the board for 5.5 wins, seems to be prophetic advice.

Alas, the NFL is never as easy as it seems in August. The Cardinals can’t give you meaningful victories until the scam and charade of preseason football is over. But a revamped team seems to act smart, hit hard and block well, emitting an unmistakable scent in Arizona:

It’s called hope.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier