The bye week in the National Football League.
It’s a necessity for coaches and players — a chance for them to recharge their batteries and prepare for the upcoming rigors the league presents.
But for fans (and fantasy football players), it’s terrible. A week without football can be like a week without air.
That’s the situation fans of the Arizona Cardinals find themselves in this week. The Cards received the ever-convenient Week 9 bye from NFL schedule makers, meaning exactly half of their regular-season schedule remains.
Arizona is very much in the thick of things in the NFC playoff picture at 4-4.
And since there’s no Cardinals game to preview this week, I thought I’d take the opportunity to look back on the first half of the 2013 campaign — the good and the bad.
First Half MVP – Karlos Dansby, LB – I wanted to go with Calais Campbell, who has been outstanding, but Dansby has been better. Signed in May seemingly as an insurance policy during Daryl Washington’s four-game drug-related suspension, Dansby has been so much more than that. He leads the team in tackles with 71, is second with three sacks and has defended 10 passes — good for second in the NFC. And since Washington’s return, Dansby’s been even better.
Honorable Mention: DE Calais Campbell, LB Daryl Washington, DB Tyrann Mathieu
First Half Disappointment – Carson Palmer, QB – There were a few options here, but it’s hard not to bestow the dubious honor on Palmer, who has thrown at least one interception in every game this season. His 14 interceptions rank second only to Eli Manning’s 15.
While a good number of the interceptions haven’t been Palmer’s fault, he needs to be a lot better in the remaining eight games for the Cardinals to accomplish their offensive goals.
Dishonorable Mention: RB Rashard Mendenhall, TE Rob Housler, T Eric Winston
Best Play – Tyrann Mathieu’s touchdown-saving strip vs. St. Louis – There have been several plays that could qualify: Michael Floyd’s amazing catch against the Rams and Andre Ellington’s 80-yard run against Atlanta among them. But Mathieu’s all-out hustle play in Week 1 when he saved a touchdown by poking the ball out of the hands of Rams’ tight end Jared Cook was both a reminder of the Honey Badger’s playmaking collegiate past and a sign of things to come. Mathieu was considered a risky draft pick by many, but he’s been one of the best defensive rookies in the entire league in the first eight games of 2013.
Toughest First Half Cardinal – Calais Campbell and Rashad Johnson – Near the end of the Cardinals’ loss to San Francisco on October 13, Campbell was completely motionless. The 6-foot-8 defensive end was injured while making a tackle and had to be immobilized and carted off the field. He underwent neurological testing at Stanford Hospital overnight, but checked out OK. Not only did Campbell play four days later in a Thursday night tilt against Seattle, he excelled, leading the team with eight total tackles and stuffing a fourth-down run by Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson. But for the toughness and perseverance Campbell displayed, he’s got to share the award with Johnson, who lost part of the middle finger on his left hand while making a special teams tackle against New Orleans. Yes, he missed two games following surgery, but again, HE LOST PART OF HIS FINGER!
Offense: C- Head coach Bruce Arians came to Arizona with the reputation of being an offensive genius who loved “chunk plays.” Very few are questioning Arians’ credentials, but the chunk plays have been few and far between due to a number of factors. The Cardinals are tied for 15th in the league with 21 running plays of more than 10 yards and are tied for last in the NFL with just seven passing plays of 25 yards or more.
The failure is to be shared. I’ve already mentioned Palmer’s interception struggles, but he’s been under a good deal of pressure much of the season due to shaky offensive line play. Cardinals receivers making mental errors and not putting themselves in good position to make catches has been a frequent refrain of the season’s first half. Arizona’s running game ranks 20th in the league.
There have been signs of improvement, but ultimately the transition to Arians’ system has taken too long for anyone’s liking.
Defense: B The fear about the Cardinals’ defense was that its success was tied to the guidance of former defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who was passed up for the head coaching jobs and took his scheme to Cleveland. Todd Bowles took over for Horton after a rough half-season in Philadelphia in 2012, and many had their doubts.
There are a lot fewer doubters now. Bowles’ defense has bent but not broken. The Cardinals are 19th in the NFL in yards allowed, but only 13th in points allowed. And while they have been victimized by opposing tight ends, the Big Red ‘D’ has been one of the toughest against the run in ’13, allowing only 88.3 yards per game. Arizona has also forced 19 turnovers in eight games — the second-most in the NFC.
Special Teams: B- The kicking game is in good hands (or feet, rather) with kicker Jay Feely and punter Dave Zastudil. After having his job threatened by free agent Dan Carpenter in training camp, Feely has responded well, hitting 14-of-15 field goal attempts, with his only miss coming from 50 yards on the last play of the first half in the season opener against the Rams.
Zastudil has planted over 47 percent of his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line this season and is averaging 45.1 yards per attempt.
The only Cardinals’ special teams problems have come in the return game. Kickoff returner Javier Arenas has hurt field position on a handful of occasions by attempting a return from deep in Arizona’s end zone. Arenas is currently averaging 23.1 yards per return. Patrick Peterson ranks 25th out of 26 qualified NFL punt returners, averaging just 4.6 yards per return. Like Arenas, he has made some questionable decisions in fielding the ball and judging position. Last Sunday against Atlanta, Peterson fielded the ball and lost seven yards on the return. It appears the third-year pro is pressing at times, trying to recapture the magic of his rookie season when he took four punt returns back for touchdowns. He’s currently riding a 29-game streak without a punt return score.
Arizona has been excellent in kickoff return coverage, allowing just 20 yards per and has been decent in punt return coverage as well.
Questions for Second Half
• How much more will Andre Ellington’s workload increase?
Probably not much more, honestly. Ellington is slightly-built and Arians sees him as a 35-snap player on offense. The rookie from Clemson is the team’s leading rusher through eight games despite having 49 less carries than Rashard Mendenhall. The coaching staff wants to preserve him and limit the physical punishment he takes, so the workload should remain about the same barring a rash of injuries at the RB position.
• Will we ever see Ryan Williams play?
I hate to say it, but who knows? Williams made the team by the skin of his teeth in training camp, but has yet to suit up on a Sunday. I asked Coach Arians how close Williams was to playing against Atlanta — a game Mendenhall missed due to injury. Arians said he was “real close,” but added again that Williams doesn’t provide anything on special teams for the Cardinals. Neither does Mendenhall, which led to my thinking that Williams could have just stepped in and played for the veteran without affecting special teams personnel.
After not suiting up Sunday against the Falcons, I thought Williams would have been a trade candidate for a team looking for RB help, but the deadline came and went and the former Virginia Tech star is still in Arizona.
• What’s up with Larry Fitzgerald?
It seems unnatural to believe that Fitz is no longer among the elite receivers in the league despite the stats illustrating that fact. I tend to believe that Fitzgerald’s hamstring injury was far worse than anyone let on, and that he gutted it out and played on Sundays regardless.
For Fitzgerald, the bye week came at a great time, and I fully expect to see a rejuvenated No. 11 in the last eight games for the Cardinals.
• Is this team really a playoff contender?
The answer is ‘yes’ because the possibility of a nine-win season remains. After the bye, the Cardinals get Houston in Glendale and then a trip to (probably still winless) Jacksonville. Those are two infinitely winnable football games. Pencil in a loss to Indianapolis and a win over wretched Philadelphia, and that would put the Cards at 7-5 with four games left. I would expect the Cardinals to beat St. Louis at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 8 and I expect them to lose to Seattle and San Francisco in the season’s last two weeks.
That leaves one very important swing game — December 15 at Tennessees. If the Cardinals can beat the Titans, that would (at least according to my twisted projections) give them nine wins and a realistic shot at an NFC Wild Card. The cause is helped by Arizona holding tiebreakers over Detroit and Carolina.