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ESPN’s Barnwell: Cardinals among likeliest in NFL to improve from 2016

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) gets off a pass as linebacker Chandler Jones (55) applies pressure during NFL football training camp Saturday, July 29, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Close games didn’t go in the Arizona Cardinals’ favor last season.

Arizona went 2-5-1 in games decided by seven points or less in 2016, pulling them down to a 7-8-1 overall record despite having the fourth-easiest schedule in the NFL. Judging by how talented the Cardinals were on paper, it was a disappointment.

They boasted a strong defense and even had a plus-56 point differential spanning the season. But an offense that underachieved was among the problems.

According to Football Outsiders’ pythagorean expectation analytic, which pegged Arizona at 9.4 wins after its season, the record was statistically an underachievement.

By layman’s terms, pythagorean expectation is the expected amount of wins a team should have earned based on a wide-ranging collection of statistics.

Because of it, the expectation is the Cardinals have a chance to bounce back in 2017. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell ranked Arizona as the No. 5 team most likely to improve.

It was a strange season in many ways for Arizona. The Cardinals faced one of the league’s easiest schedules and somehow fell off significantly. Not only did their record fall by 5.5 wins, but their Pythagorean expectation declined from the dominant 11.9-win heights of 2015 to 9.4 victories last season. They did this despite returning virtually everyone of note from their 2015 team.

Diagnosing the Cardinals isn’t difficult.

Carson Palmer’s deep throwing game was off, be it from arm fatigue he later admitted to and a revolving door along the offensive line. Outside of Larry Fitzgerald and running back David Johnson, the receiver group took a step backward with Michael Floyd dropping balls before being released after a DUI arrest and John Brown struggling with health issues that went mysterious until after the season.

Arians’ offense is predicated upon throwing the ball downfield, but on “deep” passes (16+ yards downfield), Palmer’s passer rating fell from 103.7 (seventh in 2015) to 68.3 (24th last season), even while the drop rate on those throws fell from 5.3 percent to 0.9 percent. If Palmer can’t effectively throw deep, the Cardinals either need to fundamentally change their offense or find a new quarterback.

If those issues are resolved, and there are reasons to believe that’ll be the case, there’s optimism for a rebound.

Palmer is taking it easy in camp to keep himself fresh. Brown believes he’s healthy after a cyst found in his back was removed after the season. The offensive line, at least to start the preseason, is healthy.

Defensively, the Cardinals enter 2017 with more questions having lost five of their eight players who played 800 or more snaps, according to Barnwell.

Yet, a healthy Tyrann Mathieu for this year and enough depth along the line and at safety provide more reasons to believe Arizona can weather the losses of DE Calais Campbell, LB Kevin Minter, CB Marcus Cooper, S Tony Jefferson and S D.J. Swearinger.

If that seems like lot of variables to predict anything, that’s because it is.

Arizona might have a wider range of outcomes than just about any team in the league, and given that franchise icon Fitzgerald is set to hit free agency after the season, it may have as much to lose in 2017 as any team. If the offense reverts back to its usual self and Arizona’s defensive stars stay healthy and play like Pro Bowlers, the Cardinals could be a juggernaut and Super Bowl contender.

Alternately, there’s a chance Palmer is toast and the defense spends half the year trying to replace the players who left town.

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