TEMPE, Ariz. — Through eight weeks, the Arizona Cardinals lead the NFL with 263 points scored. It is the second-highest total in franchise history through a season’s first eight games, and it’s just 47 points short of what the team tallied all of last season.
Their 32 touchdowns matches what the team accomplished in 2014.
“It says that last year sucked,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said of what that means. “No wonder we won so many damn close games last year.”
True. But it also means this year’s team, at least through the season’s first half, is one of the more explosive the NFL has to offer. Offense, defense and special teams have all contributed to the scoring, though it is the offense — led by a healthy Carson Palmer — that generates the most attention as well as angst.
Already this season the Cardinals have rung up at least 400 yards of offense in a game six times, equaling the total the team combined for from 2010 to 2014. But for all the good that side of the ball has done, there is still a feeling that they could be much, much better.
“You always want to do better,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “You always look at the film and you never once walk away from watching the film and go, ‘Oh man, we hit everything perfect’ or ‘we didn’t leave any yards out there.’ You never have that feeling and you can’t have that feeling.”
Palmer said the offense cannot afford to get stagnant and think it has things figured out, so instead they will look back at the season’s first half and try to find all the areas in which they can improve, citing their work in the red zone and on third downs as areas that could use some attention.
This season, the Cardinals have converted on 42-of-91 third-downs, with their 46.2 percent success ranking fourth in the NFL. They have scored touchdowns on 65.71 percent of their trips inside the red zone, which also places them fourth.
In their two losses — to the St. Louis Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers — those numbers drop to 7-of-23 (30.4 percent) on third-downs and just 22.2 percent on trips inside the red zone.
There have also been times in those games — and even the wins — where a missed block or wrong route or errant pass cost the team yards and, maybe, points.
So no, the Cardinals have not been perfect, and while that is ultimately the goal, it’s also fair to say it’s unattainable. The goal then is to be as close to it as possible, and given the bevvy of weapons Arizona features, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
Nine different players from the team’s offense — three running backs, four receivers and two tight ends — have all reached the end zone. They were without their starting right tackle for two games, one of their lead running backs for three, played without their second-leading receiver in Cleveland, and yet still found enough production elsewhere to pile up the points.
“Next man up” is more of a threat than a mantra, as the Cardinals seem to be able to send wave after wave of skill position talent.
Thus far, it seems the only team that has been able to stop the Cardinals has been the Cardinals, with unforced errors being a key contributor to their failures. This could be a great offense and maybe even should be, but through eight games, it’s not there yet.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” Palmer said. “I like where we’re are at the midway point, but there’s a lot of football left to play and a lot of good teams coming in here and we’ve got to go see. I think we’re in a good spot but we have a ton of room for improvement.”
Asked for the biggest difference in the offense this season compared to last year, Palmer cited the run game. Chris Johnson is second in the NFL with 676 rushing yards, averaging 4.8 per tote. Andre Ellington and David Johnson are averaging 6.7 and 4.4 yards per carry, respectively, giving the Cardinals a rather dynamic and deep stable of runners.
“Chris is doing a great job, Andre’s back and healthy,” David Johnson said of how it all gets sorted out. “All of us, we can all contribute still, try and contribute to the team. I guess we’ll have to see. I think Coach is still trying to utilize all three of us in the game.
“I feel like as long as we continue to stay healthy, we’ll all continue to keep playing.”
There’s no such thing as having too many good running backs; in fact, historically speaking, it has usually been the opposite in Arizona. Add in the depth at receiver and a quarterback playing at as high a level as any in the game, and it’s no wonder why folks in the Valley of the Sun are excited for the possibilities.
But there are still eight games left in the regular season, and as Palmer said, the Cardinals need to cut back on mental errors and become more efficient.
“Even the plays that have been good, there’s more in those big-gain plays,” he said. “You want to run the ball for four-yards-per-attempt, but we’ve had seven, eight-yard runs where you want to be a little bit more efficient, get that one last block so it is a big gainer like Chris can do. So really, just be more efficient, really, in every facet of the offense.”
It’s easier to correct one’s own mistakes rather than having to find a way to work around a talent deficiency, so whatever flaws the Cardinals have, they do not appear to be fatal. Arians said this year’s Cardinals have more options than any group he coordinated in Pittsburgh, and it’s easy to see why.
Now, the only thing everyone wants to see is consistency, which will be a focus as the team heads into its bye week.
“I would just say simply this,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said of what has held the offense back from being as good as it can be. “Eleven guys executing at a high level on every snap. Every now and then you’re going to have a screw up or a little bit of a lull where guys are just not on point, but when we’re on, we’re on, and when we’re off, we stink.
“Going into the second half, we’ve got to be on the screws, focused. I don’t think you’re going to have to motivate these guys going forward. The Seattles, the Cincinnatis and all these teams that are coming up, it’s either you get them or they’re going to get you, so that’s where we’re headed.”
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