One man’s look back at the ups and downs in Arizona sports in 2016
If you’re a fan of any or all of the sports teams in Arizona, you won’t be shedding a tear when the final seconds of 2016 melt away late Saturday night.
The reason why? This year sucked, flat out.
The Valley’s sports landscape featured underachieving baseball and football teams (college and pro), young basketball and hockey franchises that aren’t ready to win and teams in niche sports that fell short of attainable championships.
The bottom line — 2016 was arguably the worst single calendar year in Arizona sports history.
Here’s one man’s look back at the year that was, sprinkled with a little hope and optimism for 2017. We’ll start with the highs and lows for the four major sports franchises.
Highs and Lows
The high point: Larry Fitzgerald scoring on a 5-yard shovel pass from Carson Palmer in overtime to defeat the Green Bay Packers 26-20 in the NFC Divisional Playoffs at University of Phoenix Stadium on Jan. 16. This came just two plays after the same duo opened the extra period with a 75-yard catch-and-run to put the Cardinals deep in Green Bay territory.
The low point: The Cardinals yielded 488 yards and 48 points to the New Orleans Saints in a 7-point home loss on Dec. 18 that dropped their record to 5-8-1 and eliminated them from playoff contention.
The high point: The Coyotes’ apex came late in 2016. Playing in his 1,500th career NHL game (a mark only 16 players have reached), Arizona captain Shane Doan scored his 400th career goal in a 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 23. The 40-year-old became just the 93rd player in league history to notch 400 or more goals in a career. Doan is now the Coyotes’ all-time franchise leader in games played, goals, assists, points, game-winning goals and power-play goals, making him one of only five players to accomplish that feat with one organization. Ron Francis (Hartford/Carolina), Mike Modano (Minnesota/Dallas), Rick Nash (Columbus) and Joe Sakic (Quebec/Colorado) are the others.
The low point: It’s not every year when a generational talent comes through the amateur ranks to join the NHL. Hell, that’s why they’re called generational talents. It’s even more rare for one who hails from the Valley to be the number-one overall pick. Auston Matthews, who learned to play the game in Scottsdale, was the projected top pick last June and would have been a game-changing force if the Coyotes had won the NHL Draft Lottery. They didn’t. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who had the best odds to win the right to make the first selection, won it, and selected Matthews, who went on to score four goals in his debut a little more than five months later.
The high point: It had to be Opening Day. Zack Greinke, whom the D-backs signed to a massive $206.5 million deal in free agency took the mound for the team’s season-opener against the Colorado Rockies. Greinke’s arrival gave Arizona a legitimate number-one starter for a team that was expected by many experts to compete for a National League playoff spot. Greinke pitched two scoreless innings to start and the Diamondbacks jumped out to a 1-0 lead when he knocked in a run on an infield single in the bottom of the second inning.
The low point: The third inning of the same game — and the rest of that night, really. The Rockies sent 11 men to the plate in the top of the third, scoring six runs off of Greinke, who was yanked after four innings and took the loss in a 10-5 ball game. Then-manager Chip Hale then made matters worse following the contest when he pointed the finger at the media for possibly creating unfair expectations. “You guys built it up really good. You did a nice job of it,” Hale said. “I said it before the game: You guys really hyped it up. Every Opening Day is every Opening Day. It means no more than tomorrow’s game.”
It’s impossible to pin a disappointing season on one game, but the season opener certainly set the tone for the rest of the year in downtown Phoenix.
The high point: General manager Ryan McDonough’s draft-night maneuvering that allowed the Suns to move up and secure two of the top-eight picks in the draft and nab two players they coveted in Croatia’s Dragan Bender and Washington’s Marquese Chriss.
The low point: The firing of head coach Jeff Hornacek on Feb. 1. The Suns had struggled to a 14-35 record and just 4-22 on the road when the decision was made to ax the head coach, who was in his third season on the job.
Arizona’s Five Best Athletes of 2016
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals – The season didn’t go according to plan for the Cardinals, but it doesn’t take a lot of searching to come up with a silver lining. The second-year running back put up MVP-type numbers in 2016. Heading into the season’s final game, Johnson has totaled 1,233 rushing yards and 841 receiving yards to lead the league in yards from scrimmage. He’s the only player in NFL history to have 100 or more yards from scrimmage in 15 games to begin a season and he set a franchise record with 20 total touchdowns.
Zane Gonzalez, K, Arizona State Sun Devils – The season didn’t go according to plan for the Sun Devils (sound familiar), but Gonzalez was one of the team’s bright spots. The senior kicker connected on 23-of-25 field goals and 39-of-40 extra points on the season, during which he shattered the NCAA records for most career field goals and career points. Gonzalez also made 7-of-9 field goal attempts from 50 yards or longer. He was a consensus All-American selection, and should be selected in the NFL Draft next April.
Jean Segura, 2B, Arizona Diamondbacks – Former D-backs general manager Dave Stewart wasn’t known for swinging great trades while he occupied that office, but this one will go down as his best. In January of 2016, the Diamondbacks acquired Segura, along with right-hander Tyler Wagner, in exchange for Chase Anderson, Aaron Hill and minor-leaguer Isan Diaz. Segura went on to have a career year, batting .319 with 20 home runs, 33 stolen bases and a league-leading 203 hits. The Dominican native finished 13th in the National League MVP balloting for a team that won 69 games. His time in the desert was short-lived, however. Arizona dealt Segura to the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Taijuan Walker and infielder Ketel Marte in November. We’ll always have 2016, though.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals – If a similar list to this had been produced at the end of every year since 2004, there’s a good chance Fitz’s name would appear on every one of them. Fitzgerald eclipsed the 100-reception mark for the second straight season and the fourth time in his career. If he amasses 20 yards in the season finale Sunday at Los Angeles, he will have his eighth career 1,000-yard season — a number matched by only 15 receivers in NFL history. The 33-year-old also netted his 10th Pro Bowl nod, something only accomplished by Jerry Rice among NFL receivers.
Tony Jefferson, S, Arizona Cardinals – After a good 2015 season, Jefferson didn’t get much love on the restricted free agent market and signed a one-year tender offer in April. It’s easy to say he outperformed that contract. The 24-year-old is leading the Cardinals in tackles with 98 to go along with two sacks and two forced fumbles. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end but has made himself a priority to the Cardinals moving forward.
Five Disappointments in 2016
Shelby Miller, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks – Miller was the key piece in the biggest offseason trade orchestrated by the Diamondbacks last winter. Dave Stewart packaged outfielder Ender Inciarte and prospects Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair to the Atlanta Braves for Miller. The deal was passionately panned by baseball media … then, the season happened. Miller, who was once a jewel in the St. Louis minor league system and an All-Star for the Braves in 2015, never found his footing during a season that included two stints in the minors — only one of which was injury-related. Miller became only the fourth Arizona pitcher with more than 100 innings in a season to have an ERA over 6.00 (6.15 ERA in 101 innings), joining the less-than-esteemed group of Russ Ortiz, Casey Fossum and Steve Sparks. None of the other three were involved in trades that sent the organization’s top prospects out of town, so needless to say, Miller is very much under the microscope heading into 2017.
Arizona State’s Defense – You didn’t think it could get worse, did you? You were wrong. In 2015, Todd Graham’s Arizona State Sun Devils allowed a mind-boggling 321 yards per game through the air (only Indiana was worse). In 2016, ASU actually got worse, yielding 357.4 passing yards per game, dead last among 128 FBS teams. Keep in mind, that figure was improved by the fact that Arizona didn’t attempt a pass in the second half of the annual Territorial Cup game. The Wildcats ran on every play after halftime, racking up 511 yards on the ground and proving the Devils weren’t good at any phase of playing defense.
The Cardinals’ Draft Class – Steve Keim and his staff selected six players in the 2016 draft back in April and not a single one of them has made a meaningful contribution this season. First-round pick Robert Nkemdiche, a defensive tackle out of Mississippi, has fought his way out of the doghouse enough to play 38 defensive snaps over Arizona’s last two games, drawing praise from the coaching staff. Cornerback Brandon Williams, who was forced into starting duty in the season’s first two weeks, was inactive for most of the middle of the season. Offensive linemen Evan Boehm and Cole Toner, along with defensive back Harlan Miller, have only seen playing time late in the season after the Cardinals were hit by the injury bug. Fifth-round pick Marqui Christian was released early in the season and signed with the Los Angeles Rams. It’s not all that productive to critique draft hauls after one season, but if you did, the Cardinals would get a failing grade for the Class of ’16.
Phoenix Mercury – Let’s see — Diana Taurasi sits out a year in 2015 to concentrate on her more lucrative Russian pro career, and the Mercury advance to the Western Conference Finals? Surely, with her back and teamed with Brittney Griner and the soon-to-be-retired Penny Taylor, Sandy Brondello’s Mercury would be among the league’s favorites to win a title, which would be their fourth, right? Not exactly. The Mercury limped to a 16-18 regular-season record, but did win two single-game playoffs on the road in Indiana and New York to advance again to the conference finals. And again, they were swept by the Minnesota Lynx in three games, losing by an average of 14.3 points per contest.
The Arena Bowl – The Arizona Rattlers have dominated the Arena Football League for years. Already with five championship banners hanging in the rafters at the “Snake Pit,” Kevin Guy’s team looked poised to make it six in 2016. And for the first time since 2011, the Rattlers got to host the AFL’s premier event. One problem — a television scheduling conflict with two home Mercury games sandwiching the ArenaBowl’s date of Friday, Aug. 26, basically evicting the Rattlers from their home. They packed up the trucks and headed to Glendale, where they would host the Philadelphia Soul at Gila River Arena. It didn’t feel right from the beginning, and the Rattlers’ performance backed that up. Philadelphia jumped out to a 21-0 lead before many fans found their seats and went on to win 56-42, dropping Arizona’s record in home ArenaBowl appearances to 1-3. The bitter loss looks like it will be the Rattlers’ last-ever game in the AFL. After a 25-year run, owner Ron Shurts announced in October that the Rattlers were leaving the struggling league and joining the Indoor Football League.
Some Stuff To Be Excited About in 2017
The Final Four – For the first time ever, college basketball’s championship weekend makes its way to the desert. The last four teams in the NCAA Tournament will square off at University of Phoenix Stadium in what will hopefully be the first of regular Final Four visits to Glendale. It will mark the first time the Final Four is played in the Pacific Time Zone since 1995, when UCLA knocked off Arkansas to win their 11th national championship at the Kingdome.
N’Keal Harry – We don’t know which one of six quarterbacks will be throwing him the ball in 2017, but it shouldn’t matter much to the ASU receiver who garnered several freshman All-American honors this season. Harry looked like a man among boys against many opponents while leading the Sun Devils with 58 catches and five touchdown receptions in ’16. He figures to be, along with transfers John Humphrey and Ryan Newsome, a focal point of the Arizona State passing game next season.
The Youth of the Suns – Seven years without a playoff appearance is a long time — especially in an NBA city that saw its team go to the playoffs 29 times in its first 43 years. That postseason drought won’t end this year, but as the team’s young core (Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender) continues to mature, the future is brighter for the Suns than its been in a long time. And hey, there’s a good chance Phoenix will add another top-three draft pick in June. With the likes of Kansas’ Josh Jackson, Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball all likely available, that young core could get deeper and more exciting.