Best bet for Cardinals? Bring back core; hope season was anomaly

Jan 2, 2017, 4:32 PM | Updated: Jan 3, 2017, 11:26 am
(AP Photos)...
(AP Photos)
(AP Photos)

TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s easy to play the what-if game with the Arizona Cardinals this season.

What if Chandler Catanzaro had made those game-winning field goals against New England and Seattle? What if the defense had been able to hold a lead against the lowly Rams in Week 4? What if coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer had adapted to opponents’ defensive strategies a little sooner and the offense had turned in the types of performances we saw in the final three weeks? What if a win over New England in the season opener had created the mojo this team expected to have at the start of this much-hyped season — mojo that could have propelled it to an even better record?

While it’s important to remember that a strong finish came without any pressure on the Cardinals because they had already been eliminated from playoff contention, it is also important to remember how fine the line is between winning and losing in the NFL.

“It’s very hard to get wins in this league,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “It sounds like a cliché but everybody is good in this league and you never know what’s going to happen. It really is any given Sunday.”

The Cardinals did not make enough plays to win more — particularly late in games — and that is the simple reality reflected in the standings. It’s not enough to say they have to make more plays. They have to identify why they didn’t make more plays and fix the problem.

But with a team that was so good for three seasons prior to this one with 10-6, 11-5 and 13-3 records, it’s important not to overreact and blow up the blueprint. The Cardinals did a lot of good things in the three previous seasons and they were close to doing more this season. The smart play here is to bring back as much of the core as is feasible and hope this season was an anomaly; not a sign of decay.

“The core is here,” Arians said. “We had high expectations coming into this season with the roster we had. Those expectations will never change. We will set our goals to win a championship.”

When you think about it, what’s the alternative? What would be the goal in blowing up what was essentially a .500 team that still shows significant potential? There is no quarterback of the future on this roster. The Cards still need Larry Fitzgerald’s big-play (if not big gain) ability and leadership and the bet here is he will return for another season. They still need the pass-rushing capabilities of Chandler Jones and Arians said they will make sure they have them by using the franchise tag on Jones if it comes to it.

There are complications with this plan. Free agents have minds of their own. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell is looking at his final big contract; the one that will carry him through retirement. How much of a hometown discount is he willing to take? Backup running back Chris Johnson has no great allegiance to Arizona and his role diminished this season behind David Johnson. Jefferson is willing to take a hometown discount, but he’s worn a chip on his shoulder since he arrived in Arizona. He’s not about to be slighted again.

“Hopefully we get ’em all back,” Arians said. “The dollars have to add up with the cap and that’s [GM] Steve [Keim’s] and [team president] Mike [Bidwill]’s job. We’ve already prioritized our list.”

Some change is inevitable on an NFL roster, but the Cardinals’ window has not closed; not yet. The time has not come for drastic change. There is a wealth of talent on this roster and now there will be motivation after a disappointing season.

As the old adage goes, sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make. This group deserves one more shot.

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter

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Best bet for Cardinals? Bring back core; hope season was anomaly