The One-Hit Wonder Arizona Cardinals Are Bound for a Letdown
You see kids, there was once a day when things like Spotify and Youtube didn’t exist as they currently do, and sometimes, you couldn’t simply listen to “Gangam Style” over and over until your sad little heart was made content again.
No, instead you had to go to a store, like Sam Goody or Target, and buy a thing called a CD, or Compact Disc. These were archaic devices which fed into a slot in your car’s dashboard (somewhere between the XM logo and the iPod hookup in your car, probably) or into any other CD player. They usually included 10-20 songs, and would cost between 10-20 dollars.
So when I was in middle school, I heard this really awesome song on the radio by a band known as “Blessid Union of Souls.” It was catchy and fun to sing and a girl in my class thought it was a cool tune. So I had to have the CD, because how else am I supposed to listen to this awesome track until I know every word? (Don’t say Napster, you horrible thief.)
I went to Target and purchased the CD, and to my shock and horror, there were zero songs on the album that appealed to me at all. I went in with the knowledge that “Hey Leonardo” was a hot jam, but left disappointed by the fact that Blessid Union wasn’t a very good band.
Such is the problem with a one-hit wonder. (Or two-hit wonder, in Blessid Union’s case.) No amount of singalong lyrics and harmonica solos can cover up the foul stench of a subpar musical act.
Like one-hit wonders Eagle-Eye Cherry, New Radicals, and Len, some NFL teams can catch lightning in a bottle with one positive aspect of their team carrying the rest of the unit along for the ride on a winning streak. But eventually the bad catches up with the good, and things start to balance out.
One such team is the Arizona Cardinals of 2013. So let’s take a look at the good and bad of the surprise team out of the NFC West, and see if they’re going to go platinum, or wind up playing gigs at dive bars in a few years.
The Season So Far
The Cardinals have a record of 6-4 at the time of the writing of this article. That’s good enough to be in contention in the NFC playoff picture, as they battle with San Francisco and Chicago for the final wild-card spot.
But they’ve severely lacked in style points along the way. A home loss to Seattle and road losses to San Francisco, New Orleans, and St. Louis before the Sam Bradford injury represent missed opportunities to make up ground in the NFC playoff race. And wins over the Buccaneers, Falcons, Texans and Jaguars prove little but an ability to beat teams in the race for Teddy Bridgewater and Jadeveon Clowney.
It’s the other two games on the schedule which stand out as proof of what the Cardinals are capable of when they play their best. An easy home win over the Carolina Panthers and a home victory against the Detroit Lions could serve as evidence in an article about how the Cardinals could be in the hunt for a playoff spot in the NFC. Because of those wins, the Cardinals could be considered a contender.
Unfortunately for them, however, that’s not what this article is about.
But let’s start with the good news before I break Cardinals' fans hearts.
Much like “Hey Leonardo,” the Arizona Cardinals defense is the hit that brings in the fans and sells records. Here at numberFire, we use a metric known as Net Expected Points, or NEP, to determine the expected points a player (or team defense) adds or subtracts to his team’s effort by the plays he makes. You can read a more thorough description by clicking here and heading to our glossary.
Defensive NEP reveals how good a defense is at preventing those expected points, as teams with negative numbers for DNEP are the best, as they’re reducing the expected points of their opponents on an average play.
We also use Adjusted NEP to figure in things like strength of schedule, and consider who the players (and defenses) have played, and not just how well they’ve done at gaining or losing Net Expected Points.
And according to Adjusted DNEP per Play (to take tempo out of the equation), the Cardinals have the fourth-best defense in the NFL. I even mentioned them last week in an article about underrated defenses, and noted that they were ranked third. (Playing the Jaguars didn’t help their strength of schedule, and Seattle had a strong week against the Vikings to overtake them.)
This high ranking is due to a balanced defense, which ranks in the top 10 in both Rushing and Passing DNEP/play. And there are some interesting, hidden numbers in their statistics on defense which reveal why they’re doing so well in DNEP.
The defense ranks in the middle of the pack in the NFL in sacks, but is third in sack yardage lost. On average, the Cardinals are dropping opposing quarterbacks well beyond the line of scrimmage, and that’s helping to stall out drives and get the ball back to their offense.
They’re also sixth in allowing the fewest yards per pass attempt. They’re preventing productivity from the other team’s quarterback on a per-play basis, which reveals more than simply stating that they’re “19th in the NFL against the pass,” which most commentators might do if they simply look at total yardage numbers and not the underlying truth about the defense.
The defense is balanced, talented, and has the underlying numbers which indicate efficiency and general dominance regardless of competition. How could this go wrong?
“Uhhh, you see, what had happened was…”
The Arizona offense is bad. Really, really bad.
Again, you may hear some talking head on your television tell you that the Arizona Cardinals are 15th in passing in the NFL, which seems like a nice, average place to be with a stellar defense. But using NEP, we see an entirely different story.
The Cardinals rank fifth-worst in the NFL in Adjusted Passing NEP/play, as Carson Palmer and company come in ahead of only the Buccaneers, Jaguars, Jets, and Giants. Neither San Francisco or Oakland average 190 passing yards per game, and yet neither team has a worse per play Adjusted PNEP than the Cardinals do as a team.
That’s because Carson Palmer and his offense are as mistake-prone as they are capable of making a big play.
Despite his first interception-free game of the season against the Jaguars, Palmer has still thrown more picks than touchdowns this season. And he racked up over 16 percent of his passing yards for the season in that game against the Jaguars, which is adjusted down in the team’s NEP numbers due to the ease with which offenses are able to throw against Jacksonville.
So it has to get better when we look at the running game, right?
Only the Jaguars, Ravens, and Giants have worse rushing attacks than the Cardinals using Adjusted NEP data.
The main culprit is Rashard Mendenhall, who ranks third-worst in the NFL in RNEP/play. Only Bernard Pierce and Willis McGahee find themselves below the Arizona running back among backs with 50 or more carries within this statistic.
Andre Ellington has been a bright spot, as he’s among the league leaders in RNEP/play. But even with his third-best ranking in the metric, his rushing offense is still at the bottom of the league. That’s because the team data adjusts for schedule, and Ellington had his best day as a runner against the hapless Falcons, who have the worst defense in the NFL.
So much like the Blessid Union of Souls album I bought, there’s not a lot to the Cardinals once you get past the stellar defense.
The Road Ahead
The 6-4 Cardinals will need to win at least three more games to be in the running for a playoff spot, and will likely need four wins to be sure of a chance at a game on Wild Card weekend.
Sorry, it ain’t happening.
The Cardinals have upcoming games against the Colts, Eagles, Titans, 49ers and Seahawks, and a home game against the Rams.
And according to numberFire’s team rankings, the Cardinals sit below all of those teams that aren’t from the state of Missouri, and will find a hard time reaching eight or nine wins, much less the ten needed to be safely in the mix in Week 17.
Why are they ranked so low in the team rankings? You can use the sorting options at the top of the table at the link above and see that they’re weighed down by their horrible offense, and their solid defense just isn’t enough to get the numberFire math wizards to spit out a positive outcome to the season.
So they don’t have a good schedule, and they don’t have a good offense. They have a good defense, but that’s not going to be enough to help them overcome the tough schedule ahead. So much like a one-hit wonder, they have one redeeming quality which will fade into obscurity eventually.
The protagonist in Blessid Union of Souls’ “Hey Leonardo” may be happy that his woman “likes him for him,” but I am sad to say that I can’t throw my love and affection towards the inevitably disappointing Arizona Cardinals.