For only the second time in Arizona, the Cardinals had a double-digit win total. What did their 10-win season get them? A third-place finish in their division and a window seat on the plane as they waved goodbye to the playoffs. It’s a travesty a team with 10 wins had to miss the playoffs, but that’s a topic for another time. Today, we review the 2013 season for one of the most surprising teams of the year.
Bruce Arians was tabbed as the head coach for the Cardinals after a successful year as the Indianapolis Colts’ 2012 offensive coordinator/interim head coach, and has a Super Bowl ring from the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers championship team, also as offensive coordinator. As we all know, the Cardinals offense was miserable in 2012, so the hope was that Arians would turn that around in Arizona. How did he do? Let's take a look at the Cardinals' strengths and weaknesses from this season below.
While offensively the Cardinals left a lot to be desired, the biggest reason the Cardinals had 10 wins in arguably the toughest division in the league was due to their fifth-ranked defense, according to our Net Expected Points data, when adjusting for strength of schedule. Before you think that Arians led a revolution on the defensive side of the ball, he actually inherited a defense that was in the top three overall in 2012 when fixed for strength of opponent. The Cardinals' pass defense was rated the second best while the run defense was 10th.
Their 2013 draft consisted of three of the first four picks being defensive players, including defensive back Tyrann Mathieu (aka the Honey Badger). Despite a slight drop in pass defense rankings from 2012 (which many may not realize), the Honey Badger was able to join do-it-all defensive back Patrick Peterson, forming one of the best secondaries in the league. The two tallied 104 tackles, five interceptions, and 22 passes defended, contributing to their -19.87 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. In layman's terms, they allowed 20 less points over the course of the season than an average defense would have through the air, which is considered stellar given today's pass-first league.
While their pass defense was outstanding, their run defense was even better, especially compared to 2012. Linebacker Karlos Dansby’s return to Arizona was the biggest measurable impact on the run defense as he led the team with 113 tackles. The run stuffing's biggest claim this season was holding Eagle’s running back LeSean McCoy (who led the league in rushing yards) to under 80 rushing yards in their Week 13 tilt. When it was all said and done, the Cardinals finished as the number three run defense with an -40.43 Adjusted Defensive Rush NEP.
The one bright spot offensively was at the receiver position. They weren't great, but they got the job done when asked. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd finished in the top 35 in Target NEP (of 76 qualifying receivers), which factors in how the receivers performed, expected points-wise, on all targets, not just receptions. Although just a second-year pro, Floyd was actually the better of the two, converting nearly 97% of his receptions into positive gains. The passing offense ended up near the middle of the pack in the NFL, finishing the year as the 17th-ranked unit.
Arians inherited one of the worst offenses in NFL history from 2012 - the only direction was up, but that doesn't mean things would turn out great.
New (old) quarterback Carson Palmer was an upgrade from the John Skelton/Kevin Kolb/Ryan Lindley triumvirate (who wouldn’t be?), but the situation could have been better. Palmer finished the season with a 25.80 Passing NEP, 19th-best among quarterbacks with at least 160 drop backs. That put him right behind Alex “Game Manager” Smith, but ahead of most backups/injured quarterbacks. Only Ryan Tannehill, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, and Geno Smith finished worse than Palmer among the full-time starters.
The running game was the worst unit on the team, ranking fifth-worst in the league with a -22.78 Rush NEP. Essentially, the ground game cost the Cardinals nearly 1.5 points per game. The saving grace was former Clemson standout Andre Ellington, who had the 10th-best Rushing NEP among relevant backs this year. He finished higher than the likes of Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch, and Ryan Mathews while doing so. Clearly, this number could certainly decrease with a little more volume.
Veteran running back Rashard Mendenhall was a different story though. Mendenhall should be thankful Ray Rice and Trent Richardson flopped the way they did, as they were two of only three other running backs who finished with a worse Rushing NEP than Mendenhall, keeping attention away from his horrible season. For every step Ellington took forward, Mendenhall took three back, finishing with a Rushing Net Expected Points total of -24.87. Yikes.
What Should They Do?
This offseason, the Cards can't let go of the foundation the team built this year. The secondary is young and improving, while the run defense has a lot of potential. Arians came into a great situation on the defensive side of the ball, and helped progress the unit forward. If they can keep making improvements in the offense, they'll have a chance to hang around with the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC West next year.
The offense needs some work, however. Let’s start with Carson Palmer, because he’s not getting any younger. The Cardinals will be picking in the middle of the first round, and despite the quarterback crop that is coming out of college football this year, they may end up out of position to select a top signal-caller. But whether it’s the first round or seventh, they need to address the position as Palmer looks to be only good enough to be a short-term solution. Let that quarterback sit for a year and then take over.
In the meantime the front office should bolster the offensive tackle positions. According to Pro Football Focus, Eric Winston and Bradley Sowell were both in the bottom 10 (of 60) among offensive tackles in pass coverage this year. It’s one thing if Palmer is old and can’t throw; but if he can’t be protected, the offense is just that much worse, especially since Bruce Arians is a vertical thinker offensively. Winston and Sowell combined to give up 83 quarterback hurries, another 21 quarterback hits, and a total of 14 sacks. No wonder the passing game struggled.
Lastly, the backfield. Mendenhall may have played under Arians before in Pittsburgh, but let’s face it – Andre Ellington is the back of the future. His Rush NEP was among the best in the league, and if he gets a little more volume, there’s no reason to think he can’t improve upon his numbers since he did have a 0.07 NEP per rush (eighth-best in the league). He was a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, too. Of Ellington’s 39 catches, he turned 67% of them into a positive NEP gain for himself and the Cardinals.
The biggest "if" with Ellington is whether or not he can carry the load. But, if the Cardinals deem him ready and able, this team could be playing in the playoffs next year instead of watching them fly by.