The Messy Arizona Cardinals' Offense: Could It Cost Them a Playoff Spot?

Drew Stanton and the Arizona offense is struggling, but could it cost them the playoffs?

Bruce Arians is an offensive mastermind. He once did wonders for the Steelers prior to the Todd Haley era, made the Colts a high-powered bunch in Andrew Luck's rookie season, and has slowly been building pieces for the Cardinals in Arizona.

This season, Arians has faced the toughest task since becoming a more prominent figure in the National Football League. He's had to build an offense around quarterback Drew Stanton.

This wouldn't be a big deal if the Cardinals were out of the playoff hunt, but that's not the case. Arizona currently sits at 9-3, tied with Philadelphia and Green Bay for the best record in the NFC. And they lead the tough NFC West by a game.

But the Cardinals have lost two straight contests -- games that have come after starting quarterback Carson Palmer tore his ACL, ending his season. The team has now scored one offensive touchdown over their last 11 quarters of play.

The glass half full side of Arizona's situation is that they have nine wins, and could potentially get into the playoffs with just one more. The glass half empty perspective is that the team has become so inept offensively that capturing one victory after winning nine of their first 10 games isn't even close to a lock.

What about the realistic viewpoint?

Arizona, You Have a Problem

If you recall, Carson Palmer missed time earlier in the Cardinals' season with a nerve injury. He missed three games, but the Cardinals fortunately won two of them, losing only to a strong Broncos team.

That leaves us with six games of Carson Palmer, and six games of not Carson Palmer for the Cardinals this season. Using our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, here's how the Cardinals have performed offensively with and without Palmer under center.

Total NEPPassing NEPRushing NEP
With Palmer27.1547.01-16.04
Without Palmer-5.57-1.65-11.17

In essence, these not-adjusted-for-strength-of-opponent numbers paint a pretty obvious picture: the team has been far more effective with Palmer under center than when he hasn't been. In six games, Palmer's offense on a per game basis captured roughly 4.5 Net Expected Points. Extrapolated through 12 games, and you're looking at the 12th-best offense in the NFL, according to our numbers.

When Palmer hasn't been under center, the Cardinals are at a -1.11 Net Expected Points per game average. While that seems relatively decent considering zero would hypothetically be "expectation", keep in mind that we're in an NFL where expectation has risen. This type of performance over 12 games would be only better than 7 NFL teams.

The interesting thing here, however, is that teams with anything close to a -1.11 NEP per game average aren't approaching the playoffs. The bottom 10 teams in NEP this season are Jacksonville, Oakland, New York (Jets), Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Buffalo, Tennessee, Minnesota, Carolina and New York (Giants). You could make the case for Buffalo, I suppose, but they're the only team listed with a non-losing record. And it's because offense drives production and wins in the NFL.

An important thing to note, too, is how poor Stanton and the Cardinals have performed over their last three contests. According to our data, during this stretch, the Cardinals are averaging -3.91 NEP per contest. Had they played this way for each of their 12 games, Arizona would have the third-worst offense in the NFL, ahead of only Oakland and Jacksonville.

Entering Week 11, Stanton had a 5.40 Passing NEP total, good for a 0.06 per drop back average. Exiting Week 13, Stanton's Passing NEP has dropped just 1.36 expected points, while his per drop back NEP has fallen to 0.02. It's a drop, sure, but it's not nearly as significant as you may have thought. Playing 1.36 NEP "below expectation" in three games is essentially what Cam Newton has done through the air this season.

The issue is that Stanton is capturing his production through big plays and not sustained drives. According to our Success Rate metric, which looks at the percentage of positive plays made by a player, Stanton's 40.91% rate is only better than the two Jets' quarterbacks this season.

Something that ties into this notion of sustaining long drives is Arizona's lack of ability to run the football. Referencing the table above, you can see how poor the team has pounded the rock regardless of the quarterback under center. As a result, Andre Ellington is the least effective running back in the NFL per our numbers, and Arizona is a bottom-10 rushing offense in the league. When you've got an inexperienced, under-qualified quarterback leading your offense who can only produce when he makes splash plays to his big receivers, he's going to need a little help. That hasn't been there.

And when you combine these two factors - an ineffective rushing attack in a Drew Stanton-led offense - you get a mess. You get a borderline disaster. And that's why the Cardinals have struggled.

Will They Still Make the Playoffs?

If the Cardinals' third-ranked defense doesn't play at a high level from here on out, Arizona will be in more trouble than some may realize. The team's remaining schedule is against Kansas City (13th-best team in the NFL per our metrics), St. Louis (21st, but rising), Seattle (4th) and San Francisco (16th). None of those games are locks.

With that being said, due to tiebreakers and competing team schedules, we still give the Cardinals a 91.4% chance of getting into the playoffs. But once they're in, it'd be hard to fathom this squad making any noise.