Why Bruce Arians Deserves to Be Named Coach of the Year
The Arizona Cardinals were near locks for the playoffs by Week 10 -- they had a 97.2% chance of the postseason per our metrics -- but were unable to hold onto the NFC West lead, going 2-4 in their final six regular season games. They ultimately fell short of playoff glory, losing to the Carolina Panthers in the first round of the postseason.
A collapse by any other team would not have smelled as sweet. Fate surely wasn't on Arizona's side, and the injury list in Arizona grew longer and longer by the day it seemed.
Going 2-5 at any point makes it tough to advocate a coach for best of the year, but considering the talent Bruce Arians had on his squad, he deserves to be in serious contention for the award.
Overcoming Preseason Expectations
Entering the 2014 season, the Cardinals, per our algorithms, had a 34.0% chance to reach the postseason, just the 15th-best chance in the NFL. Compared to the rest of the NFC West, that was pretty low. The Seattle Seahawks were at 67.0%, fourth in the league. The San Francisco 49ers had a 49.5% chance to make the playoffs, eighth highest.
The St. Louis Rams, at 24.1% were just 25th, but still, the Cardinals were expected to finished third in the division, something that not many people would have argued entering the year.
By Week 4's conclusion, though, their odds increased to 69.5%, fourth best in the league. The Cardinals entered that week 3-0 and had their bye. By the time they were 9-1 after Week 11, their odds were at 98.6%, all but assuring a playoff spot.
This itself is impressive considering the preseason projections, but when examining the on-field product the Cardinals had, Arians' work is even more award-worthy.
The Passing Offense
Carson Palmer was playing very well for the Cardinals before suffering a season-ending injury in early November. He actually finished the year 17th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) despite playing in only six games. NEP, by the way, is our in-house metric that measures how well a player is playing above or below expectation. On a per-drop back basis, Palmer ranked sixth in the NFL among the 37 quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs by adding 0.18 points per drop back.
Aside from Palmer, the Cardinals used three different quarterbacks, none of whom came close to Palmer's success. Drew Stanton ranked 27th of those 37 quarterbacks with a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.03. His Passing NEP was just 7.50, well below Palmer's 41.80, and also ranked 27th in the subset.
On 99 drop backs, Ryan Lindley tallied a Passing NEP of -11.77, -0.12 per drop back. That means Lindley lost the Cards close to 12 points on just under 100 drop backs. Logan Thomas managed to lose the Cards 2.36 points on only 11 drop backs -- losing 0.21 per drop back.
Overall, the Cards' passing offense finished just 21st in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, which is adjusted for schedule strength, and 20th on a cumulative basis, despite Palmer's great play.
The Rushing Offense
Even worse than the passing was the rushing. The Cardinals finished just 26th in the league in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play (-0.05). Don't get too caught up in the negative metric. Negative Passing NEP scores are quite concerning, but only 13 teams finished at or above 0.00 per play in Adjusted Rushing NEP. Rushing just doesn't move the chains quite like passing.
You also can't pin the run game's woes all on the loss of Ellington. Sure, he posted the 14th-best Rushing NEP in the league last year among running backs at 7.01. This year, he was the worst running back in football, according to our metrics. And I'm not being hyperbolic. His Rushing NEP was -28.34. That's a nice 35.35-point plummet from last year. Oh, and fellow NFC West back Marshawn Lynch was over 55 points better than Ellington was this year at 27.34.
Per our database, Ellington's 2014 season, in terms of Rushing NEP, ranked 2,413 among the 2,470 running backs who recorded a carry in those 15 years. A nice, round 500 instances exist of a running back's rushing the ball at least 150 times in a season since 2000. Ellington's Rushing NEP per carry (-0.14) ranks 461st. This year, Ellington's Success Rate, evidencing the percentage of rushes that contributed positively toward the Cardinals' point output, of 33.83% was last among all backs with at least 150 carries.
I'll lay off Ellington now. But just know that, of the 478 cumulative team seasons since 2000, the Cardinals' rushing offense ranked 324th. Last year, coincidentally, they were 325th. Ellington, really, just took over for Rashard Mendenhall's inefficiencies (he posted a -24.87 Rushing NEP last year).
In Arizona this year, Arians had little to work with on the offensive side of the ball yet mustered the 19th-best offense in the NFL this year.
You can point the finger at him for not getting more out of his running game, but Mendenhall and Ellington aren't exactly clear-cut, elite talents despite Ellington's big-play potential in a limited role last year. With a struggling quarterback rotation (aside from Palmer) and dreadful rushing marks, you have to give the man some credit.
The defensive side of the ball was much more generous to the Cardinals, as they ranked seventh overall in per-play defense. Their pass defense per play was 11th, and their rush defense play was also 11th. These were still great marks -- but they were actually a slight downgrade from their 2013 numbers, Arians' first year with the team. Last year, the Cardinals ranked fifth overall, seventh in pass defense, and second in rush defense.
Losing Dockett would have figured to have been a critical blow, but the defense was -- credit to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles -- able to recover and maintain one of the best units in the NFL.
Despite the dreadful offense, the Cardinals were able to muster the 15th-best nERD in the NFL, which indicates the point-differential against a league-average opponent (0.70), which was spot on with their season-long point differential of 11 points.
So, according to our nERD metric, the Cardinals had just the 15th-best team in the league, but Arians helped get them to 11-5 and a playoff berth. 15th, of course, is the same rank they had entering the season per our playoff projections -- 34.0%.
With one of the least effective running backs in recent football history and only six games from a solid quarterback, Arians and his staff did some great things this year, taking a pretty average team to the top of the NFL -- even if they couldn't hang on once the injuries began to pile up.
I'm not saying Arians is the only choice for the award, but he managed to do a lot with relatively little, all things considered.