Arizona Cardinals 2014 Season Review: What Could Have Been?
In a season when most things could have gone wrong, a lot went right for the Arizona Cardinals.
As a candidate for regression following a surprise 10-6 season in 2013, the Cardinals strung together an even more surprising 11-5 record, peaking at number five in our nERD rankings during the regular season. It wasn’t enough to win the NFC West over the Seattle Seahawks, but it was enough to win Bruce Arians the Coach of the Year award, which he deserved.
Unfortunately for Arizona, the Cardinals could not get past the Carolina Panthers in the Wild Card Round. After the Cardinals started the year 9-1, the season shifted for the worse, and fans and the organization were left wondering what could have been.
What Went Right?
For the second year in a row, the Arizona defense was one of the best in the league. The Cardinals ranked seventh in Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) despite being victim to numerous injuries to key contributors. Darnell Dockett tore his ACL in August and did not play a snap this season. John Abraham played only 36 snaps in the first game of the season before being placed on injured reserve with a concussion. Matt Shaughnessy was placed on injured reserve after four games, Calais Campbell missed two games with an injury and Tyrann Mathieu came into the season coming off a torn ACL. Daryl Washington wasn’t injured -- he was suspended -- but he did not play a single down.
Despite all of those losses, the Cardinals defense was able to hold itself together. Much of that can be attributed to the aggressive scheme and play calling of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Bowles was able to put defensive players in position to succeed, doing things like playing with three safeties in Tony Jefferson, Deone Bucannon and Rashad Johnson to keep the best players on the field. Even as players went down, others like second-year linebackers Kevin Minter and Alex Okafor were able to step in and play efficiently.
While Bowles deservedly gets a lot of credit for the defense -- he used the success to land a head coaching gig with the Jets -- but credit should also be give to general manager Steve Keim for stocking the back end of the roster. Outside of a key offensive position (which we’ll get to below), the Cardinals were one of the deepest rosters in the league throughout 2014.
What Went Wrong?
The rules of the game require a player to play quarterback. That player doesn’t have to be a quarterback specifically, but someone has to take the snap for the center on each play. In a pass heavy league, that doesn’t become an issue for many teams, but it became the biggest problem for the Cardinals by the end of the season. After Carson Palmer suffered a nerve injury during Week 1, Drew Stanton filled in until Palmer returned in Week 6.
Stanton’s Passing NEP per drop back on the season was just 0.03, 27th out of the 37 quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 drop backs. Also, Stanton had only a 40.2 percent success rate (the percentage of passes resulting in positive NEP gains for the Cardinals). This was 35th out of those 37 quarterbacks.
For many teams, that’s where the quarterback injury woes end in a given season. The starter gets injured, the backup plays below the level of the starter, and the team moves on. The 2014 Cardinals would have loved if that was it.
Palmer returned in Week 6, only to tear his ACL in Week 10 against the St. Louis Rams. Against the Rams in Week 15, Stanton suffered a knee injury and would not play again. That left Arizona with Ryan Lindley as the quarterback, and that did not go well. In just 99 drop backs, Lindley had a Passing NEP of -11.77 and was worth -0.12 Passing NEP every time he dropped back. That was much worse than Stanton’s 0.03 and wildly worse than Palmer’s 0.18 per drop back.
Arizona could not even rely on a running game to carry a subar quarterback. Amid injuries of his own, Andre Ellington ranked last among all players in Rushing NEP, and he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Ellington played only 12 games, and the duo of Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams didn’t fare much better. The Cardinals finished the year just 25th in Adjusted Rushing NEP in the league.
After two successful seasons, the Cardinals have a difficult offseason ahead of them. Arizona is going to have to shuffle some contracts to free up cap space for the offseason. The Cardinals are an estimated $8.6 million over the cap using their top 51 contracts, per Spotrac.com.
Arizona has four players with a 2015 cap hit over $14 million, and two of them will be question marks heading into the offseason. One is Palmer, due to the nature of his injury. Palmer is a 35-year-old quarterback coming off his second ACL tear in his left knee. Judging by both his play and getting passed over in favor of Lindley, 2014 fourth-round pick Logan Thomas has not yet developed to be Palmer’s replacement.
Palmer will be on the roster in 2015, but that might not be the case for Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s $23.6 million cap hit for 2015 will need to be adjusted in some way. There have been talks between the Cardinals and the receiver, but a massive restructuring with a pay cut would have to take place to keep Fitzgerald in Arizona. Despite leading the team in targets, Fitzgerald finished second on the team in yards and Reception NEP behind Michael Floyd.
Arizona will also have to solidify an offensive line that did not do their running backs or backup quarterbacks any favors last year. With a healthier roster next year, the Cardinals should have some buffer in taking a big step back, but there will be a lot of worked needed to be done in the offseason to improve.