PHOENIX - With a 10-6 regular-season record, the Arizona Cardinals were the NFL’s hard-luck team of 2013, becoming just the seventh team in the last decade to finish a season with at least 10 wins and miss the playoffs.
What will it take for the Cards to advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2009? With the beginning of the 2014 regular season days away, here are five musts, along with a prediction, for this year’s team:
1. Palmer must produce for more than half the season.
The Cardinals went 4-4 in the first half and 6-2 in the second half of their 2013 campaign. It wasn’t a coincidence that 11-year NFL quarterback Carson Palmer’s numbers were much better in Arizona’s final eight games (14 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 95.3 QB rating) than in its first eight (10 TDs, 14 INTs, 72.4 QB rating).
Fortunately, Palmer and the rest of the offense have had a full season to learn second-year head coach Bruce Arians’ scheme. That, along with a pair of 1,000-yard-caliber wide receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, bodes well for the possibility that the Palmer we saw in the second half of last season will reemerge in the first half of this one.
2. Ellington must remain healthy.
Much has been made of the success that running back Andre Ellington’s enjoyed in his rookie season. The Cardinals’ 2013 sixth-round draft pick racked up 5.5 yards per carry last year, the best mark of any RB with at least 100 rushes – and with the retirement of last year’s No. 1 tailback, Rashard Mendenhall, the starting backfield job is Ellington’s heading into this season.
But two big questions loom large for Ellington heading into Week 1: Can the former Clemson star’s body handle a much heavier workload that could include 25-30 touches per game, and will his success continue now that opposing defenses have undoubtedly keyed in on him? We’ll find out beginning Monday night.
3. The linebackers must step up to the challenge.
The Cardinals head into the regular season without three of the men who helped them lead the league in rushing defense in 2013 – linebackers Daryl Washington (suspension) and Karlos Dansby (free agency), and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett (injury).
Arians and Co. have done their best to restock the shelves with the offseason additions of veteran linebackers Larry Foote and Kevin Minter, the latter of whom has been dealing with a pectoral injury. It will be up to them, along with Dockett’s replacement, Frostee Rucker, to serve as adequate replacements. It’s unrealistic for this year’s Cards to lead the league in rushing D again, but finishing in the top third of the league isn’t out of the question.
4. The secondary must be as good as advertised.
Arizona was 14th in the NFL in passing yards allowed and tied for 21st in passing touchdowns allowed in 2013. The Cardinals made up for those numbers with their ability to stop the run, but with so many losses upfront, those passing numbers have to improve in 2014.
Fortunately, the Cards seem poised to do so with the addition of three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie and the return of safety Tyrann Mathieu from a torn ACL he suffered late last season. Combined with three-time Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson, and safeties Tony Jefferson and 2014 first-round draft pick Deone Bucannon, the Cards appear to boast one of the best secondaries in the league. But will they look as good on the field as they do on paper?
5. Catanzaro must handle the pressure.
The Cardinals’ kicking situation was a classic case of the young stud beating out the aging veteran. In the preseason, we saw rookie Chandler Catanzaro earn the regular-season starting job by outshining 13-year pro Jay Feely in field-goal and kickoff duty.
But that was the preseason. Catanzaro is yet to attempt a game-winning NFL kick on the road with 70,000 fans screaming for him to miss. He’s certainly a skilled kicker – he connected on 81.7% of his kicks at Clemson and went 13 of 14 in his senior year – but we won’t know whether he’s able to handle the pressure until he’s inevitably tested.
Why are there so many musts for the Cards? Because there’s very little margin for error. They play in the NFL’s most competitive division. Led by the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, the NFC West had the best win-loss record of any division in 2013 (42-22), and that’s unlikely to change this season.
With so many unknowns entering the year – Palmer’s consistency, Ellington’s durability, compensating for the loss of key defensive personnel – it’s tough to endorse the Cards as a 2014 playoff team, even with all the young talent on both sides of the ball.
8-8, third in NFC West