Add 2014 to another what-might-have-been season for the Arizona Cardinals.
The Cards opened the season with an NFL-best 9-1 record and looked like they were on their way to being NFC West division champions and the first-ever team to have home-field advantage in the Super Bowl.
Instead, the fates were cruel to the Cards, as one by one, their top players were lost for the season due to various injuries. They limped into the playoffs and lost in the Wild Card round with their fourth-string quarterback.
Will this season be any different? Will this year’s Cardinals finish what they started last year? Here are three questions and a prediction for 2015?
1. Will the offensive line come into place?
The Cardinals are notorious for having mediocre (or worse) offensive lines. With the addition of Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati and first-round pick D.J. Humphries, this year’s line looked like it would be one of the best the Cards have ever fielded.
Yeah, about that...
What a nightmare the preseason has been for this line. Iupati suffered a knee injury during training camp and will miss at least the first couple weeks of the season, Humphries has yet to mature into an NFL-caliber back, and starting tackle Bobby Massie is likely out for the first three games due to suspension.
There’s still time for the Cards to get their act together up front, but there’s no denying that what looked like a major advantage for the team heading into 2015 is now looming as a large liability. Will that change anytime soon?
2. Will the running game improve?
The Cardinals have made a heavy investment in their running game heading into 2015, and for good reason. Last year’s unit averaged an NFL-worst 3.3 yards per carry, thanks in part to nagging injuries to then-second-year tailback Andre Ellington.
We learned last year that the 5-foot-9, 210-pound Ellington is not an every-down running back. As such, the Cardinals took 6-foot-1, 225-pound rusher David Johnson in the third round of this year’s draft, and they added former Pro Bowler Chris Johnson as a free agent.
David Johnson showed flashes of brilliance in the Cards’ preseason loss to the Chargers, but the overall ground game has still looked weak at times during the preseason. Will the Johnsons provide the boost the team needs in the regular season?
3. What will the post-Cromartie secondary look like?
The Cardinals’ biggest offseason loss was in the form of 2014 Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who elected to re-sign with his previous team, the New York Jets. Attempting to fill Cromartie’s spot will be Jerraud Powers, who recorded 60 tackles and an interception for Arizona last year.
The other question is what kind of shape the Cards’ pair of former LSU standouts, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, will be in. Peterson, a four-time Pro Bowler, dealt with diabetes throughout last season but reportedly now has the disease under control, while Mathieu is returning from a season-ending thumb injury. Both have looked stellar throughout training camp — but will they and Powers, along with safeties Tony Jefferson and Deone Bucannon, become an elite unit?
Again, the Cardinals may have been Super Bowl-bound last year if not for the injury to veterans such as quarterback Carson Palmer, who suffered an ACL tear midway through the season. Palmer is healthy and has looked great under center thus far, and between Ellington and wide receivers John Brown and J.J. Nelson, this year’s offensive unit may be the fastest in the NFL.
But it’s hard to overstate the problems that a less-than-stellar offensive line present for a football team. The Cards’ line just isn’t very good at all right now — and regardless of the amount of talent and speed the Cardinals have at their disposal, that won’t matter much if Palmer doesn’t have time to throw and the rushers don’t have room to run.
If the O-line improves and key players can stay healthy this time around, the Cardinals have the tools to become Super Bowl contenders. But between the injuries that this year’s group has already suffered and the numerous question marks up front, it’s very difficult to place the Cards in that elite category.
It’s going to be a believe-it-when-we-see-it kind of year in the Valley. Until we see the results on the field, it’s tough to envision this year’s Cardinals as playoff-bound.
9-7, third place in NFC West