Expectations can be a heavy burden. When the head coach and starting quarterback are both in their rookie seasons, it is not surprising to find the team with a losing record. For the Arizona Cardinals, 2019 began with frustration but ended with hope. The Cardinals added pieces to the roster during the offseason and now expectations are the highest it has been in quite some time. Today we take a look at just how close the Cardinals could come to reaching those expectations.
Another Year Together
For players, learning a new offense takes time and brings difficulties, especially something that is not often used in the pro game. For a head coach, adapting your system to the restraints of the pro game can be equally difficult. The Cardinals had both ends of the spectrum in 2019. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury spent most of his first year in the NFL adapting his “Air-Raid” concepts that he brought from his time in the college game. The early part of the 2019 season saw a few growing pains, primarily in the red zone. However, as the season progressed, it became obvious that the offense began to find its way.
The offense became explosive and dangerous towards the end of 2019. Quarterback Kyler Murray grew into the offense and the level of competition in the NFL. He improved from week to week and rarely made the same mistake twice. Throw in more time for the rest of the offensive pieces to learn and gel, the Cardinals have an offense with heaps of potential. If Murray can take the expected step forward in his second season, the offense will be scary for Arizona opponents. With a talented offense, the expectations are quite high for the unit.
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The Cardinals dropped a handful of games in 2019 due to defensive breakdowns when it mattered the most. Part of that was the lack of qualified personnel to run Vance Joseph’s style of defense. In three seasons the Cardinals went from a blitz-heavy “3-4” defense, into Steve Wilks’ “Carolina 4-3”, then back into a “3-4” defense. As a result, Joseph was forced to plug players into areas where they were not suited. This can be seen in how poorly the linebacking unit defended against the pass. As a unit, the Cardinals became the dream opponent for tight ends. For the season, Arizona gave up an average of six reception, 73.3 yards receiving, and one touchdown to tight ends, per game.
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For all the struggles in 2019, the Cardinals found a gem in Byron Murphy at cornerback and the continued improvement of safety Budda Baker. Add rookies Isaiah Simmons and Leki Fotu, the Cardinals defense find themselves with an influx of power and speed. Simmons was the surprise pick as the Clemson standout was projected to be taken prior to Arizona’s first pick in the draft. However, now the dynamic playmaker is set to join the linebacker group and instantly adds a new dynamic to the unit. The defense filled a few holes during the offseason and another year under Vance Joseph should help the unit improve greatly over last season.
There’s a Chance
The schedule for the 2020 season had no chance of being easy. Arizona plays in the toughest division in the NFL, the NFC West. It will be a battle to come out with a victory during the six divisional matchups, although the Cardinals were able to play some tough games. However, the rest of the schedule offers some hope, should Arizona find at least a split from divisional games. The Cardinals play both the AFC and NFC East this season, in addition to the last-place teams from the other three NFC divisions. These include home games against Washington, Detroit, and Miami. The road games include trips to Carolina and both New York teams.
On paper, the Cardinals match up well to the aforementioned teams and should be expected to come out victorious in each. That would account for six wins. A split of divisional games would bring the total to nine, with four remaining games. Dallas and New England will be tough road games while the Cardinals host two playoff teams from last season in Buffalo and Philadelphia. Steal a game or two from that group and it puts the Cardinals at 10 wins for the season and a likely spot in the playoffs. Of course, this is at best an educated guess at the beginning of September with 17 weeks of football ahead of us.
None of This Matters
Championships aren’t won on paper, they’re won on the field. Last season, the San Francisco 49ers were the class of the NFC, a season after failing to win double-digit games for the sixth time since 2013. The Cardinals took the 49ers to the brink of defeat in both meetings last season. Arizona showed a fight in them that was lacking in 2018, a fight that could be the catalyst for a run to the playoffs in 2020. At the end of the day, the expectations are much higher than there were heading into last season, and the Cardinals have the talent to come through.
– Ryan Adverderada is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage 49ers. He also covered the Arizona Cardinals for Full Press Coverage. Like and follow on Follow @ryanadverderada