All In The Cards: Arizona’s Fountain Of Youth

Welcome to this special edition of All In The Cards! I hope you enjoy and if you do make sure to follow me on Twitter @QTipsforsports or just search the hashtag #Allinthecards for in-game thoughts and analysis:

In the early sixteenth century, a popular legend spread about a magical fountain that could rejuvenate the elderly. In 1513, Spanish Conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon’s search for that mythical place led him to discover Florida, and to this day St. Augustine uses this story to create tourism. No one ever found the fountain, so it became an unattainable myth. I guess nobody checked Glendale, Arizona.

Around 500 years later in the year 2013, Steve Keim became the Arizona Cardinals General Manager and set out to rebuild the franchise. With new head coach Bruce Arians, Keim built his team around the draft, retain young talent, and fill out the rest of the roster out with veterans who would help mentor the younger players. To get the best mentors, the Cardinals needed players who were great but past their prime and at the tail end of their careers.

No player fit this description better than John Abraham. One of the greatest pass-rushers in NFL history, Abraham was on the verge of retiring when he got a call from the Cardinals. In 2013, at the age of 35, the long-time veteran proved he wasn’t done by recording 11.5 sacks, the most he had since 2010.

Also in 2013, the Cardinals saw one of their former franchise players, Karlos Dansby, return home after three disappointing years with the Miami Dolphins. At the age of 32, Dansby produced more sacks (6.5) than he did in his three years with Miami (6). Dansby also intercepted a career-high four passes and scored two defensive touchdowns. After his renaissance season, Dansby was rewarded in free agency with a multi-year contract from the Cleveland Browns, something that looked impossible when he signed his one-year contract with Arizona.

While Dansby stayed only one season, his success opened the floodgates for the Cardinals. In 2014, several top older veterans signed with the Cardinals hopeful of revisiting their primes. While Larry Foote (34 years old) and Tommy Kelly (33) played big roles for Arizona’s first playoff team since 2009, cornerback Antonio Cromartie (30) did the most to prove you can resurrect your career in Arizona.

Forced to play opposite Patrick Peterson, Cromartie was constantly targeted by opposing offenses as the matchup they could exploit. However, by the end of the year opponents were more likely to target Peterson’s man instead after Cromartie continuously made teams pay for throwing against him. Cromartie finished with 48 tackles, which was his most in a season since having 64 in 2008 with the Chargers, and added three interceptions. He became one of the most recruited free agents this past offseason and ended up back with the New York Jets on a multi-year deal.

With back-to-back successes, even more veterans came flooding in this season. Those signings included LaMarr Woodley and Sean Weatherspoon, who may not be old but were looking to turn their careers around after major injuries.

However, the biggest story so far this season has been the resurgence of former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson. After playing six seasons with the Tennessee Titans and rushing for 7,965 yards, Johnson had his worst season in 2014 with the Jets. Only months away from his 30th birthday (usually the expiration date for running backs) he had rushed for only 663 yards and one touchdown, and he looked like a small speedster who had finally taken one too many hits. Things got worse in the offseason. Johnson was shot in the shoulder in March and found himself without a team going into training camp.

Johnson was thinking about retirement when the Cards expressed interest in him during the preseason as Andre Ellington’s backup. The result has been nothing short of incredible: Through five weeks Johnson is tied for second in the NFL with 405 rushing yards. Johnson is on pace for 1,200 yards and averaging his most yards per carry (5.1) since his 2,000-yard season in 2008 (5.6). There is no way he will top that season, but 1,200 yards would be an accomplishment itself.

This veteran rejuvenation isn’t restricted to one-year rental players. Now in his third season with the Cardinals, Carson Palmer has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL the last two seasons, when he’s been healthy. Becuase of his recent performance, it might be hard to remember that Palmer’s career looked like it was over before he found himself in the desert. Palmer was traded to the Cardinals during the 2013 offseason and in exchange the Oakland Raiders received a seventh-round draft pick. In contrast, the Raiders had to trade a first- and a second-round draft pick to the Cincinnati Bengals to acquire Palmer in 2011. That’s how far his value dropped in just two seasons as the Raiders’ starting quarterback. Now at age 35 he’s playing just as well as he did during his best seasons in Cincinnati.

Other Cardinals, such as defensive end Frostee Rucker, have been having career years despite being their thirties. Last season Rucker, at age 31, had a career-high five sacks and tied his career-high for forced fumbles with two.

This season the most unlikely of players is having a career year: Larry Fitzgerald. The only time he has had more catches (35) for more yards (490) through five games was 2005, when he had 36 catches for 504 yards, and only in 2009 did he have as many touchdowns (5) through five games.

The reason that Fitzgerald is having a career year at 32 is because he has become just as dangerous in the slot as he was as an outside receiver. Fitzgerald can now line up anywhere to create mismatches for the defense. Being in the slot means not being covered by shutdown corners, and if teams do decide to shift their best corner onto Fitzgerald when he is in the slot, they risk putting a weaker defensive back on one of the outside receivers (John Brown or Michael Floyd) and getting burned on the long ball. It’s amazing to think that a guaranteed future hall-of-famer may not have completed his best season yet.


How Has This Been Happening?

It’s worth noting that many athletes have resurrected their careers in Arizona, most famously with the Phoenix Suns and their top-level medical/training staff. However, the Cardinals’ Fountain of Youth is separate from that of the Suns. The Cards’ Fountain of Youth is linked to one individual: Bruce Arians.

In 2013, the almost 61-year-old coach finally achieved his goal of becoming an NFL head coach and told many people that “this is my last stop so I’m going to have fun with it.” That attitude has spread to his veteran players, who see Arians as an inspiration. Here is a man almost twice as old as most of his players acting like he is in the prime of his life. When you play for Arians, age is not an excuse. So older players give it their all and are rewarded with important roles on the team.

The secret behind why washed-up veterans do so well for the Cardinals is that Arians and his staff give them roles instead of positions. Instead of trying to make a player fit into a position, the coaching staff develops plays and creates gameplans centered on letting these players do what they do best within the context of the game. Abraham’s job in 2013 was to rush the passer, so when a play called for extra coverage and thus no extra blitzers, Abraham was trusted to create that extra pressure to make the quarterback feel like he was still being blitzed but without the benefit of having a wide-open receiver.

That brings us to this week, as the Cardinals signed former Colts pass-rusher Dwight Freeney in the wake of Alex Okafor’s injury. One of the best defensive ends in NFL history, Freeney has accumulated 111.5 sacks and has had seven seasons with 10 or more sacks. With this signing, Arizona hopes Freeney can fill in for Okafor and improve the pass rush as a whole when Okafor returns. However, at age 37, Freeney hasn’t been great in a long time, last having double-digit sacks in 2010.

You may want to shake off the signing of Freeney as unimportant, but based on the Cardinal’s track record, this may become the pass rush help this team has needed since Abraham retired. If is anything left in Freeney’s tank, he’ll find it in Arizona.

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All In The Cards: The Roster Needed To Succeed (Week 1 Recap)

I’m trying.

I’m trying really hard this season to have a realistic view of my Arizona Cardinals. Ever since their appearance in Super Bowl XLIII, every year I somehow convince myself that this is the year the Cardinals will win the Super Bowl. My delusions have been so insane that at one time or another I convinced myself that Matt Leinart and Kevin Kolb were good quarterbacks capable of leading the Cards to a Lombardi Trophy. Look, I was young and naïve back then. I’m an adult now and I need to face reality: sometimes you just don’t have the roster to succeed.

I’m not 100% sure the Cardinals have the roster to succeed this season. They did last year but injuries crippled them to the point that the roster that was set to succeed was unrecognizable by season’s end. The Cardinals have a couple less standouts this season (no more Antonio Cromartie), but what they do have over last year’s team is depth. When an injured Andre Ellington had to finally bow out for the rest of the season, a run game on life support died. We are through only one week of this season and the Cards face the same situation: generating a run game without Ellington. This time they were prepared. They drafted David Johnson out of Northern Iowa in the third round of the NFL Draft. They took a flier on the once great Chris Johnson. When Ellington went out in the fourth quarter, Chris Johnson was called upon to help run out the clock. He ran the ball seven times in that final quarter for 30 yards, including a 12 yard run on his first rush attempt after Ellington left. Then David Johnson sealed the game with a huge 55 yard receiving touchdown in the final minute. Without both of them, the Cards wouldn’t have been able to burn time off the clock and guarantee the victory.

The Cards’ approach this past offseason was to add quality depth so that what happened last year wouldn’t happen again this season. I know that sounds like the rational thing to do but you’d be surprised how many sports franchises are too stubborn to admit their mistakes and thus end up making them again. To see the Cardinals acknowledge their mistakes and spend all offseason correcting them makes me feel proud to be fan.

However there is still one problem that hasn’t been solved: what happens to the offense if Carson Palmer goes down again. Palmer looked amazing against the Saints, throwing for 307 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was able to scramble in the pocket to buy some time for his receivers to get open. Less than a year removed from a major leg injury and with two starting linemen out, Palmer was not sacked one time. Granted the Saints pass rush is average at best, but he was never sacked and only hit a few times, which he took very well. Drew Stanton used to be an acceptable backup because because both going into last season had similar skills. That’s not the case anymore. Palmer‘s improved arm strength and pocket presence makes the 2015 Arizona Cardinals a roster that can succeed. Without him this team can’t succeed. I can guarantee that Palmer will not get a single MVP vote this season, but if the Cards succeed he’ll be their most valuable player.

I’m not going to delude myself into thinking Palmer will definitely lead the Cards to a Super Bowl win this season, but a healthy Palmer makes the possibility real.

Some Card Numbers:

  • Who says Larry Fitzgerald is washed up? Fitzgerald happily accepted having Carson Palmer back and hauled in six catches for 87 yards to lead the Cards in receiving. The 87 receiving yards is the most he’s had in a season opener since he had 133 yards on nine catches against the San Francisco 49ers all the way back in 2006. Also worth noting is that four of Fitzgerald’s six catches went for first downs.
  • One last Fitzgerald note and what will be a running counter on this article: Fitzgerald extended his consecutive games with a catch streak to 164, which is the longest active streak in the NFL.
  • While throwing for 307 yards, Carson Palmer passed Jim Kelly for 21st on the all-time passing yards list.
  • The Cardinals have now won their last four home openers. Speaking of home games, the Cards are now 14-3 at home under Bruce Arians.
  • Last year the Cardinals had one of the best fourth quarter differentials in the NFL. This year they are already off to a great start with a +8 differential.

How I Did With Week 1 Predictions:

  • Arizona 31, New Orleans 19: Without Jimmy Graham to occupy a safety’s attention, the Cardinals secondary was able to neutralize the Saints wide receivers for the most part. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton cleverly countered by calling a bunch of screen passes, which really bothered the Cardinals defense all day. With Matt Forte and the Chicago Bears coming up next week, the Cards defense better practice their screen coverage. (1-0)
  • New England 28, Pittsburgh 21: This game feels like it was an eternity ago but New England prevailed because Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still on their A-game, Rob Gronkowski is unstoppable, and because Pittsburgh couldn’t communicate with each other (Just kidding on that last one). (Season Record: 2-0)
  • Buffalo 27, Indianapolis 14: I knew the Bills would be good (Rex Ryan teams always come to play) but the way they handled the Colts really surprised me. Even though the season just started the Colts need to turn things around quickly, especially with rumors of Coach Chuck Pagano being on the hot seat. (2-1)
  • Green Bay 31, Chicago 23: The Bears pleasantly surprised me with their performance against the Packers, coming very close to pulling off the win. Unfortunately the often-maligned Jay Cutler just became a little more maligned. Rodgers, 189 passing yards and three passing touchdowns, also showed why he’s the reigning MVP. (3-1)
  • New York Jets 31, Cleveland 10: What made Todd Bowles such a great defensive coordinator for the Cardinals was his ability to make perfect halftime adjustments. Fitting that he would get his first win as a head coach by having his Jets shutout out the Browns and force three turnovers in the second half. The Jets have some scary injuries but overall both this season and the future look bright. (4-1)
  • Kansas City 27, Houston 20: For most of the game I was wrong about the Texans, but then in the 4th quarter when Ryan Mallett took over I didn’t look as foolish. Also DeAndre Hopkins is a beast and should be considered as a cheaper alternative in fantasy leagues where you choose a new team on a weekly basis. I’m still taking a wait-and-see approach on Travis Kelce’s long-term fantasy impact. (4-2)
  • Louis 34, Seattle 31 (OT): I’m really kicking myself for not sticking to my gut and picking the Rams. The Rams always push NFC West teams to the limit and the Seahawks were vulnerable without Kam Chancellor. I worry about Seattle’s psyche going forward, especially after the botched onside kick and failed Marshawn Lynch fourth down run. (4-3)
  • Miami 17, Washington 10: This game was a lot closer than I thought which either means good news for the Redskins or bad news for the Dolphins. Also Jarvis Landry’s punt return touchdown was one of the best I have ever seen. Just the way he made it look so easy amazes me. (5-3)
  • Carolina 20, Jacksonville 9: I still stand by what I said about the Panthers offense needing some time but I’ll admit I didn’t give enough credit to their defense before making my pick. We’ll see if they can maintain this level if Luke Kuechly misses a lot of time due to his concussion. Also I may have overestimated the Jaguars’ progress. Still looks like there is a long way to go. (5-4)
  • San Diego 33, Detroit 28: Even though I called the Lions’ choke job, that doesn’t mean I’m proud of it. I was really hoping they would prove me wrong and start the season off on a high note, but instead they throw away a 21-3 first half lead. On the positive side, Keenan Allen started his third season off with a bang after he fell well short of expectations last season. If he can be a go-to receiver for Philip Rivers then the Chargers season suddenly looks more promising. (6-4)
  • Cincinnati 33, Oakland 13: The outcome was even bleaker for the Raiders than I predicted, barely avoiding a shutout with a couple of garbage time touchdowns. The Bengals made a huge statement in this game, telling everyone who picked Pittsburgh or Baltimore to win the division that they still hold the crown and they aren’t going away. (7-4)
  • Denver 19, Baltimore 13: I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that not a single offensive touchdown was scored in this game. While both defenses played at an elite level you can’t help but wonder if this is a sign of things to come, especially for Peyton Manning who has now gone without a touchdown pass in three of his last five games. (8-4)
  • Tennessee 42, Tampa Bay 14: It seems former Cardinals and current Titans Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt finally has a quarterback that he can properly gameplan around. Since the retirement of Kurt Warner, Coach Whiz has had the worst luck with starting quarterbacks but Marcus Mariota looks to have a bright future ahead of him. I’m not about to bury Jameis Winston but the performance really showcased his flaws. (8-5)
  • Dallas 27, New York Giants 26: This game was pure craziness. I definitely feel that Tony Romo’s reputation for choking in the fourth quarter is overblown and that he’s actually one of the better late-game quarterbacks. Both teams should have good seasons so I can’t wait for the rematch. Hopefully it will be just as entertaining. (8-6)
  • Atlanta 26, Philadelphia 24: I knew that the Eagles running game would be overhyped but I never expected a combined 11 carries for 13 yards from DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews. Matt Ryan excelled under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan just like I expected, and Julio Jones (nine receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns) is earning every penny of that new contract. Also shout out to former Indiana Hoosier Tevin Coleman for gaining 80 yards off 20 carries in his first NFL game. (9-6)
  • San Francisco 20, Minnesota 3: I’ve watched the Cardinals defense go up against Carlos Hyde a couple of times and I never would have imagined he would have a game like he did last night. Hyde’s 168 rushing yards and two touchdowns should be a great comfort for the 49ers and their fanbase which has gone through a lot of turnover and turmoil over the past year. Also I am dumbfounded by how underwhelming the Vikings performed. (9-7)