The Cardinals Are Failing Because Bruce Arians Is A Bad Head Coach
Less than one year ago, the Arizona Cardinals were on their way to an appearance in the NFC Championship Game against the Carolina Panthers. Now as we wrap up Week 12, they are a depressing 4-6-1 in the NFC West, which is currently one of the worst divisions in the NFL.
Generally speaking, a rough season on the heels of such a successful should be taken with a grain of salt; particularly in a season like this one that has featured an unusually swift changing of the guard. Still, even with all the normal excuses we employ to prop up the coaches that we want to like, it is obvious that something has gone inexplicably wrong with a very talented Cardinals team.
And I'm looking directly at Bruce Arians.
Arians is an offensive coach and - at least prior to this season - was considered by many to be one of the best head coaches in the NFL, a viewpoint exemplified by this take from Rotoworld that ranked Arians as the third best HC in the NFL behind Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll:
"Fond of swears, Kangols and especially deep balls, Arians coaches like the man out of time he seemed to be in 2012. His urgent brand of football has produced three seasons where each was better than the last, going from 10 wins to 11 to 13. Continually minting new stars on offense, Arians routinely overachieves on defense, and has a coaching tree that took only two years to spring a branch (Todd Bowles to the Jets). Arians’ crystal clear philosophy has produced the most straightforward of results: Winning, and lots of it."
Keep that glowing praise in mind as you read on. It's also worth noting that one of his "claims to fame" - if you will - is that he helped to coach both Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck into uber-successful rookie seasons. I will circle back to that later, but for now, let's take a look at what this offensive guru is working with this season and try to figure out why they are the 20th ranked team in points per game this season.
The fact of the matter is that even with Carson Palmer at his worst, the Cardinals have a better offense top-to-bottom than all but a handful of teams in the league. Don't believe me? Let me give you a quick rundown, because their wide receivers alone would have Tom Brady licking his chops.
Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are both 6'3" and 220 lbs and have been healthy all season, not to mention the fact that Fitzgerald is a future Hall of Famer who is still one of the most reliable WRs in the NFL. Oh, and the their second-string consists of J.J. Nelson and John Brown who are easily the fastest receiving duo and two of the fastest players in the league. Nelson was the fastest player at the 2015 NFL Combine with a 4.28 in the 40-yard dash, while Brown's 4.34 in 2014 was good for the third-fastest.
Their starting running back, David Johnson, is top-five at this position this season as he closes in on 1,000 yards rushing along with 10 rushing touchdowns. He's also the best receiving back in the NFL with 55 receptions for 613 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The Cardinals tight end, Darren Fells, has battled injury and was replaced by Jermaine Gresham as the starter, but on his 11 targets this season he's been nearly perfect with 10 receptions for 83 yards. Meanwhile, Gresham has contributed 22 receptions for 212 yards and 2 touchdowns this season.
As for the Cardinals' offensive line, ProFootballFocus.com had it ranked a very respectable 11th in the NFL through the first half of this season. Here's what they had to say:
"Stud: The Cardinals brought Mike Iupati (84.3) in to inject some life into their running game. Mission accomplished.
Dud: If there’s one area that has proven problematic in Arizona, it’s at right tackle. Bobby Massie (45.0) has had some problems since returning to the lineup, earning negative grades in pass protection the past five weeks.
Summary: The much-improved Cardinals’ line is spearheaded by the fantastic left-side combo of Iupati and Jared Veldheer (83.2). Outside of that, it’s still a world away from the Arizona lines of recent years, with no real liabilities."
So they have two of the better offensive lineman in the league and despite some issues, have no major liabilities. So far, the biggest red flag I can spot in this Cardinals offense is that they don't have a reliable second running back; which is a hard point to harp on when the one that they do have is so damned efficient.
That brings us to their quarterback, Carson Palmer: the obvious scapegoat. Palmer's dramatic drop-off from last season, which was by far his career best, has had some people wondering whether he is the reason the team is losing games. That line of thinking is unreasonable at best and ignorant at worst.
Last year was an anomaly for Palmer. It was always supposed to be unsustainable. The 2016 Palmer is exactly who Palmer is. He is a guy who averages a passer rating in the low to mid-80's and throws anywhere between 13-20 interceptions a season. His 32 sacks are a lot even for him, but his decreased mobility should come as a surprise to no one, seeing as he's a 36-year-old pure pocket passer who has undergone multiple, extensive ACL surgeries.
Palmer may not be a top-five quarterback but with the right people calling the shots on the sideline, he is perfectly capable of guiding his offense to wins; which is more than can be said for a large number of the starting quarterbacks across the league.
To recap, we've established that this offense definitively has the personnel it needs to be successful, all without mentioning the fact that they are supported on the other side of the ball by the first-ranked defense in the NFL in terms of yards per game and yards per play. They also allow the 11th fewest points in the league with 20.7 points per game. The lowest in the NFL is the Seahawks, with 17.0.
The only explanation here is that Arians is effing this up; and I don't need stats to prove it to you. Watch the highlights or check the box score from their last couple of games. Arians has allowed Palmer to throw with reckless abandon while seemingly forgetting that his running back is one of the NFL's best. Johnson had 13 carries to Palmer's 45 pass attempts against the Falcons on Sunday, which is completely unacceptable.
He consistently calls plays that have Palmer throwing deep to his smallest receivers in double or triple coverage because he apparently can't seem to grasp the idea that tiny, fast receivers are actual at their best in the short passing game where they can use their speed to accumulate yards after the catch. Meanwhile his two huge receivers spend most of the game blocking rather than bodying up the defensive backs on those deep routes to help stretch the field.
Then there's his clock management and timeout usage which are suspect at best; and of the 14 challenge flags he's thrown over the last two seasons, only four of those calls were overturned. So he's pretty terrible at picking his spots on that front as well.
So here are my closing thoughts:
Perhaps there's a reason that Arians wasn't offered a head coaching job in the NFL until he accidentally fell into one at the age of 60 when Chuck Pagano had to take his temporary leave in 2012. Maybe the turnaround in Indianapolis was less about the brilliant head coaching of Arians and more about the fact that they'd tanked the season before to get Andrew Luck, had an incredibly weak strength of schedule and were playing emotionally (for very good reason.)
Maybe the fact that Ben Roethlisberger played so well when he came into the league is because he is just a very talented quarterback. Arians is a good coach who was lucky enough to have his career coincide with two of the best quarterbacks to come into the league in the last twenty years, and then he did rode Todd Bowles' defenses and some comeback moments from Palmer into the playoffs for a few seasons.
None of that erases the fact that he is currently blowing it with one of the NFL's most talented rosters, despite the fact that this is a down year for the NFC and the West in particular. Arians is worthy of being a coordinator in this league, but a reliable head coach he most definitely is not.
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