As Cardinals’ season ends, impossible not to wonder what might have been

The final play of the Arizona Cardinals’ season was symbolic of the season’s depressing direction. After Ryan Lindley completed a 5-yard pass to John Brown as time expired, Brown lateraled to receiver Michael Floyd and a series of subsequent laterals allowed six different Cardinals to touch the ball on a play that lost 19 yards.

In the end, there weren’t enough able bodies for Arizona to climb out of an impossible situation. An improbable year of overcoming injuries ended with the worst offensive output in NFL playoff history and a 27-16 Carolina Panthers’ victory in an NFC wild-card game Saturday in Charlotte, N.C.

"The end is never fun," coach Bruce Arians said.

"You never want a season like this to end with some of the great things this team has accomplished and what they overcame. I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a group of guys that go out and fight every week, and we fought our ass off again tonight. We just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch."

It would be pointless to dwell on the factors that doomed the Cardinals in Carolina. 

— Punter Drew Butler was a disaster with nine punts for an average of 34.8 yards. The Cardinals have really missed starter Daze Zastudil, who is on injured reserve with a groin issue.

— Quarterback Ryan Lindley was no better, completing 16 of 28 passes for 82 yards with a TD and two huge second-half interceptions.

— The run game netted 27 yards, the officials missed a litany of calls and return man Ted Ginn committed a game-clinching fumble just after Carolina had taken a 20-14 lead early in the third quarter.

Panthers 27, Cardinals 16

The truth, however, is that this game was lost when starting quarterback Carson Palmer went down for the season on Nov. 9 with an ACL tear, and backup Drew Stanton joined him on the shelf with sprained knee ligaments suffered Dec. 11.

If either of those players had stayed healthy, it was fair to imagine the Cardinals locking up the NFC West, the conference’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If Palmer had stayed healthy, it was even fair to think this team could have hosted the Super Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The Cardinals were 9-1 after 10 games, and they had a three-game lead on the rest of the conference. Everything seemed to be lining up for a special season.

But fate wasn’t kind. The season-long suspension of inside linebacker Daryl Washington, the season-ending concussion for 2014 sacks leader John Abraham, the season-ending ACL tear to defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and the season-ending sports hernia to starting running back Andre Ellington would seem to have filled the Cardinals’ bad-luck quota.

But this is a quarterback-driven league. Without a starter or a backup, no team has a legitimate chance to make a deep playoff run. That was painfully apparent with Lindley, whose two touchdowns drives came via Carolina miscues and short fields.

The only thing Lindley managed to do well in the first half was avoid turnovers when the Cardinals took a 14-13 lead to the locker room. But with the Cardinals poised to pull within one score early in the fourth quarter, Lindley threw a terrible interception to linebacker Luke Kuechly. 

When Carolina punter Brad Nortman mishandled a punt late in the game, giving Arizona the ball at the Panthers’ 47-yard line, Lindley underthrew receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Kuechly tipped the ball and free safety Tre Boston secured the game with another interception.

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"Those two turnovers, at that point in the game when we’ve got a lot of momentum, getting the ball in the red zone there, we’ve got to get a play," Lindley said. "You’ve got to live to find another day. It’s first down, can’t force stuff like that." 

The temptation now is to believe the Cardinals are set up for future playoff runs. They have a team president in Michael Bidwill who is competitive and driven to win. They have a general manager in Steve Keim who probably waited longer than he should have for his opportunity, given his early success at identifying and acquiring talent and depth. They have Bruce Arians, whose only legitimate competition for coach of the year honors comes from Dallas’ Jason Garrett.

But that is too sunny a forecast, too blind a perspective. As noted earlier, this is a quarterback-driven league. If Palmer doesn’t recover from his injury and regain his form, the Cardinals will be back to square one. Palmer is 35 years old. He carries no guarantees.

Even he seemed to understand that his best shot at a Super Bowl may have been lost when he limped in to address the media in Tempe, less than 24 hours after his season had ended.

"I cried like a baby last night," Palmer said. 

A lot of Cardinals fans probably did the same Saturday night. This season was a mixture of reverence and remorse. The Cardinals produced a wondrous 11-5 record against incredible odds. No one can discount or discredit that. 

But they missed one of only two legitimate opportunities this franchise has ever had to win a Super Bowl. It’s impossible not to think about what might have been.

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