We told you before the Cardinals’ season began that progress might not be visible in the win/loss columns. Sunday’s 27-24 loss in St. Louis was a perfect example.
There were multiple signs that a new era had begun at the Edward Jones Dome.
Carson Palmer threw for 327 yards and two touchdowns and posted a 96.6 passer rating, reminding us what strong quarterback play looks like after three years of wondering.
Rashard Mendenhall had an efficient 60 yards on the ground. First-year coach Bruce Arians didn’t waste the final seconds of the first half by taking a knee, instead marching downfield to set up a long field-goal attempt. Larry Fitzgerald was a major part of the offense again, finishing with eight catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns. And for a welcome change, he wasn’t alone thanks to Andre Roberts’ eight tough catches for 97 yards and Michael Floyd’s four catches for 82 yards.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the end result was the same. And there were holdover problems that led to that result.
Robert Quinn beat left tackle Levi Brown for three sacks (the last of which forced a critical fumble), the offense couldn’t produce a single point in the fourth quarter when the Rams were rallying from an 11-point deficit, and the defense, which did force two turnovers, was unable to hold a late lead or sack quarterback Sam Bradford, two staples of their job description.
“Overall, I was pleased with a lot of phases,” Arians said. “But I was also very disappointed in a couple.”
Clearly, the offense was light years ahead of last season’s NFL joke, producing 390 yards and some big plays, like Fitzgerald’s 24-yard touchdown catch and Floyd’s 44-yard catch that set up the Cards’ first TD. The defense also got big plays, including an incredible, touchdown-saving strip by Tyrann Mathieu, who certainly isn’t shying away from the lights now that the real games have begun.
“It was one of the best plays I have ever seen at this level,” Arians said. “It was all-out hustle.”
But Mathieu had his flaws, as did many others as they adapt to a number of personnel and scheme changes.
— The Cards are clearly missing linebacker Daryl Washington, who could have helped stop Rams tight end Jared Cook (seven catches 141 yards, two TDs) from running wild.
— They’re going to miss top pick Jonathan Cooper on the offensive line all season.
— Kicker Jay Feely had better not miss another crucial kick or he may lose his coach’s confidence.
— The Cardinals still play in the rugged NFC West, which very well could be the best division in football (the Cardinals are already alone in last since the 49ers and Seahawks both won Sunday).
— And yes, the offensive line is still a favorite talking point for critics, particularly the humble, grounded guy at left tackle.
Before he fielded a single question, Arians headed off an anticipated one when he told reporters at the game: “No, I’m not concerned about our offensive line.” And when asked if he would consider sitting down Brown and changing left tackles, Arians shot back: “To who? He’s our guy.”
Brown certainly wasn’t at his best on Sunday. In all honesty, it was a poor performance from a guy who hasn’t played a real NFL game in a long while after missing last season with a triceps tear.
But the Rams have a talented defensive line that is going to apply pressure on a lot of teams, especially in their noisy dome. It’s also true that analysts tend to magnify the few plays on which Brown gets beat while ignoring the ones on which he does not.
After getting beat by Quinn twice early, Brown allowed just one more sack the rest of the game. That wasn’t because Brown got help the rest of the way. He got it at times, but he didn’t at others and held up just fine on most of those plays. Unfortunately, the one additional time he got beat was costly, as the ensuing fumble put the Rams in position for the tying field goal.
Still, the offense had a chance to win it until Palmer misfired with running back Andre Ellington on a wheel route on a third-and-2 play, giving the Rams the ball back and allowing them to drive for Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning field goal. Had Palmer thrown the ball over the right shoulder, the play could have gone for miles, but it also seemed like an odd play call, relying on a quarterback-and-rookie combination that has very little history or chemistry while Roberts and Fitzgerald were having such big games.
“We did a really good job for the most part, but there at the end, you’ve got to convert and stay on the field and keep our defense (off),” Palmer said. “I need to get better, but I’m very optimistic about who we are as a team and especially who we are as an offense.”
The NFL’s once-a-week format makes games ripe for overanalysis, and the slimmest of margins that swing wins into losses lead to wild emotional swings in the judgment of those outcomes. Ultimately, the Cards lost, and that is all that matters in the NFL. But there was plenty to build on in a first-year coach’s first game.
The sun also rises on Monday.
“It hurts to come in and lose a division game,” Palmer said. “But you can’t look at it any other way than we have 15 more.”