TEMPE, Ariz. – We don’t mean to sound reactionary, but does the loss of a rookie guard signal a loss of hope for the Cardinals’ season?
We know. It sounds crazy placing so much importance on a rookie offensive lineman, right? A guard, no less.
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But to make our case as non-reactionaries, we note that we aren’t making much, if anything, out of that dreadful preseason performance Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
All three units were awful (shout out to the running game and Michael Floyd for providing two bright spots) in what is usually the dress rehearsal for the regular season opener.
“It was obvious we weren’t prepared to play,” coach Bruce Arians said.
OK, but we’ve seen many dreadful preseason performances that portended absolutely nothing for the regular season, and we’ve seen many teams light it up in the exhibition portion of the schedule, only to fall flat when the games really mattered. Teams don’t game plan in the preseason. Teams hold a lot back in the preseason, and teams do some things they won’t do in the regular season just to see who can handle what.
“I don’t put a lot of weight on preseason games,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. So we refuse to overreact to that 24-7 loss to San Diego.
Now back to that rookie guard…
Offensive line has clearly been a weakness for the Cardinals for the past three seasons — and most of their Arizona history. Following a dumbfounding refusal to address those problems through the draft the past three seasons, a new GM and a new coach finally did so by selecting Cooper with the seventh pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
It’s important to remember that Cooper hasn’t played a regular-season game yet, but he was playing so well in camp and the preseason that some analysts had already anointed him the team’s best lineman.
What had Arians seen from Cooper?
“All the value you put in that pick: The athleticism, the strength the intelligence, the toughness,” Arians said. “He’s got a bright future.”
Arians said Monday that Daryn Colledge will slide back to left guard to fill Cooper’s role, while Paul Fanaika has the inside track to the right guard position, with Chilo Rachal still a possibility.
Arians noted the changes only force one player (Colledge) to switch positions, but the moves still weaken the Cardinals because Fainaka and Rachal simply aren’t as good as Colledge, while moving Colledge amounts to a shell game. And with Cooper out, can you really say the line is vastly improved over past years, with only right tackle Eric Winston representing a significant change?
What do the Cardinals lose without Cooper? Athleticism was the first thing Arians noted, but how about his impact on the running game, which had been effective the past two preseason games? With Cooper and Levi Brown (a run mauler by nature) side by side, the Cards had a chance to establish a good ground game this season.
That ingredient would have filtered down to so many other things. With a credible threat of the run, the passing game would have benefited from giving pause to opposing pass rushers. Better protection means more time for quarterback Carson Palmer to throw, and more time for receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Floyd, Andre Roberts and Rob Housler to get open.
The running game issues extend beyond the line, of course, but there was some relatively good news regarding starting running back Rashard Mendenhall, who got a good diagnosis on his knee this weekend. He only suffered a sprain on Saturday, but this is the second time he has been sidelined this camp. Behind him are injury-prone Ryan Williams, unproven Alfonso Smith and rookies Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington.
We’re not trying to be alarmist here. We’re just letting the facts speak for themselves.
The one major flaw in our thinking about the offensive line could be coaching. It is no doubt insulting to say the current staff has a much better read on how to manage the line than Russ Grimm did, but with multiple coaches focused on that group, there is belief inside the locker room that they have a better approach than past years.
“There’s definitely no lack of motivation in this locker room,” said Colledge, who has played the left side for the last 11 years. “The guys in this locker room are going to say it’s no setback (losing Cooper). We want to plug a guy in and keep rolling.”
It’s what you’d expect to hear from a team, and maybe Brown, Colledge, Lyle Sendlein, Fanaika and Winston will prove the doubters wrong.
But history isn’t on their side. And, unfortunately for them, neither is Cooper.