Cardinals made mistake not signing veteran to replace Carson Palmer
After all the adversity faced by the Arizona Cardinals this season, it would be difficult to find someone who hasn't been impressed by their success.
Week after week, injuries have happened on both sides of the ball, and yet the Cardinals have persevered in large part due to the leadership of head coach Bruce Arians. Given the circumstances, Arizona may have reached its breaking point last weekend against the Seahawks, and have the recent look of a one-and-done playoff team. I believe this could have been avoided had their "Coach of the Year" candidate done one thing differently.
First, let's take a look at last season. After finishing 10-6 for just the second time in 37 years, the Cardinals were confident in the foundation Arians laid in his first year as head coach. It was a revival season for quarterback Carson Palmer, who was traded from Oakland for a fifth-round pick and a conditional pick in 2014. Palmer played some of his best football to date under Arians, considered by me to be a quarterback guru.
His unpredictability, matched with balance and precision, makes game-planning for his offense a nightmare for defensive coordinators. Arians has been helping quarterbacks succeed at an elite level since 1998, when he was the QB coach for Peyton Manning at Indianapolis (1998-00). He also served as offensive coordinator for Ben Roethlisberger at Pittsburgh (2004-11), including a Super Bowl win in 2009, and head coach/offensive coordinator for the Colts and Andrew Luck (2012).
Arians has always been highly respected in NFL coaching circles. His loyalty to coaches and players is second to none. He has never strayed far from his roots or his hard-nosed, East-Coast mentality. Voted Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2012 while filling in for head coach Chuck Pagano, many believed Arians made a stronger case for the award in 2013 by doubling the Cardinals' win total from the prior season (5-11 to 10-6). If that wasn't impressive enough, Arians has led Arizona to 11 wins -- something the team had never done since moving to Arizona -- this season with four different starting quarterbacks.
The Cardinals have not just been plagued by injuries at quarterback, but other positions as well. Running back Andre Ellington was ruled out for the season after sustaining a sports hernia injury early in December. Ellington's rushing was the key to the Cardinals' balance with Arians' play-action passing attack and was a viable option in the screen and passing game. Arizona has played without tight end Troy Niklas, its best run/pass blocker at that position, since early November due to a season-ending ankle sprain.
On defense, the Cardinals have seen almost an entirely different front seven this season. The suspension of inside linebacker Daryl Washington and injuries to outside linebackers Matt Shaughnessy and John Abraham, and defensive ends Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Ed Stinson would stagger most teams. But Arizona has remained a top-five defense thanks to coordinator Todd Bowles' number of exotic blitzes to counter the lack of experience/talent. Arians' "next man up" mentality has paid off.
However, since losing Palmer, the Cardinals have struggled to score. Arizona's early wins were a product of complimentary football, but without offensive production it was been hard for the Cardinals to keep offenses in check. Palmer sustained an injury to his throwing shoulder in Week 1, so Arizona started Drew Stanton (who was in Indianapolis when Arians was head coach) in wins against the New York Giants and against San Francisco.
However, Stanton sustained a third-quarter concussion in a Week 5 loss to Denver. Enter 2014 fifth-round pick Logan Thomas, who played the remainder of the loss, to make that three starting QBs in five weeks. Palmer returned to defeat the Washington Redskins, leading to a string of victories and a 7-1 record heading into Week 10. Palmer started against the St. Louis Rams, but sustained a torn ACL late in the game to end his season. Stanton finished the game and the victory, but the Cardinals were 8-1 atop the NFC West without their starter behind center.
This is where things got wild in the NFC West.
With all the credit Arians deserves this season, his biggest mistake was not signing a veteran quarterback once Palmer was placed on injured reserve. Even though Arians has confidence in Stanton to "take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl" there would be no harm in using that roster spot to bring in someone who has playoff experience like Rex Grossman.
Stanton sustained a sprained MCL in Week 15 against the Rams and hasn't been back.
The Cardinals instead signed Ryan Lindley, who is familiar with Arians' offense, after spending 2013 with the team. Familiarity is great, but that doesn't supersede the ability of a veteran. Lindley is 1-4 as a starter and has throws two TD passes against 11 interceptions. Compare that to an example like Grossman (25-22, 56 TDs, 60 INTs with an NFC Championship) and it doesn't make sense.
The Cardinals are just 3-4 since losing Palmer and will likely eventually need to go through the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks one more time if they can get past Carolina.
Even though Arians seemingly is a lock for Coach of the Year for all that he did to keep a decimated team competitive, his decision not to insure the roster with a veteran quarterback when the bodies began to fall may have cost his team a better chance at the Super Bowl.
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