As we get closer and closer to the start of the NFL regular season, I’m going to preview eight teams I’m particularly intrigued by this year for various reasons. Last week I previewed the Broncos. Today, I’m looking at a Super Bowl favorite that might not be as great as you think.
The Arizona Cardinals are good. Maybe even really good. I mean, where do we begin? The Cardinals broke out in Bruce Arians’ third year at the helm, finishing 2015 with the league’s second best record, second best point differential, and third best DVOA. Moreover, they have a quarterback–Carson Palmer–that led the NFL in Total QBR last season, an offense that finished tied for first in yards per play, and a defense that boasts a secondary ranked second in the NFL by Pro Football Focus heading into 2016.
On paper, there doesn’t look to be a weak link on this team. I just mentioned how they have a great quarterback and secondary, but let’s look a little further. Arizona has an extremely versatile group of receivers that are a nightmare for opposing defenses to defend. Lock up Larry Fitzgerald? That leaves Michael Floyd in one-on-one coverage. Try to get physical with them at the line of scrimmage? Slot receivers John Brown and J.J. Nelson might beat you deep. In all, the Cardinals had three receivers (Fitzgerald, Floyd, and Brown) finish in the top fifteen in Yards Above Replacement, according to Football Outsiders last year.
Arizona’s running game has been relatively weak over the past few years, but that could change this year as well. David Johnson emerged during the course of last season and provided Bruce Arians with a weapon he hadn’t really had in his first two years in the desert. When he entered more of a full-time role in early December, Johnson routinely averaged well over 100 yards from scrimmage, many of which came from receptions out of the backfield. In addition to Johnson, Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson are back as well. In short, the Cardinals running game might be a strength for them this season.
Moreover, the Cardinals offensive line doesn’t get enough credit. How do you think Palmer has time to get rid of those deep balls, anyway? For the second straight year, Arizona finished in the top ten of adjusted sack rate, which simply measures how many times a quarterback gets sacked relative to the amount of times he drops back to pass. And on the other side of the ball, Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell will now be joined by former Patriot Chandler Jones and first round pick Robert Nkemdiche. If healthy, the Cardinals improved defensive line could be as stout as their secondary.
So here’s my question: With this much talent, how did Arizona get walloped in the NFC Championship game? Well, it was only one game. Fair argument. After all, it’s not every day you turn the ball over seven times. Plus, that Carolina team was awfully hard to beat at home.
But here’s the problem: Arizona consistently had trouble against the NFL’s best teams. You probably remember, but the Cardinals barely scraped past a depleted Packers squad in the NFC Divisional Round (Jeff Janis, anyone?). And even though they beat Seattle on the road, the Seahawks returned the favor and then some in a 36-6 beatdown in Week 17 (Arizona played their starters for the first half, by the way, and they still got down 30-6.)
In all, the Cardinals were only 4-3 with a -27 point differential against teams that ranked in the top ten in DVOA. Against everyone else, they were 10-1 with a +178 margin of victory. For the record, some of the league’s other “elite” teams fared far better than Arizona did against the league’s best. Denver was 7-2 with a +35 differential against the top teams in DVOA. Carolina: 4-1 with a +39 margin. Even New England (3-3, +7) and Seattle (2-5, +8), who were mediocre against the league’s best, had superior point differentials than the Cardinals in these games.
Did Arizona just beat up on bad teams? They certainly did to an extent, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they were without safety Tyrann Mathieu for their Week 17 tilt against Seattle as well as their two playoff games. However, even though he’s vital to their defense, it’s not like the Cardinals were the only team to suffer a key injury or two last season, right?
There’s one other thing that makes me skeptical of Arizona’s Super Bowl chances, and it concerns Carson Palmer. The former number one overall pick had a career year in 2015, posting a career low eleven interceptions and career highs in yards, passing touchdowns, and Total QBR. However, while he’s had a resurgence in Arians’ system, Palmer may be in for a natural regression this season.
For starters, Palmer was lucky to have only thrown eleven picks last year: He was tied for third in dropped defensive interceptions with seven. According to Football Outsiders’ adjusted interception rate, Palmer had the largest discrepancy between his expected and actual interception rate. In past years, quarterbacks who have seen this happen to them usually see their interceptions totals rise the following year.
Additionally, Palmer’s fifteen point increase in his Total QBR may be an ominous sign as well. In past articles, I’ve referred to a concept known as the “plexiglass principle” which suggests that teams/players that see unusually large changes in a particular stat tend to regress to the mean in that same category the following year. Using this principle as a guide, I researched what has happened to other quarterbacks similar to Palmer–that is, those who have consistently ranked in the top 20 of Total QBR recently–in the season following a much improved campaign.
In the fifteen seasons in which a quarterback saw his Total QBR increase by 10 points, twelve of them saw their QBR’s decrease the following season. On average, this decline was by about 10 points. If Palmer has a similar drop-off in 2016, then he’s still be looking at another very good season. However, it was Palmer’s jump into that elite company in 2015 that put Arizona over the top. If they don’t get that sort of production from him again, they’ll struggle to win the NFC West.
Again, we know Arizona is really good. They are simply too stout across the board to not make the playoffs, assuming they don’t suffer a spate of injuries. Their shaky performance against some of the league’s best teams last season and a potential regression from Palmer, however, make me skeptical of their Super Bowl chances.
Fitzgerald photo courtesy of Rant Sports