Bickley: Arizona Cardinals in reach of Holy Grail
Dan Bickley, azcentral sports 4:19 p.m. MST September 3, 2016
The Cardinals are rewriting history. With every winning season, they are distancing themselves from their putrid past. Soon, only the diehards will remember the sizzling bleachers at Sun Devil Stadium and the smell of skunk at training camp in Flagstaff.
Back then, the odor was usually coming from the football team.
Entering the 2016 NFL season, the Cardinals have reached unprecedented altitude. They are picked by some to win the Super Bowl. It is assumed they will make the playoffs. They have assembled one of the more impressive rosters in football.
They have two more years to finish the job, to win a Super Bowl trophy, to make all of their past sins disappear forever.
The remaining obstacles are clear. Carson Palmer has to be much better in his next postseason appearance. Tyrann Mathieu has to remain healthy or the defense will experience a serious energy drain. The team must be supremely focused, aware that some NFC opponents – mostly Seattle and Green Bay – are more motivated than ever, tired of being bested by the Cardinals.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has tweaked his diet so much that he recently swore off cheese, a traitorous act in Wisconsin. Reports from Seattle say Pete Carroll has changed his approach, aware that his message might be getting stale. When you begin to win consistently, it's easy to forget the stab of failure. The Cardinals must be cognizant of the following:
They are not only in pursuit of a Super Bowl championship, football's Holy Grail. They are being hunted in the process. Only the toughest teams can survive that kind of two-way pressure.
It’s not easy to sustain success in the NFL. It’s not easy to return to the NFC Championship Game. The Eagles did it from 2003-05, reaching the Super Bowl once in three tries. Same with the 49ers from 2012-14. Neither team took home the title, and neither quarterback (Donovan McNabb, Colin Kaepernick) ever recovered.
The Seahawks made consecutive appearances from 2014-15, reaching the Super Bowl both times, winning it once.
It's not easy to return to the NFC Championship Game,
It's not easy to return to the NFC Championship Game, where the Cardinals fell to the Panthers last season. (Photo: David Kadlubowski/azcentral sports)
The Cardinals are an anomaly. They’re entering the fourth year of a championship window, winning 34 of their past 48 regular-season games. But in 2013, they were the only NFL team to win 10 games and miss the playoffs. In 2014, they won 11 games, but entered the postseason with a third-string quarterback.
For all their recent success, they’ve had only one serious shot at a championship. The emotional attrition can’t be discounted.
So, will the Cardinals be hungrier than ever in 2016? Or will they suffer from the arrogance and fatigue of winning so much without winning anything at all?
“We’ve had a great camp,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said after the final preseason game. “We’ve had moments offensively and defensively that show what we’re capable of. And I think we’ll be more than ready next Sunday night (against the Patriots).”
For the most part, the Cardinals enjoyed a terrific offseason. They drafted Robert Nkemdiche, who walks with a swagger and plays with attitude. He knows he belongs in the NFL, and might be one of the better rookies in the league. They traded for Chandler Jones, who upgrades the pass rush significantly. They upgraded the offensive line. They returned every skill player on offense.
Arians said his goals are the same as ever, to score one point for every minute they possess the football. In 2015, the Cardinals came close, with an average of 30.5 points and 31:26 time of possession per game.
This season, the Cardinals have no excuses. David Johnson is one of the more versatile running backs in the NFL, and not an unproven rookie. Michael Floyd is in the last year of his contract, which generally assures a bump in production. John Brown has recovered from a concussion he suffered in the preseason. The offense has speed, physicality, depth and the experience to break the 500-point barrier. Anything less would be disappointing.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals' defense should be vastly improved, especially if Calais Campbell has the season we’ve all been waiting for.
The 2015 special-teams units couldn’t have been much worse, so any improvement this season would be a big a step forward.
Granted, there’s a lot more to winning in the NFL. You need good health and good luck. You need a head coach who has learned some hard lessons, especially about preserving and protecting his starting quarterback, especially in blowout victories.
More than anything, you need a football team that is hardcore and hell-bent on being the last team standing.
Once, the Cardinals were perfectly content while lounging in last place. They took advantage of every alibi, and fought all the wrong battles. Those days are long gone.
It hasn’t been the smoothest summer. The team looked ragged and out of sync during much of the exhibition season, while the Cardinals family suffered some real losses. Two former coaches – Buddy Ryan and Dennis Green – died three weeks apart. Bill Bidwill’s wife also passed away.
Time marches on, for better and worse, but the football team has never looked better on paper. And just remember: The Cardinals finished the preseason with a 1-3 record. Just like the 1985 Bears.
Not a bad omen to start the season.