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NFL Offseason Review: Arizona Cardinals
The 2016/17 NFL season is officially ancient history, with the highlights of the year no longer breaking news on TV, and now only appearing in the record books. Fans of professional football have now been forced unwillingly to move on to other sports.
Depending on the team you root for, reflecting back on last season can provoke several different reactions. Fans of some teams (especially the New England Patriots) are looking back and saying “what a good run!” Fans of other teams (for example, the Oakland Raiders) are looking back and saying “if only!” There are fans who look back and say “what a disaster!” (sorry Browns fans). And then finally there are those fans that look back in astonishment and say “how the heck did that happen?”
The Arizona Cardinals are one team that fit into this lattermost category.
After the Cardinals won 13 games in 2015/16 for the first time in franchise history and rode into the postseason with seven Pro Bowlers on the roster, looking like the team to beat, fans had to believe that their blowout loss against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game was a learning and growing experience, and that the team would be back to compete for a Super Bowl in 2016/17.
This makes it all the more perplexing how the team could have exited the offseason before the season feeling that they had improved their roster, and yet somehow – instead of making an even deeper run into the playoffs – miss the postseason altogether.
And it’s not just Arizona Cardinals fans who should be interested to know how it all went down for the Cards this past season; the rest of the league would do well to take notice as well.
With the Cardinals’ brief stint as one of the premiere teams in the league still very close in the rearview mirror, it’s entirely possible that the team could reverse once again and make themselves competitive next season. For those teams that have to play against Arizona or hope to compete for the playoffs, understanding just what exactly is happening to Bruce Arians’ team is of paramount importance.
In this edition, we cruise west to the desert, and take on the Arizona Cardinals.
Last Season: In Review
To provide a little bit of context first about the Arizona Cardinals’ organization, we really only have to go back as far as the Kurt Warner era. The last time the Cardinals competed for an NFL Championship before their most recent Super Bowl appearance with Warner at the helm, in 2008, the team was located in Chicago and Harry S. Truman was in the White House.
Half a century later, the Cardinals had their first and only playoff win with the team located in Arizona, in 1998. A decade later, after the legendary St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner decided to play out the twilight of his career in Arizona, the Cardinals finally made it to the big dance, unfortunately losing their lone championship opportunity by a score of 23–27 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLII.
After one more run with Warner the following year, ending in a bad divisional playoff loss to the New Orleans saints, the Cardinals entered into a three-year period of mediocrity, failing to earn a winning record in any of those three seasons.
It’s apparent from this brief description just how little postseason success the Cardinals have had in their long and migratory history. This made it all the more impressive when new head coach Bruce Arians was able to join the team in 2013 and immediately lead them to three consecutive double-digit win seasons, including two postseason appearances in 2014/15 and 2015/16, the latter of these making it to the NFC Championship Game.
Along with general manager Steve Keim, who also entered his role in 2013 after spending 14 seasons with in the front office scouting department, head coach Bruce Arians is one of the most integral parts of the Cardinals recent renaissance. It speaks volumes that in 2014, Arians was voted Coach of the Year, and Keim was selected as NFL Executive of the Year by The Sporting News and Pro Football Talk.
In this context, after having made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game in only the third season under the leadership team comprised of Keim at GM, Arians at coach, and aging veteran Carson Palmer at quarterback, the Cardinals entered into the 2016/17 season awash with confidence that they would be able to climb even higher in the fourth season under this sustained leadership group, and with big dreams to once again dominate the NFC, win their division, and compete for a Super Bowl.
When looking back on the season, it’s apparent that the Patriots and the Cardinals ended up at very different places. But at the time they played each other in Week 1, the game was expected to be incredibly competitive. The two teams had both been the losers in their respective championship games the season before, making them two of the top four teams in the league at the end of 2015/16.
In addition, Week 1 was the first of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, meaning that the Cardinals were taking on the Patriots at home in Arizona with backup Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm. Nonetheless, Garoppolo acquitted himself quite well: Carson Palmer ended up going 24 of 37 for 271 yards and two touchdowns – both to Larry Fitzgerald – and Garoppolo ended up going 24 of 33 for 264 yards and a touchdown.
Though New England took an early 10-point lead, the Cardinals ended up crawling back in and led the game 21–20 with ten minutes remaining. After a 13-play, 61-yard drive brought the Patriots within field goal range, chewing up more than 6 minutes of clock, the Patriots took a two-point lead that they would not relinquish. A low snap on a game-winning field goal meant the first special teams miscue from the Cardinals in a season that would contain many, and Arizona lost their home opener 23–21.
When the team bounced back the following week with an incredible 3-touchdown performance from Carson Palmer, in which the Cardinals caused five turnovers and led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home 24–0 after the end of the first half, fans had reason to believe that the team’s long-term goals were in reach, and that they would be able to continue competing at the level at which they had played the previous season.
However, the team then went on the road and took a trip east, to Buffalo. After a 49-yard run from Tyrod Taylor gashed the Arizona defense rather inexplicably in the first quarter, the air seemed to go out of the team, as the entire Bills stadium appeared to claim the energy and the momentum for the home team throughout the rest of the game. The Cardinals would end up losing by 15 points.
The following week Arizona returned home looking to once again bounce back from a loss and put themselves back at .500. This Week 4 matchup, against the Los Angeles Rams, was the team’s first divisional game, and thus important for the ultimate playoff standings in the AFC West.
But when Brian Quick burst free for a 65-yard touchdown late in the first quarter, once again catching the defense flat-footed early in the game, the Cardinals were put in a hole that would eventually prove to be the difference in the matchup. Though Arizona did come back to lead the game in the fourth quarter, unforeseen circumstances would make it very difficult for the Cardinals to score later on.
With roughly five minutes left in the game, Carson Palmer was sacked and led off in the concussion protocol. The presence of the hit was not surprising, given that at this point the 36-year old quarterback had already been sacked 11 times throughout the season. When Palmer went down and was forced to come out of the game with around five minutes remaining, it also forced the Cardinals to punt, nursing only a 13–10 lead.
But when the Rams’ Tayvon Austin returned the punt 47 yards – with a 15-yard facemask penalty tacked on top – and the Rams got the ball at the Arizona 19-yard line with only five minutes remaining, the game was quickly getting out of hand.
The Rams would score on that short field, making the game 13–17 in favor of the Rams. With Carson Palmer in the concussion protocol and not to return, backup Drew Stanton came in and threw two interceptions in less than five minutes of game time, one of them on a last second Hail Mary. These would be two of five turnovers committed in the game by the Cardinals.
In this way, despite the fact that the team had entered into the season with such high hopes, after a full quarter of the season had passed Arizona sat at 1–3 with two home losses, coming off of back-to-back games in which they had given the ball away five times.
Despite the fact that franchise quarterback Carson Palmer sat out the Cardinals’ Week 5 Thursday Night Football matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, due to the concussion he suffered in Week 4 against the Rams, the team still managed to win the game on the road by 12 points.
Arizona also won the subsequent game at home against the New York Jets, this time by 25. The biggest reason for these two quick wins, bringing the team back to a .500 record at 3–3, was because the Cardinals had flipped the turnover script: After being -8 in their Week 3 and Week 4 matchups in turnover differential, the team was +5 in Weeks 5 and 6, turning the ball over zero times in these two games.
The team also kept from giving up any turnovers in the subsequent game against the division rival Seattle Seahawks, though the outcome would not be so positive for the Cardinals. Astonishingly, two missed chip shot field goals in overtime of this Sunday Night Football matchup made the Cardinals one of the two teams with the questionable distinction of going down in the record books for the lowest-scoring NFL tie since 1974, when overtime was introduced.
While the story in the national media coming out of this game was just how far the vaunted offenses for both the Cardinals and the Seahawks had fallen, being unable to put up more than two field goals apiece, the more important story in the tie for the Cardinals was the special teams miscues – which had become a theme throughout the year – getting exposed on national television.
There were three key mistakes – a blocked field goal, a blocked punt, and a missed field goal – that contributed to the team only being able to score so little, each of which, if they had gone the other way, could have directly or indirectly given the game to Arizona.
The Cardinals also exited the game against the Seahawks feeling slightly persecuted by the officiating, a theme that would continue the following week in the team’s Week 8 matchup against the Panthers in Carolina.
In the same way as had happened several times already throughout the early part of the season, a momentum play early in the game would put the Cardinals in a hole early – though this time it didn’t seem to be their fault. When an incomplete pass was called a fumble and returned for a touchdown by Thomas Davis, the officiating crew was completely unable to review the play because the replay system wasn’t working.
This gave the Cardinals no recourse of any kind, and gave the Panthers a lead they would never relinquish. Despite the fact that the officials later told Bruce Arians that they had miscalled the play, the damage was done. Even the under-capacity crowd for the 1–5 Panthers became fired up because of the momentum of the play, and the Cardinals went on to lose by 10.
But it wasn’t just momentum that was responsible for the Cardinals’ fourth loss. Carson Palmer was sacked 8 times and hit 7 times during the game, somehow still managing to clock a performance with a passer rating of 111.1 on 49 passing attempts. The Panthers simply dominated the battle in the trenches, on both sides of the ball. Despite two excellent defensives performance back-to-back against the Jets and the Seahawks, the team was not nearly as competitive against the incumbent Super Bowl runners-up, and reached a new low.
And the signs were not pointing up as the team headed into their Week 9 bye week at a record of 3–4–1. With the team’s highest-rated offensive lineman, Jared Veldheer, going down with a season-ending triceps injury, and guard Evan Mathis having already been gone, the offensive line woes that had plagued the Cardinals all season had no reason to improve.
After the bye week, the Cardinals pulled off a hard-fought, back-and-forth victory at home against the division rival San Francisco 49ers, in which a last second game-winner from Chandler Catanzaro gave the young kicker a modicum of redemption after missing two chip shot field goals during the Seahawks game that would have won it for Arizona.
Subsequently, though, the team would lose four out of the next five games, three of which came on the road. The team lost to the Minnesota Vikings 30–24, to the Atlanta Falcons 38–19, subsequently won the next game at home against the Washington Redskins 31–23, and then finally lost two more games against the Miami Dolphins 26–23 and against the New Orleans Saints 48–41.
The Week 14 game road loss against the Miami Dolphins was followed by the surprise release of wide receiver Michael Floyd, after the former 1st-round draft pick in 2012 was found asleep behind the wheel of his car at an intersection with a blood alcohol level of .217, nearly three times as much as the legal limit.
Despite the team’s hopes that Floyd could continue to develop to become the #1 wide receiver of the future, who could go on to replace Larry Fitzgerald and have a long and productive career with the team, with the drunk driving incident being the third such charge on his record, the team must have believed that the personal issue for the receiver had begun to impact his performance on the field, and they released him.
With Floyd’s release – marking the 8th out of the past 11 Arizona first round draft picks to leave the team – the front office made a flurry of roster moves, including switching punters, placing several key players on injured reserve, releasing cornerback Tharold Simon, and promoting a half-dozen players from the practice squad to the active roster.
So it stands to reason that during this immensely trying time, with the team struggling to get above 5 wins well into the month of December, that there would have been some unrest and disappointment in the locker room.
And it wasn’t just front office moves and surprise releases that had the team reeling: Injuries were also certainly hurting the team’s morale. Safety Tyron Mathieu was one player that was generally an outspoken leader, and yet had been silenced by the frustrating injury situation that he had been dealing with throughout the season.
In point of fact, the Honey Badger had never really fully recovered from his MCL tear near the end of the 2015/16 season, changing his style of play in the early part of the season to his detriment. The Pro Bowler also appeared in only two games after the bye week, both losses, before being placed on injured reserve for a shoulder injury.
The one bright spot that Cardinals fans had to enjoy during this dark part of the season was the play of sophomore running back David Johnson, who was a revelation up until his sprained MCL in Week 17. In the first 15 games of the season, Johnson had gained at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each game, matching the NFL record set by Barry Sanders in 1997.
In one five-game stretch, Johnson averaged a combined 145.2 rushing and receiving yards, and gained five touchdowns during this stretch as well. Johnson would finish the season ranked 7th in the league for rushing yards, 2nd for rushing touchdowns, and was named First-team All-Pro for his efforts.
Though the Cardinals went on to win their last two games of the season, this didn’t indicate much about the team’s spirit, as they had already been eliminated from playoff contention after their Week 15 loss against the New Orleans Saints.
Arizona’s Strengths and Weaknesses
In looking back at the story arc of the Arizona Cardinals’ 2016/17 campaign, we saw several trends emerge about why the team failed so spectacularly to reach the same heights that they had risen to in 2015/16.
One of the most obvious and most important was the rash of injuries that the team sustained at offensive line, which moved the team from giving up 28 and 27 sacks in the prior two seasons to giving up 41 sacks in 2016/17.
But while it’s easy to settle for the first and easiest explanation and to blame injuries for a team’s struggles, it’s important for us to first go through the team with a fine-tooth comb and really piece together where the difficulties were.
Below we’ll go through each side of the Arizona Cardinals’ team unit by unit, relying on statistics and rankings to demonstrate what areas of need the Cardinals had in 2016/17, which will clue us in to how the team can address those needs in the offseason.
Despite being so beleaguered throughout the year and posting such a mediocre record, the Arizona Cardinals ranked 6th in the league in scoring offense, managing to put a total of 418 points on the board throughout the season (26.1 per game).
The team’s offensive yardage rankings lagged only slightly behind this, with their 5868 yards on the season (366.8 per game) ending up at 9th in the league.
The majority of their yardage production came in the passing game, with the team ranked 9th in the league in passing yards but only 18th in the league in rushing yards. However, the Cardinals scored a disproportionate number of touchdowns on the ground compared to through the air, with the team ranked 3rd in the league in rushing touchdowns and only 11th in the league in passing touchdowns.
It’s also important to note that Arizona was much more efficient in the running game than the passing game, with the team’s net yards per passing attempt on offense averaging out to 6.0 yards (good for 23rd in the league), but the team’s average yards per run (4.3) ranking out at 12th in the league.
The offense started with Carson Palmer, who at age 36 had to play quite well to be ranked in the middle of the league’s crop of quarterbacks despite fielding such an immense amount of pressure throughout the course of the season.
It’s true that it would have been nearly impossible to top or even to match the production that we saw out of Palmer in 2015/16, and being hampered by a finger injury certainly didn’t help. Even still, throwing up the second-highest number of turnover-worthy throws in the league (though only 13 interceptions) was certainly a step down.
The wide receiving corps also took a hit during the season due to the absence (and eventual release) of Michael Floyd. Setting aside the personal issue for which he was released, his play on the field was much worse during his performances with the Cardinals in 2016/17, with the receiver only catching around 50% of the balls thrown his way.
While the performances of ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald and John “Smoke” Brown were certainly enough to keep the receiving unit playing at an elite level, the step down taken by Floyd hurt the team’s offensive performance when compared to last season.
Luckily, however, the passing game also got an incredible burst from the record-breaking play of running back David Johnson, who emerged onto the scene as a transcendent talent in 2016/17, and though only a sophomore in the league undoubtedly entered into the conversation as one of the top two backs in the entire NFL along with Pittsburgh star Le’Veon Bell.
And while some detractors would say that Johnson’s value as a tailback is inflated by the fact that he was used so often in the passing game, it’s important to remember that the number of missed tackles he caused during plays in which he carried the ball out of the backfield puts him up against any other traditional running back in the league.
In this way it becomes pretty apparent that while the worsened play of Carson Palmer and Michael Floyd certainly served as a minor influence in the team’s decreased offensive production in 2016/17 compared to 2015/16, the only remaining candidate for how far the Cardinals slid is the play of the offensive line.
After being ranked in the top 10 in the league last season, the Cardinals’ unit slid all the way down to the bottom 5 according to several rankings, based almost exclusively on the injuries to star left tackle Jared Veldheer. Evan Mathis, too, only ended up playing less than 200 snaps on the season, leading to a rotating carousel of mediocre replacements.
The Cardinals defense was ranked almost dead center in the middle of the league last year in terms of points allowed last season, with their 362 points given up on the season (22.6 per game) giving them the #14 rank. However, the amount of yards they allowed (4883 on the season; 305.2 per game) was ranked considerably higher than this, giving them the 2nd-stingiest defense in the league in terms of yards.
This incredible disparity between yards and points demands an explanation, and the most likely candidate is turnovers. Only six teams in the league turned the ball over more often than the Cardinals’ offense, meaning that the opposing team’s offense got the ball on a short field a disproportionately high amount of the time, putting the defense in an untenable position.
The Cardinals’ defense gave up more yards through the passing game in 2016/17 than they did in the running game (ranked 4th in the league vs. 9th), but at the same time they gave up more touchdowns in the running game than the passing game (ranked 22nd in the league vs. 8th). Importantly, though, their defensive efficiency was comparable for both run and pass, with the team ranked 3rd in the league for both net yards per passing attempt and average yards per rushing attempt.
The team’s success on defense started primarily with the front seven, which was consistently ranked in the top ten of the league throughout the season. With phenomenal play out of 8-year veteran defensive end Calais Campbell, a career year out of new veteran acquisition Chandler Jones, and the emergence of Markus Golden as a quality sophomore player, the Cardinals found their pass rush in 2016/17, and ended up with the highest rate of QB pressure in the entire league.
Unfortunately, however, this improvement in the front seven was not matched by the secondary, which took a step back in 2016/17. With the aforementioned slew of injuries dealt with by the Honey Badger and a slight step back from star cornerback Patrick Peterson, the unit still definitely merited being discussed among the top 10 secondary units in the league, and yet still fell short of the mark they had set the season before.
In this way, while it’s difficult to pinpoint any specific area of the Arizona Cardinals’ defense that was particularly suspect in 2016/17, or any personal groupings that specifically needed to be shored up, it’s very clear that the team took a step back last season compared to the heights they had achieved the season before in their run all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
Next Season: A Preview
In this way, when we look at the Cardinals’ season statistically, it’s amazing to see that the numerous difficulties they had throughout the season and the poor record that they ended up with at the end of the season – especially compared to how much they had dominated the league the year before – seem to simply disappear upon closer analysis.
Other than the play of the offensive line, which was demonstrably and evidently one of the primary reasons that the team’s performance on offense took a major step back, it’s very difficult to find reasons why a team that performed so well statistically on the defensive side of the ball and achieved so much the prior season should drop so precipitously in win total.
This state of uncertainty could be one reason why the Arizona Cardinals’ Super Bowl odds, listed at the Bovada sportsbook, currently sit right around league average. Of the 25 teams getting legitimate contender odds, the Patriots are the favorite, at +400, and the field bottoms out at +6600. The Cardinals fit almost exactly halfway between these two poles, at +3300.
But regardless of how the gambling public is appraising the Arizona Cardinals’ chances to win the Super Bowl next season, we believe that we can craft a much more educated projection for how we expect the team to perform next season.
First, we’ll review the roster moves that the Cardinals have made so far in the offseason. Next, we’ll predict any upcoming moves and forecast the needs that the Cardinals should address through the draft. Finally, using a combination of statistical and scheduling factors, we’ll create our prediction for what we expect to see out of the Cardinals in 2017/18.
When the Arizona Cardinals went through their major leadership transition in 2013, bringing in a new GM (Steve Keim), a new head coach (Bruce Arians), and a new quarterback (Carson Palmer), it’s pretty clear that “it worked” – the team dramatically and immediately improved, winning 10+ games for three consecutive seasons, making it to the playoffs twice in three years and making it to the NFC Championship in the second of those two years.
However, it’s not entirely clear which part of the transition was the most valuable. Was it the veteran leadership on the field? The coaching philosophy? The roster assembled by the general manager?
While undoubtedly some combination of all three is ultimately responsible, the point remains that the jury is still out on general manager Steve Keim, a home-grown front office guy for the Cardinals who worked his way up through the ranks over the course of 14 seasons in the scouting department.
Keim’s first first-round pick in 2013, the #7 overall selection offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, failed to pan out. In this same draft, however, Keim selected Tyron Mathieu and Kevin Minter, as well as Andre Ellington, Alex Okafor, Earl Watford, and other minor contributors.
Keim’s first-round selection the following year, Deone Bucannon, once again fit the profile of a hybrid impact player that Keim had shown interest in with the Honey Badger, and subsequently became a key contributor. And the jury is still out on the following year’s first-round selection, D. J. Humphries in 2015, who missed his rookie season with injury and did not get consistent starter minutes the following season.
And while of course David Johnson looks to be one of the best draft picks across the league in recent memory, Keim’s 2016 first-round pick (Robert Nkemdiche) had little to no impact in his rookie campaign.
To accompany the team’s hot-and-cold drafting over the past few years, it’s also clear that Steve Keim intends to use free agency in order to try and make the team competitive for a Super Bowl each and every season, while he still has 33-year old Larry Fitzgerald and 37-year old Carson Palmer on the roster and playing at an elite level. Keim has gone on record as saying that he never wants to be in a rebuilding stage.
Despite his intentions, however, Keim’s hands were more or less tied this offseason, entering into the new league year in the bottom third of the league in terms of available cap room. Not to mention that the team also had 24 of its own players set to become free agents, likely as a result of previous seasons in which Keim has played fast and loose with contracts pursuing the philosophy described immediately above.
As of the time of this writing, the Arizona Cardinals have made the following roster moves, in addition to the customary practice squad maintenance that all teams undergo soon after the season ends.
The team brought on the following players, either through re-signings or through free agent acquisition: Chandler Jones, Karlos Dansby, Jermaine Gresham, Antoine Bethea, Phil Dawson, A. Q. Shipley, Andre Ellington, and Jarvis Jones.
Of these acquisitions, the most significant are the return of Carlos Dansby, back for his third stint in Arizona, as well as the re-signings of Jermaine Gresham and Chandler Jones, both of which provide the offensive and defensive units, respectively, with key veteran leadership. Also notable is the upgrade from the young kicker Chandler Catanzaro to the 42-year old veteran Phil Dawson, no doubt in response to the team’s kicking woes that were well-documented above.
On the other side, the players leaving the team either through being cut or through taking other contract offers elsewhere include the following: Calais Campbell, Tony Jefferson, D. J. Swearinger, Marcus Cooper, Earl Watford, and Kevin Minter (who has not officially been released yet, but will almost certainly leave the team given the acquisition of Karlos Dansby).
In examining these departures, the most significant storyline that immediately emerges is just how different the tone of the defense will be next season compared to last. With both Swearinger and Jefferson logging starters snaps at safety, the secondary unit will look completely different next year.
Steve Keim does have seven intact draft picks available at the #13 slot, as well as an additional fifth-round compensatory selection for the departure of Bobby Massie in free agency last season, and so he should have an opportunity to draft another solid crop of impact players.
But with the rather willy-nilly and disperse style that we’ve seen out of the Cardinals’ front office over the last few years and the hectic start to the offseason thus far, it’s very difficult to forecast what needs the Cardinals will need to fulfill in the draft and throughout the rest of the offseason, and even more impossible to guess at what Arizona’s roster will look like in 2017/18.
When we looked at the roster situation for the Arizona Cardinals, we found that the gambling public is probably right to have this team right smack dab in the middle of the race for Super Bowl 52: With the amount of change happening on their roster, it’s very difficult to know how things will shake out in Arizona come next season.
But even with this degree of uncertainty over what the Cardinals’ roster will look like, there are still some rock solid statistical and scheduling factors that we can consider that will help us make an accurate prediction for whether or not Arizona is slated to improve in 2017/18 and get back to their NFC Championship ways, or if they are instead headed to keep declining.
The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.
Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.
Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.
But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.
The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.
By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.
In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.
In the case of the 2016/17 Cardinals, the Pythagorean Expectation formula tells us a very compelling story.
The Arizona Cardinals’ final record last season was 7–8–1, and yet according to the Pythagorean Expectation formula, based on the number of points they scored and the number of points they allowed, the team should have won exactly 9.4 games, indicating that the team under-performed by two games.
And given the fact that a tie generally counts for ½ of a win, the additional .4 wins predicted by the formula should have been enough to push the Cardinals over the edge from a tie to an additional win – indeed, Chandler Catanzaro had two chances to win that game against the Seahawks.
So in short, even though the Cardinals only won 7 games last year, in reality they played like a 10-win team.
In fact, we can go even further than this. Based purely on Pythagorean Expectation, the Cardinals should have had the 7th-best record in the league last season, ahead of the 12-win Oakland Raiders, the 11-win New York Giants, the 10-win Green Bay Packers, the 10-win Miami Dolphins, and the 9-win Houston Texans and Detroit Lions.
So in short, statistically speaking, the Cardinals – who missed the playoffs – performed better in the regular season than 6 of the 12 playoff teams: In the worst case, the Cardinals should have won a full three games more than the Houston Texans, and likely would have made for a much more entertaining pair of postseason appearances.
And this makes sense: Above, when we were describing the team’s strengths and weaknesses, we found it perplexing that a team could perform so well statistically – particularly on the defensive side of the ball – and yet end up with such a poor final record. With Pythagorean Expectation, we see that the statistics were no fluke – the Cardinals should have won 10 games last season; they just…didn’t.
And it’s crucially important to put this under-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the Cardinals will play next season, and that is the schedule that Arizona played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.
According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the Cardinals played the 3rd-easiest schedule in the entire league in 2016/17.
This is not a good sign for Cardinals fans. If the team had won seven games against a very difficult schedule, the fact that the team won fewer games that it should have would have been more excusable – those three wins that eluded them might have been against very difficult teams.
But with the Cardinals having played the third-easiest schedule in the entire league, then the fact that the team won three games fewer than it should have looks considerably worse – looking purely at the statistics, it seems that the Cardinals simply gave away games that they should have won, due to their own ineptitude. Remembering those close games against the Rams and Seahawks, this seems to be this case.
And what’s more, the fact that the Cardinals under-performed against an easy slate of opponent begs the question: What would have happened if Arizona had played a tougher schedule? Could the season have turned out even worse?
This is one question that we can begin to answer for next season, despite the fact that the week-by-week NFL schedule has not yet been released. While the week-by-week schedule must incorporate a wide variety of different interests, including TV contracts, and thus takes a considerable amount of time to assemble, the slate of opponents that a team faces is governed by a simple mathematical formula.
Every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.
For the Cardinals, this means the following:
- 3 home games against the Seahawks, the Rams, and the 49ers
- 3 road games against the Seahawks, the Rams (in London), and the 49ers
- 4 games against the NFC East: the Cowboys (home), the Giants (home), the Eagles (away), and the Redskins (away)
- 4 games against the AFC South: the Jaguars (home), the Titans (home), the Texans (away), and the Colts (away)
- 2 games against other NFC runners-up: the Buccaneers (home) and the Lions (away)
At first glance, this slate of opponents appears to be a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the NFC East was among the toughest divisions in football last season, with the Cowboys and Giants both making it to the postseason and the Redskins being right on the cusp of getting the second Wild Card spot.
But on the other hand, the AFC South was undoubtedly one of the very worst divisions in football last season, with the Texans and their bungled quarterback situation making them the laughingstock of the 2016/17 playoffs. The team also doesn’t have to play a divisional road game in favor of a neutral London game, which is a blessing or a curse depending on how you fall on London games.
In order to determine how difficult this slate of opponents really is beyond pure conjecture, we can consider each team’s performance in 2016/17 in order to get a proxy of how well we think they will do in 2017/18, and how this aggregated performance compares to the opponents of other teams.
And when we subject the Cardinals’ schedule to this type of analysis, we find an interesting story.
Based purely on the number of games that the Cardinals’ opponents won last season, their schedule ranks out right at the middle of the league – the 17th-most difficult. But when we look at the aggregated point differential of the Cardinals’ opponents (which, as we saw above with Pythagorean Expectation, is a much more accurate indicator of success), we find that the Cardinals have the 5th-easiest schedule in the league.
So in short, despite the fact that the Arizona Cardinals’ opponents won a good number of games last year, these are also some of the opponents that over-performed last season relative to their point differential, and so the Cardinals’ schedule next season should be easier than it appears on the surface.
In summary, when we put together all of these many factors helping us to determine the season that the Cardinals are going to have next season, we are able to make a relatively accurate prediction.
First off, starting with Pythagorean Expectation, it’s important that we think of last year’s Cardinals team as a 10–6 team, not as a 7–8–1 team, because according to the number of points that they scored and the number of points they allowed, they should have won 10 games. Given that their schedule doesn’t get appreciably more difficult next season, one would expect their bad luck to equalize next season and for the team to return to 10 wins or so.
And while the team is not slated to go through any significant changes in the major leadership pieces, with owner, GM, head coach, and quarterback all remaining the same, the rest of the Cardinals’ roster is in such a state of flux that we are led to believe that even if the team shows general improvement, it may nonetheless take a bit of time for them to congeal as a unit and start playing together.
Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Arizona Cardinals: 9–7
Conclusion: The Story of the Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals don’t have much postseason success to speak of in the organization’s long and migratory history, making the recent run of success in the era of general manager Steve Keim, head coach Bruce Arians, and quarterback Carson Palmer all the more exciting for the fan base.
After three consecutive double-digit-win seasons with this leadership team, the Cardinals continued to close in on a championship, making it all the way to the NFC Championship Game at the end of the 2015/16 season. The fan base had high hopes that 2016/17 would be the season in which the team would play in a Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, however, this was not to be the case, as the Cardinals’ season was maligned primarily by significant offensive line injuries and a series of bizarre special teams miscues. In addition, roughly a dozen key starters simply played worse in 2016/17 than they had the year before, whether due to injuries or otherwise, and the team missed the playoffs with a surprisingly bad record of 7–8–1.
When we looked more closely at the statistics, however, we found that part of the reason why this record was so surprising is that it’s not entirely accurate: According to advanced statistics, the team played at the level of a 10-win team, and in fact performed better during the regular season than 6 of the 12 playoff teams.
This would make an argument for the Cardinals to bounce back next year and compete at the same level that they had been the year before, however the large number of significant roster moves that GM Steve Keim has already made this offseason makes us question whether or not the Cardinals’ roster will be better or worse when the 2017/18 season rolls around.
Ultimately, the organization hopes to go all in each and every year, and squeeze as many opportunities as they can out of the last few years they have remaining while Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer are playing at a high level.