The Arizona Cardinals don’t make very much sense at the moment. They’ve got very best defense in the NFL, at least in terms of yardage, and rank fourth in points allowed per game. They’ve got two of the best skill-position players in David Johnson and Larry Johnson. They haven’t even been especially horrific in the giveaway/takeaway department, as they’re plus-two at the halfway point, which is tied for eighth.
Yet here they are, coming off their bye week at 3-4-1, which puts them at 11th in the NFC (but only a game behind Washington for the final Wild Card spot). They’ve already lost more games in the season’s first half than they did all of last year, when they finished 13-3, and that final loss came in Week 17 when they had nothing to play for.
Are the Cards better than their record?
Well, consider that their point-differential is plus-39, which is seventh-best in the league. On paper they’re plenty good enough to go on a second-half run and make the playoffs. Unfortunately for their fans, quarterback play is the great equalizer and Carson Palmer just hasn’t been consistent enough. They’ve earned their record on merit. Unless Palmer dramatically improves going forward, they’ll finish either 7-8-1 or 8-7-1, and miss out on the postseason.
With that written, let’s hand out some mid-season awards.
Offensive MVP — David Johnson
With all due respect to Larry Fitzgerald, this isn’t all that close. Johnson leads everyone with 1,112 yards from scrimmage, and he’s played one fewer game than San Diego’s Melvin Gordon, who ranks second. He’s one of the few true three-down running backs in the league, ranking fourth in rushing yards and leads all backs in receiving yards. Johnson is the third-best running back in the league per the analytic crew at Pro Football Focus, and has been extraordinarily durable so far. Chris Johnson is on Injured Reserve and coach Bruce Arians hasn’t trusted Andre Ellington very much. We’ll see if Johnson wears down during the stretch run, but it’s hard to blame Arians for his workload considering how shaky Palmer’s been.
Defensive MVP — Chandler Jones
There are many more candidates for MVP, with Calais Campbell, Markus Golden, Tony Jefferson, D.J. Swearinger and Patrick Peterson all enjoying fine seasons. We’ll give the nod to Jones, who’s been everything the Cardinals hoped he’d be when they traded guard Jonathan Cooper (since released) and a second-rounder for him over the summer. Jones has recorded five sacks and ranks 15th in the league with 13 pressures, according to Sportingcharts.com. He’s the fourth-best overall edge-rusher in football, per Pro Football Focus.
Biggest Surprise — Markus Golden
As strong as Jones has been, it’s Golden who leads the club with six sacks. He’s benefited from the attention Jones has drawn on the other side, but Golden’s ascent has given opposing passers no room to slide in either direction and the consistency of the team’s pass rush is the main reason their defense has been so strong. Golden has not only been a steady force on passing downs but has also held up well versus the run, better than Jones in fact.
Biggest Disappointment: Evan Mathis.
It’s tempting to list Palmer here, and he has been generally poor, but his dip in performance hasn’t exactly been a surprise. The better candidate is Mathis, the 12-year veteran signed in the offseason to help shore up their offensive line (the move helped enable them to move Cooper for Jones). Mathis helped the Broncos win a Super Bowl last January, but he lasted only four games before going on Injured Reserve with foot and ankle injuries. Career backup Earl Watford has been decent in his stead.
Rookie of the Year: Robert Nkemdiche
This is a default pick. Very few rookies have played at all for the Cardinals, and Arians doesn’t show much patience for youngsters. Third-rounder Brandon Williams failed in his brief audition as the starting corner opposite Peterson and has given way to journeyman Marcus Cooper. Undrafted rookie long snapper Kameron Canaday made the team out of training camp, but he botched a couple of crucial snaps over the first three games and was cut. Nkemdiche, their first-round pick out of Ole Miss, has only been active for three games and played just 49 snaps and logged all of one assisted tackle, but at least he’s playing and trending up, however slight the grade.