On the surface, it sure appears that the Arizona Cardinals are off to a troubling, disappointing start. After all, they lost at home last Sunday night against a New England Patriots team missing their best two players in Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, their most dynamic runner in Dion Lewis, probably their two best offensive linemen and also their best pass-rusher in Rob Ninkovich.
The Cardinals, by contrast, were healthy from top to bottom. Everything being equal, we should’ve expected the Cards to win by 10 points or so, and a loss in that situation should be inconceivable enough to justify frothy rage.
However, that is just not true.
Despite the 0-1 record, there were more positives in the game than anticipated from the Cardinals. After a horrific, turnover-filled postseason that could psychologically ruin him the way it did Jake Delhomme, Carson Palmer looked very much like… Carson Palmer.
It turns out his rather uninspiring preseason meant nothing at all, just like it meant nothing the year before. He’s still Palmer, and he still looks like an upper-echelon quarterback at age 36. Just that reality in and of itself is a more encouraging development than if they won 10-7 with Palmer throwing three picks.
The Cardinals also got good-to-great performances from Larry Fitzgerald -who remains amazing- and Tyrann Mathieu, both of whom spent preseason on the shelf. Fitzgerald scored twice and Mathieu, no doubt relieved that he didn’t have to bring down the polar bear that is Gronkowski down the middle of the field, had seven stops including one for a loss.
They came out of the game relatively healthy as well. Guard Evan Mathis had a scare, hobbling to the locker with a foot injury, but it doesn’t appear to be a long-term issue.
By and large, this looks very much like the team that went 13-3 and made the conference title game last season. David Johnson is clearly their top back now, even with Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington healthy and available, and perhaps one criticism for Bruce Arians would be to use them all more to keep the former fresh and the heat off Palmer. No doubt the early 10-0 deficit compromised some of their game plan in that regard.
It was fitting, though, that they played the New England Patriots in Week 1 because the one significant difference between this year’s squad and last year’s edition is the presence of Chandler Jones on the defensive line. Jones had a sack and a couple other pressures against Jimmy Garoppalo in his Arizona debut, and if he can bring consist heat off the edge, it will give Arizona something they were missing last season. It will give the Cardinals a new dimension still and a victory in trade with the Patriots, which would be even rarer than beating them on the field.
We’ll know more Sunday afternoon when the Cardinals host the Buccaneers at the Dollar Diploma Warehouse. Unlike the Patriots, who were limited by injuries to two of their most dangerous receivers in Gronkowski and Lewis, the Buccaneers have no such concerns. They’ve got two giants on the perimeter in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins is one of the speediest tight ends in the league and starting to make a name for himself.
Throw in Doug “Muscle Hamster” Martin in the backfield and a trigger-man in Jameis Winston who very much looks like the real deal, and it makes for as complete and talented an offense as the Cardinals will face all season long, and certainly more so than anything they’ll face in the NFC West.
We saw rookie corner Brandon Williams toasted a bit by the Patriots, and he’ll undoubtedly be targeted by the Buccaneers, who have more downfield game-breakers than the Patriots, who are more of a dink-and-dunk attack. Again, 21 points probably won’t be enough to escape with a win, but perhaps if the Cardinals get off to a better start they can then dictate the terms, run the ball more, control the clock and keep Winston and Co. off the field. Otherwise, they’ll be looking at another potential shootout.
That they still have the ability to win those shootouts with Palmer is heady stuff, though, and far more relevant than a high snap that caused a missed field goal and sent the team to 0-1.