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Are the Cardinals the Best Team in the NFC?

Cardinals' runningback Andre Ellington celebrates a TD. Photo Credit: Scripps Media Inc.
Cardinals’ runningback Andre Ellington celebrates a TD. Photo Credit: Scripps Media Inc.

Let’s take a look at the top of the NFC West standings for a minute. Are you surprised with who you see? That’s right it’s the Arizona Cardinals. Now let’s take a look at the top of the NFC standings as a whole. Are you surprised again to see the Cardinals at the top? Would you care to check to the standings for the entire NFL? If you guessed the Cardinals were at the top of those as well, you’d be correct.

That’s right, the Arizona Cardinals hold the best record in the NFL at 7-1. Some expected the Cardinals to follow up a 10-6 performance last year that left them just short of the playoffs with solid run at the playoffs again this season. The more popular opinion was that this team would struggle to overcome the losses of defensive centerpieces like Daryl Washington (Suspension), Darnell Dockett (Torn ACL), and Karlos Dansby (Free Agency) and continue to have an average at best offensive; leaving them as a mediocre team that would be left out of a crowded NFC playoff race. Very few predicted, if anyone, predicted this.

Now the question is worth asking, how good are the Cardinals really? Their record does not match-up with their overall talent, making one wonder if the Cardinals can sustain this over a full season. In this piece, I will focus just on the Cardinals place in the NFC hierarchy (The Broncos and Patriots have best team in the NFL on lockdown). I will make a case for the Cardinals being “for real” and the top team in the NFC and a case for this team being a fraud. After looking at both sides of the argument I will give a final verdict. It’s time to take the team with the NFL’s best record to court.



Cardinals' Head Coach Bruce Arians. Photo Credit: Rick Sculteri/AP
Cardinals’ Head Coach Bruce Arians. Photo Credit: Rick Sculteri/AP


The Case for the Cardinals

Coaching:  It is time to acknowledge Bruce Arians as the one of the best coaches in the NFL. In 2.5 seasons as a head coach, Arians has a 26-10 record. He filled in admirably two seasons ago in Indianapolis when head man Chuck Pagano took a leave of absence to  be treated for leukemia, going 9-3 with a roster featuring a rookie quarterback and a lot less talent than this current incarnation of the Colts. Arians parlayed that success as an interim head coach to his first full time gig last year with Arizona where he lead his team to a 10-6 record in an NFC West that featured the conference’s (if not the NFL’s) two best teams. This year Arians is once again in that same tough NFC West and has lead his squad to the NFL’s best record, despite having less talent that he did the year prior.

Offensively, Arians has worked magic. Basically serving as the offensive coordinator for this team, Arians weathered a three game storm without starting quarterback Carson Palmer and built an offense to maximize back-up QB Drew Stanton. The star of the Cardinals’ offensive has always been veteran wide out Larry Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald is heading down the wrong end of the age curve and it’s beginning to show on the field. While Fitz still does lead the team in receiving yards with 513 over 8 games, Arians has a fantastic job integrating several other young offensive weapons to take a burden off of the 31-year old wide out.

Running back Andre Ellington in an all-purpose yards machine, coming up with 1072 yards from scrimmage so far this year and giving the offensive a huge big play threat. Arians has also aided in the development of young wide receivers Michael Floyd and John Brown. Floyd, the team’s 1st Round pick in 2012, is finally developed into what the Cardinals thought he would be when they drafted him, bringing in 389 yards and two touchdowns so far. Brown has been a godsend this year for the Cardinals in his rookie season with 326 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns, most notably his game winner in the final minutes against the Eagles. Arians has taken an offense that lacks overall talent and maximized it. An offense quarterbacked by Carson Palmer/Drew Stanton feels like it should so much worse.

It is also important to point out the impact coaching has had for this team on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles has been the key factor for this team in overcoming the losses of Washington, Dockett, Dansby, and Calais Campbell.  Bowles had found creative ways to overcome the teams what should be glaring weakness on the defensive side of the ball. Starting with the pass rush, without Dockett, Campbell, or John Abraham the team lacked any obvious pass rushers. Bowles overcame this blitzing more than any other defensive in the league.

The result: the 5th best adjusted sack rate in the NFL (per Football Outsiders). With Washington suspended and Karlos Dansby leaving for Cleveland in free agency, Bowles also appeared to have an obvious weakness at linebacker with the veteran journey like Larry Foote appearing to be starters. Bowles overcame once again by playing more “Dime” personal than any other defense in the league. Seeing he had lots of talented defensive backs to toy with, Bowles took advantage of this by playing with 6 of them on over half of his plays, leaving just one linebacker on the field.  This defense is not far off from what it was last year, despite losing most of its big names. That is thanks to Todd Bowles. Expect him to get some head coaching buzz this offseason.

Defense: Let’s continue on the topic of that defense. As mentioned above, it’s still really good! They rank 6th in Defensive Efficiency (or DVOA, per Football Outsiders), 5th in Adjusted Sack Rate, 2nd in turnover differential and 6th in points per game allowed. That’s a really good defense. As mentioned above, they are playing well without significant pieces they planned to have, Daryl Washington and Darnell Dockett were supposed to be on this defense and they have just chugged along without them. Calais Campbell looked like a defensive player of the year candidate before he had to miss two weeks in  the middle of season due to injury but the Cardinals overcame that as well, going undefeated in his absence. Unlike Dockett and Washington, Campbell is back which could spell even more improvement for this unit. That is a scary proposition for opposing offenses.

There are two defining qualities for this defense. Their frightening secondary featuring two superstars, Patrick Petersen and Tyrann Mathieu and several other talented players; and their ability to stop the run. When opposing teams play the Cardinals a couple of things tend to happen. Teams will refuse to throw the ball at Patrick Petersen, they’d prefer not to throw the ball at all when the Cardinals come out with six defensive backs on almost every play. That being said, it’s really hard to run on this team. The Cardinals have given up 3.4 yards per rushing attempt, the 3rd best mark in the NFL and they’ve done playing most with only one linebacker.

This comes back to Todd Bowles and his ability to teach gab responsibility and run fits to his defense. No one is out of place and when that happens it is really hard to run the ball against this team. Factor in their secondary making it really hard to pass against this team, it’s just hard to score points when you play the Arizona Cardinals.

They’ve Played Some Really Tough Teams: The Cleveland Browns are now 6-3 but they have wins over the not so murders row featuring the Raiders, Buccaneers, and Titans and a loss to the Jaguars. The Cardinals haven’t had their path to 7-1 be quite so easy. They have wins over 3 teams that were in the playoffs last year (Philly, San Diego, and San Francisco), wins over 2 teams would be in the playoffs if they started today (Philly and Dallas), and their only loss was on the road to the Broncos where they played rookie 6th round pick Logan Thomas at quarterback for half of the game. They have played the 14th hardest schedule in the league so far (per Football Outsiders). While that is only a little above average, it shows they aren’t feasting on cupcakes and it is about on par with what they’ll see the rest of the way forward.

Football outsiders predicts the Cardinals future schedule as the 12th hardest in the league, featuring two games with the Seahawks, a trip to San Francisco, and match-ups with the Lions and Chiefs as the tough points. That doesn’t sound easy on paper and it won’t be easy on the field but this team has shown they can compete with the tough guys already.

Cardinal's Quarterback Carson Palmer frantically escaping Eagles' pressure. Photo Credit: Arizona Cardinals.
Cardinal’s Quarterback Carson Palmer frantically escaping Eagles’ pressure. Photo Credit: Arizona Cardinals.

The Case Against the Cardinals

The case against the Cardinals revolves around advance metrics. While the former players that overpopulate NFL talk love this team because of their “grid and effort and ability just get it done”, the advance metrics speak otherwise.

Team Efficiency: Football Outsiders’ team efficiency rating, known as DVOA is usually a pretty good indicator of what teams are actually good and what teams might be hiding behind some smoke and mirrors. It accurately determined that the Seahawks and Broncos were the league’s top two teams last year and only once in the last ten years and has a team outside of their top ten won or even made the Super Bowl (the 2012 Giants). Why is this important? The Cardinals are 16th in DVOA with a DVOA of 1.3%, or just one 1.3% above league average. For comparison, the Broncos have the league’s highest DVOA at 36.4% and the Buccaneers have the league’s worst DVOA at -35.9%. In terms of efficiency, the Cardinals are as average as they come. (Per Football Outsiders)

Where does this put them in the NFC efficiency hierarchy? Well if the NFC’s 6 playoff teams were chosen by DVOA, the Cardinals would not make the playoffs. The Seahawks, Packers, Eagles, Saints, Lions, and Cowboys all have a higher DVOA marking than Arizona. On per play basis, there are 6 teams better than this Cardinals team in the NFC alone. While they may be beating very good teams now it’s hard to imagine that keeping if they continue to play with this level of efficiency. League average teams should in theory, see league average results in the win-loss column in the long run. The Cardinals can avoid this destiny with improved play, but as of right now they are a league average team in terms of efficiency.

Offense: This is an area where both traditional and advanced metrics are working against the Cardinals. While I did give Bruce Arians credit for maximizing the potential of his offense, they still are not very good. They rank 24th in the league in offensive DVOA  and 27th in total yards per game. Those rankings seem about right for a team quarterbacked by Drew Stanton and Carson Palmer with a weak offensive line and developing receiving core. Arians has made the most of what he has and has developed some nice young pieces, but this offense just cannot be relied upon.

So far the Cardinals have had a simple recipe for winning games, play exceptional defensive, win the turnover battle and do not hurt yourself on offense. They have implemented this strategy to absolute success, but it’s worth wondering what would happen if they had to go into a shootout with somebody. The Cardinals do average 24 points per game, but they have never scored more than 30. The Broncos put 43 on their defense in Week 5 and the Cardinals simply could not keep pace. If their defense would begin to struggle in the latter half of the season it’s hard to imagine this offense being able to play catch up.

It’s also worth mentioning with this offense that Carson Palmer has been uncharacteristically careful with the ball this season. His touchdown to interception ratio is 5.5 touchdowns for every interception, much better than his career mark of 2.6 touchdowns per interception. It would not be shocking to see Palmer regress to his old ways in the second half of the season and if he does this Cardinals team would be in deep trouble. This is a team that needs to win the turnover battle and they cannot do that if Palmer regresses. This offense isn’t very good, so it cannot afford to get worse, which is definitely a possibility with Palmer at the helm.

Point Differential and Pythagorean Win Total: Pythagorean win total is the amount of wins a team should have based off their point differential rather than their total win-loss record. This has been proven throughout the years by NFL statisticians to be a better indicator of future performance than actual win loss record. According to their Pythagorean win total the Cardinals should have won just 5 games; since they’ve won 7 their two wins over expectation makes the luckiest team in football.  Five wins is nothing to shake your head at, but it still means this team is over preforming with 7 wins. If the Cardinals were to play like a 5 win team the rest of the way they will go 12-4 and make the playoffs, but it would be a 10-6 type of team that happened to win 12 games. It still seems fair to expect to the Cardinals regress back to the mean in the second half of the year though, how far back they regress will be what defines public perception of the Cardinals heading into the playoffs.

Fumble Recovery Rate: Just a reminder, recovering fumbles is not a skill, the laws of physics dictate where the ball bounces not the team that strips it. This means the rate at which a team recovers fumbles is unlikely to stay constant over an entire season. The Cardinals have recovered the ball 64.3% of the time when  they’ve seen it on the ground this season. That’s good enough for the 3rd best mark in the league. However, since every fumble is a 50-50 proposition it’s likely that this could regress as well back to the mean as well. Above I mentioned the impact of Carson Palmer not throwing interceptions’ on this team, they have to win the turnover battle. If Palmer would regress back to his mean interception rate and they started to fail to recover fumbles at the rate they are now the Cardinals would lose their advantage in the turnover battle. They would also probably lose a lot more games at that pace. This is a stat will likely naturally regress even the Cardinals cannot afford to that happen.

The Verdict

The Cardinals are NOT the NFC’s Best Team: The statistical evidence against the Cardinals was too overwhelming. On a per play basis, this is a league average team that should eventually regress to the mean. It is unlikely that Carson Palmer will continue to play this well, it is unlikely their fumble luck will continue, and if their defense ever has a bad game they do not have to the offense to keep them in it. Good coaching can right a lot of wrongs, but I don’t think this team is good enough to navigate through a very tough second half of the year playing the way they are now. I see them finishing about 11-5 and making the playoffs but being sent home soon after. The NFC’s best team is not located in Arizona, it is more likely to be found in Green Bay or Philadelphia (pre-Nick Foles injury). The Cardinals have been a fun story so far, but it will not keep up and it is very unlikely they will be the first ever team to play in a Super Bowl they are hosting. This isn’t the NFC’s best team. Case closed.