The Arizona Cardinals Have Proven They Are Elite


Sep 21, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown (12) celebrates a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals are an elite football team with a chance to make some noise should they reach the playoffs.

That statement is far from being a judgement based on record only. The Cardinals are 3-0, an have beaten two good teams in the Chargers and 49ers. They sit as the lone leaders of what many consider the toughest division in football, the NFC West.

Of course, records can take turns, and fortunes can change on a dime, as Cardinals fans are painfully aware. In 2012, the team started out 4-0 before losing nine straight games to bottom out at 5-11. Could this just be another hot start that’ll end with the team crashing back down to earth?Don’t count on it. This 3-0 record in no fluke. This is a genuinely good team.

Obviously, this is an entirely different roster with entirely different coaches. It’s more than that though. In their four game win streak, the Cardinals had one blowout game, but won the others by four points, an OT field goal, and would’ve lost one but for a missed field goal by the Patriots. Through three games, this Cardinals team has had two wins of nine and eleven points. They aren’t bumbling through on luck. They are outplaying and outlasting opposition.

What’s gotten them here?

Coming into the season, fate hadn’t been very kind to Arizona. The defense looked significantly damaged with the suspension of Daryl Washington, the departure of Karlos Dansby, and the injury of Darnell Dockett.  Then, after a Week 1 victory on Monday Night Football, Carson Palmer has sat the last two games with a nerve issue in his shoulder, leaving backup Drew Stanton in command. In this,we see one of the things that makes the Cardinals elite: proof of depth. Despite the injuries on D, the Cardinals remain as one of the best run defenses in the NFL, allowing 71.7 rush yards per game (3rd in league). Despite having to use their backup QB who hadn’t started since 2010, the Cardinals have yet to throw an interception.

A big reason the Cardinals are unbeaten and looking great is the success of the next man up mentality. Credit goes to guys like Stanton, Frostee Rucker, Tommy Kelly, Larry Foote, Kevin Minter, and  Deone Bucannon for filling spots and playing mostly solid football in starting roles. The negative effects of personnel shortcomings have been mitigated by good play from players who relish the opportunity given to them.

Aside from that, the Cards  have the raw talent required of a good team. On offense, Andre Ellington has continued to showcase his abilities running the football,  carrying 46 times for 206 yards (4.5 YPC). His ability to rush and receive is still proving  to be a cornerstone of the offensive game plan. Meanwhile, Michael Floyd and John Brown are doing great with Larry Fitzgerald quietly drawing off defenders for them. Floyd has 11 catches for 252 yards on the year and has been showing elite skills in footwork, body control, and physicality on deep passes.  John Brown has nine receptions and 3 TDs in as many games, and has lived up to the preseason hype that the Cardinals put on him.

On the other side of the ball, Patrick Peterson has had his on and off days. After a horrible game in New York, he had a great day against San Francisco. Tyrann Mathieu has been a little shaky coming off his knee injury, but he hasn’t been playing in full yet. Regardless, the defense is holding steady, and the Cardinals are winning football games because of it. This roster has a lot to offer any opposing team, and has proven itself to be the roster of a playoff caliber squad.

The Cardinals also have a win-first attitude. They care about the W, and not much else. Drew Stanton, after the Niners game said this ” “My whole mind-set was, I just want to win this football game. It doesn’t have to look pretty. It doesn’t have to be amazing stats”. That attitude has carried them so far. One can see the energy and fire the team plays with in their physicality game in and game out. They’re mad about missing the playoffs last year. They’re mad about the media only talking about Seattle and San Francisco. Keep in mind that the Cardinals have won three games and trailed at halftime all three. They are just a tough team that wants to win and wants to be respected. Teams with that attitude are teams that are more likely to win

But the biggest reason…

That win first attitude, the talent on the roster, and the creativity of its use all come from the minds from three men: Steve Keim, Todd Bowles, and Bruce Arians. They’ve managed to assemble a team that is really good and can be better. Keim has managed to put this all together without too many burdensome contracts, which is something few GMs can do. On the field, Bruce Arians has skillfully crafted an offensive scheme that has proven it can lead to victories. BA has also shown a great deal of faith in his players, and it has paid dividends. While many coaches might be conservative when playing with a backup QB, Arians let Stanton fire shots down the field. Stanton has attempted 19 passes of 20+ yards in two games. Arians is finally making Andre Ellington his main back without question, which everyone wanted him to do last season. He’s still doing his mad scientist act,  moving receivers all over the field all for the purpose of making the team impossible to predict.

Todd Bowles also deserves a good deal of props for his work on defense. He’s coached the guys on D to be not only tough, but smart. The guys on defense are well-taught in the art of deceiving opposing QBs and offenses. The Cardinals one sack on Colin Kaepernick in Week 3 was a great illustration. On  the Cardinals single sack of the afternoon, Sam Acho took a three point stance on the right side of the formation, and looked ready to blitz. When the snap went, he dropped back, and out of nowhere, Tony Jefferson broke from what looked like man coverage to take Kaep down. That kind of ability to not telegraph what your doing is something every good defender can do, and the Cardinals have been doing it well.

Bowles is also quite the wild playcaller, showing pressure from one side and bringing blitzes on the complete other side. On a fundamental level, that is what makes the Cardinals so good: The brilliance of the playcalling makes the team unpredictable in everything it does. Who is going to lineup where and what do the formations really mean? Opposing teams struggle to know, and the Cardinals outmatch teams because of it. That’s one of the most basic yet overlooked ways to win in football. Don’t be predictable.

Of course, the team is not flawless. Far from it. Make no mistake, though:  The Cardinals are an elite NFL team . They’ve got what it takes in most if not all regards. There’s talent, depth, good coaching, chemistry, and a winning attitude in the desert. They may not have an elite QB or a star-studded roster, but the results show they may not even need that to be considered an elite team. They are playing great football right now and there’s nothing stopping them from keeping it up as the season progresses. They’ve won three games on the “Why not us?” mentality, and if they continue, they’ll quickly have the  national respect they covet.