Five questions: Arizona Cardinals edition

Much to many NFL fans’ surprise, the Arizona Cardinals are just one of three teams that remain undefeated this season. Photo by: M P R


Crazy as it seems, the Arizona Cardinals have started the 2012 NFL season 4-0, with victories over the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, and Miami Dolphins in that order. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two Super Bowl “favorites” and two teams that are not as bad as people think.

Amidst all their troubles under center, the speculation about their offensive line and the coaching of Ken Whisenhunt, they have emerged from the first three weeks unscathed, in terms of their win-loss record, and have restored hope to a city that experienced too much, too soon under Kurt Warner and Co.

Now, entering tonight’s game against the 2-2 Rams, that is not to say there are not questions surrounding this long belittled franchise. And with questions, come answers. And with those answers, come two writers. Let us begin.

Question 1: Can Kevin Kolb keep playing the way he has, and if so, for how long?

• Brett: The Red Birds acquired Kevin Kolb before last season and he started to flutter out during the regular season, eventually being replaced by John Skelton. Well, the times have changed and due to Skelton’s ankle injury suffered in Week 1, Kolb has been the guy under center since midway through the fourth quarter of the opener against Seattle, where he led the eventual game-winning drive and looked good doing it too. Since then, he has been effective against both the Patriots and Eagles, throwing three touchdown passes, without an interception, and running in for another score. However, he didn’t look so hot against the Dolphins, throwing his first two picks on the season but saved himself with another crucial, late drive to send that game into overtime. So I say he definitely can keep it up, especially with the way the schedule is set up these next three weeks or so.

• Matt: Still, it’s hard to place too much confidence in Kolb. The four wins might look good on paper, but besides that Seahawks game, you have to credit the Cardinals defense against the Eagles and Stephen Gostkowski’s blatant misstep for the Patriots in both other wins. Even in the team’s recent win over the Dolphins, Kolb threw an interception late in the game that nearly doomed the Red Birds. Granted, he came back to throw the tying touchdown. Many may gloss over that interception, but against a lowly Dolphins squad whose defense isn’t quite scaring opposing offenses (unlike this Cardinals squad, but more on that later), it’s not exactly comforting to see the Cardinals down 13-0 at halftime. Yes, they won, and yes, Beanie Wells is hurt, but at the end of the day, Kolb has yet to face a true challenge yet, and once he does, expect him to revert back to the turnover machine he has been known to be in the past.

Question 2: Can Ryan Williams step in and help Arizona’s offense consistently?

• Brett: After missing the entire 2011 season due to an injury suffered in the preseason, the second-round pick out of Virginia Tech is essentially a rookie this season. And Ryan Williams is now being asked to shoulder the load in the backfield now as the Cardinals placed starter Beanie Wells on injured reserve until November 25. Williams has the speed and talent to play well in this league as well as the determination to fight for extra yardage when the play seems dead. There have been some questions about his health due to last year’s injury and his ball security/confidence after a nearly devastating fumble in New England, but he responded nicely against Philadelphia when the Cardinals were closing out the Eagles late in the game and should have the ability to at the very least give opposing defenses something to worry about other than Larry Fitzgerald.

• Matt: At the start of the year, I heard mumblings from Arizona Cardinals and NFL fans alike that Ryan Williams would overtake Beanie Wells. Through the first few games, Williams showed brief glimpses of potential, but was marred by two early turnovers against the Seahawks and Patriots (the latter of which nearly cost the Cardinals the game).Through four games, Williams has no touchdowns, and quite frankly, doesn’t look as if he’s set to capitalize on Wells’ injury. The schedule is only set to get tougher, and until Williams shakes off his rookie jitters, it’s hard to see him capitalizing on the additional touches.

Still, the team has succeeded with mediocre running games so far. Soon, opposing defenses will start forcing the Cardinals to run the football instead of letting Kolb beat them through the air. When that happens, the team will have to turn to Williams, and quite frankly, I’m not sure if he can consistently run the ball and open up the offense for play action passes (or passes in general). If the Cardinals want to succeed, they need to play better offensively without relying on late, heroic drives. Te first step needs to be establishing their running game. Whether Williams is the guy, though, remains to be seen.

Question 3: Is the defense a top five unit in the NFL?

• Brett: When fully healthy, the Cardinals are able to boast some impressive names on the defensive side of the football that help contribute to a squad that flies to the football, makes big hits and attacks with relentlessness. Starting on the defensive line with beasts like Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, continuing in the middle with young, stud linebacker Daryl Washington and moving into the secondary with Adrian Wilson and phenom Patrick Peterson, Arizona’s defense can hang with anybody, any day. However, to the common fan, the Cardinals are still the Cardinals of old and old-time thinking states that the best defenses reside in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, etc. But, fantasy-wise, the Cards are the second-best on the young season and have been the main reason Arizona has won 11 of their last 13, dating back to last season. Its not that inconceivable to think Arizona’s defensive unit belongs in the Top 5 , up there with the Bears, Texans, Falcons, etc., especially if they keep playing the way they are…minus the Miami game.

• Matt: After making the Eagles look like chumps and Tom Brady look uncomfortable, I think it’s a resounding yes. As I mentioned earlier, this Cardinals defense has been the key factor in all of their wins this season. Patrick Peterson is proving once again he was worthy of a top pick in last year’s draft, and in the team’s most recent win over Miami, Daryl Washington proved huge with a late interception that allowed Kolb to (yawn) tie the game up. Now that guys like Adrian Wilson are back, it’s only a matter of time before this Cardinals defense really takes shape. Hell, Wilson had a few key plays, including a big sack, against the Dolphins, and he probably isn’t 100 percent yet. It’s hard to imagine this defense won’t improve, especially in a surprisingly weak NFC West. Granted, the Cardinals haven’t played the 49ers yet, but the way they made the Eagles, the Seahawks, and the Patriots look (no disrespect to Miami, but those three clubs were hyped at the beginning of the year), it’s hard not to see this relatively young, vibrant defense improving.

Question 4: Can the Cardinals be the last undefeated team in football?

• Brett: The three undefeated teams left in the league are the Cardinals, the Atlanta Falcons and the Houston Texans. As far as the Cards go, they were extremely lucky to walk away with a win last Sunday against Miami after the Dolphins ripped apart Arizona’s aforementioned defense, forcing the Cardinals to win in overtime (again). But, good teams always find a way to win and that is what the Cardinals did. Nobody quite knows if they are actually good or not yet, but they are one of only three teams with unblemished records. Looking ahead, the Texans have the Jets, Packers and Ravens to deal with, with the latter two being at home. The Falcons get the rejuvenated Redskins and Raiders before their bye week, before playing the Eagles out of the break. Meanwhile, Arizona plays the Rams on a short week before playing the Bills in Glendale and the Vikings on the road. Out of those three, I give the best shot to the Cardinals to be the last undefeated team in the league, based off the quality of opponents but each team has a good shot due to the schedule balance.

• Matt: I’m not the biggest Cardinals fan, but looking at their schedule, I can easily see this squad going 7-0 if they can upset the Buffalo Bills at home. At St. Louis this weekend could easily be a trap game and force the Cardinals to re-examine their hot start, but I just don’t feel this defense will have trouble stopping Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson.

The suddenly hot Minnesota Vikings provide another interesting challenge, as neither team expected to be in contention but suddenly find themselves in the playoff hunt at this early juncture of the season. But still, defense wins football games, and with the exception of the Bills, I’d argue the Cardinals’ opponents can’t compete with a defense of this caliber.

But then, things start getting hairy. At home versus the 49ers. At Green Bay and Atlanta. At Seattle, with home stops versus the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. If the Cardinals want to make the playoffs, I honestly feel like they HAVE to go 7-0. I’m not saying any of the aforementioned games aren’t winnable, but to succeed in any sport, you need to beat the teams you’re supposed to, and right now, the Cardinals should be able to go 7-0 barring an upset (or the Bills ever playing up to their potential).

Question 5: How high is the Arizona Cardinals’ ceiling?

• Brett: As was already said, Arizona has won 11 of their last 13, with plenty of them being in overtime or down to the wire, so they have some mental toughness. Questions about their talent level will linger pretty much everywhere except the defensive line and receiver positions. They have escaped with wins but have looked like a playoff team at other points, completely outplaying the Eagles and pretty much dominating the Patriots before needing some luck, but what team in any sport doesn’t need a little luck to be successful? The bottom line is this — the Arizona Cardinals are a playoff team. The schedule sets them up for a chance to build a little cushion but that opportunity doesn’t get any easier after Week 7, when the slate turns daunting with a Monday Night Football date with San Francisco at home before trips to Green Bay and Atlanta sliced in half by the bye week in Week 10. They have a quality chance to go 11-5, but I think 10-6 is more reasonable, which should get them a Wildcard spot because the 49ers are too good to let the NFC West out of their sights. But, because of the dearth of talent the Cardinals truly have, don’t expect any of that 2008 Super Bowl run magic to start emanating from Glendale.

• Matt: Like I said earlier, if the Cardinals are able to capitalize on their early schedule, I feel as if this team has a legitimate shot of winning the NFC West. The 49ers, while the favorites, just don’t hold that enigma that a team that just went to the NFC Championship game holds (maybe the Vikings are for real, or maybe the 49ers are just streaky). This defense has shown they can stop two high-powered offenses in New England and Philadelphia, and the Cardinals offense, while sporadic, has shown just enough to get through close games that are bound to give this team confidence moving forward. I’d like to see more consistency on the offensive side of the football before I crown the Cardinals as the NFC West champions, but for now, this Arizona squad has to be taken seriously for what they’re doing on both sides of the football when it matters most.

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