Author Archives: Eric Forgaard

Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer is not Tom Brady

carson-palmer-over-concussion-eager-to-get-back-and-play

Ah, 2015.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer dominated opposing defenses last season—and players, coaches and fans clustered around his reflected glow like desert moths. He was the brightest light in a constellation brimming with talent and confidence. The Cardinals regularly occupied opponents’ end zones after precision air and land attacks, and Palmer drove the offense to a 30 points per game average. He finished with 35 touchdowns and a league-best quarterback rating of 104.6.

Enter 2016.

To the surprise of some, it now seems that Palmer is human after all. He has underthrown too many receivers this season, causing some observers to question his arm strength. And he has fumbled three times in his four games. There are murmurs that he has committed the great sin of being 36 years old in a young man’s league, and a glance at his birth certificate confirms it.

But savvy observers know that Palmer hasn’t hit full stride yet, nor enjoyed his full complement of weapons. The offense has missed the presence of Pro-Bowl guard Mike Iupati, who remains out. Speedy wideout John Brown was hurt early in the year and has yet to sync up with Palmer. And receiver Michael Floyd has vanished like Blockbuster Video, or perhaps civility in this political season. Floyd’s disappearance has put more pressure on Larry Fitzgerald to carry the receiving load.

Then there’s the unpleasant business of the Los Angeles Rams summarily slamming Palmer’s head into the turf in week four, putting him into the league’s mysterious concussion protocol and forcing him to sit out the October 6th game against San Francisco. His numbers this season are downright unPalmerian—six TDs against five interceptions—and the Cardinals have crawled out of the blocks with a 2-3 mark. But capable backup Drew Stanton led the Cards to a win against the 49ers, and Palmer is now back on the field.

Despite his slow start, faith in Palmer abounds, from GM Steve Keim to Coach Bruce Arians and all through the locker room. 36 years old? So what? Tom Brady is 38 years old, and he’s still performing at a high level on the field—and likely at home. Face it: Tom Brady married supermodel Gisele Bündchen and you didn’t. What did Brady do after being suspended for air pressure transgressions? Flew to Rome with Gisele and sunbathed nude, to the delight of the Paparazzi. What did Carson Palmer do when he missed time with a mild concussion? He studied the playbook.

Carson Palmer is not Tom Brady. And neither are you.

Still, Palmer has the resume, the tools, and the horses around him to lift the Cardinals out of their sluggish start and into contention.

Arizona hosts the New York Jets this evening under the lights. The Monday Night game has given Palmer an extra day to clear his head, and given the coaches more time to dig into the playbook and try to unearth remnants of last year’s offensive wizardry. Vegas likes the spot, installing the Cards as a touchdown favorite.

Fans have grown restless for the brand of success Arizona enjoyed last year. There is a faint gloom in the collective mood so far this season. The dust devils that swirl up from the desert floor seem more ominous. Cactus flowers seem duller.

Still—for Palmer, the Cardinals and their fans, there is hope. Stubborn, imperishable hope.

Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Arizona Cardinals: Reality and Reverie

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 10: Wide receiver John Brown #12 of the Arizona Cardinals attempts to catch the football against safety Anthony Harris #41 of the Minnesota Vikings during the second half of the NFL game at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 10, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

A wave of generosity has swept over the Arizona Cardinals.

No, they haven’t upped their corporate philanthropy or increased community volunteerism. Rather, on the field, they’re giving away footballs like holiday fruitcakes.

NFL coaches preach the necessity of protecting the ball—how it’s essential to winning in the league. Turnovers frazzle their nerves, turn their hair white, and cause them to sit bolt upright in bed, perspiring, in the small hours of the morning. Sideline cameras have been trained more than ever on Arizona Coach Bruce Arians, likely not only to detect the increasingly bulging veins in his temples, but perhaps to capture the precise moment that his head finally explodes.

The Cardinals, darlings of the NFL cognoscenti before the season, have fallen to 1-3, already losing as many games as they did all of last year. In 2015, they scored more often than Ryan Gosling at a summer cheerleading camp. In 2016, the offensive attack looks muted, and baffled by even mundane defensive formations. And there have been coverage errors and missed tackles on the defensive side. But the biggest culprit lately has been turnovers, a gaudy ten in the last two games.

The epidemic has spurred my crack research team (well, me) to scan the franchise archives in search of a historical precedent, even going back to the old Chicago Cardinals days. I’m still searching.

The Chicago Cardinals began life as the Racine Cardinals in the early years of the 20th century. The “Cardinals” nickname came from the reddish hue taken on by the faded maroon uniforms the team purchased second hand from the University of Chicago’s athletic department. The Cardinals were part of a burgeoning football circuit in the Chicago area, which included the Hammond Pros, Chicago Tigers and Decatur Staley’s, famously coached by the legendary George Halas. The Cardinals were forced to suspend operations in 1918 due to the outbreaks of World War I and the Spanish Flu. Resuming play in 1920, the team became a charter member of an organization that would become the National Football League, for a franchise fee of $100. The team’s current value? $2.2 billion.

Legend has it that when the Cardinals played the Chicago Tigers in 1920, the loser agreed to leave town. While this has not been proven, the Tigers disbanded at the end of the year.

My research hasn’t turned up a two-game Cardinals stretch with 10 or more turnovers. But here are two more items of note:

1. In the mid-1920’s, the Cardinals signed the first African-American lineman in the sport, Duke Slater, who become one of the top linemen of his era.

2. Veteran fans may remember this: In 1944, due to player shortages brought on by World War II, the Cardinals merged with the Pittsburgh Steelers and were known that season as the “Card-Pitt.” Really. The squad didn’t win a game all year.

Perhaps this little diversion has been a welcome break for readers. One must sometimes step away from analyzing the untidy minutia of missed blocking assignments, improper route running, and yes, excessive turnovers.

Fans can be forgiven for losing themselves in sun-washed daydreams of recent seasons past, with talent stretched across the field, a high-powered offense and a respected defense. But they’ll be snapped out of their reverie at 5:25 p.m. PST this evening, when Arizona takes the field against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. After fans blink their way to full consciousness, they’ll be broadsided by the current state of things: a 1-3 record despite high expectations and three home games, quarterback Carson Palmer out with a concussion, a misfiring offense and an under-performing defense.

And then there are those veins in Coach Arians’ temples, and the danger they may portend. Watch the game diligently tonight, but be prepared to avert your eyes from time to time.

Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Arizona Cardinals: Angst, and the Loneliness of the Long Snapper

long-smapper

The Arizona Cardinals announced the release of rookie long snapper Kameron Canaday this week. “Release”—what a pleasant term. It evokes images of doves at a wedding or dandelion seeds on a spring breeze. Other words seem more suitable for a promising team that has slogged to a 1-2 start, such as “fired,” or “axed.” Canaday botched the snap on the game winning field goal attempt in week one, and blew another in Buffalo last week that was returned 53 yards for a defensive touchdown. Cardinals fans may prefer his head, but they’ll have to settle for his dismissal.

Canaday played his college ball at Portland State and participated in football and basketball in high school. His father played college football at Western Oregon. This is more than you should ever know about a long snapper. He’s like your company’s custodian or computer guy–you don’t think much about them until something goes wrong.

In a season rife with expectations for the Arizona Cardinals, much has gone wrong.

The Cardinals went three-and-out on each of their first five possessions in their 33-18 loss to Buffalo last week, amassing a total of…wait for it…two yards. And QB Carson Palmer threw interceptions on Arizona’s final four drives—the same number you would throw if you were somehow called upon. This from an offense that lead the NFL last year with 408 passing yards and 30.6 points per game. Adding to frustrations, a defense stocked with difference-makers like Pro-bowlers Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Calais Campbell has generally underperformed.

In assessing last week’s effort, Arizona General Manager Steve Keim said, “When you lose it feels like the sky is falling, and when you win everything is great.” This mirrors the fans’ perspective, but the difference is that Keim has the power to work the phones and ship out players to ply their trade elsewhere. “The talent is there,” Keim said, “…but the number of ‘mental busts’ on both sides of the ball after three weeks is distressing.”

Distressing indeed.

Early season cobwebs, an out-of-sync offense, balls bouncing the wrong way—a Cardinals team that may appear to need some fine tuning instead likely needs a slap in the face. Coach Bruce Arians, the strategist and philosopher, reasoned to the media that the team may be trying too hard or is perhaps overconfident. Arians the red-ass used more colorful language in the locker room this week, and Cardinals practices were shot through with anger and urgency.

Arizona hosts the Rams Sunday, a team that has been a thorn in its side the last few years. Carson Palmer was left writhing in pain with a torn ACL in the Nov. 9, 2014 contest, and a Cardinals team that had been rolling at 7-1 skidded to a 3-4 finish and an early playoff exit. And on Oct. 4, 2015 the underdog Rams topped Arizona 24-22, delivering one of only three losses the Cards suffered all year.

The Rams franchise returns to Los Angeles this season after a twenty year hiatus in St. Louis. There were flares of greatness in those years, mostly in 1999, when The Greatest Show on Turf, highlighted by QB Kurt Warner and RB Marshall Faulk, finished 13-3 and took down the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. There were lean seasons too, when wins were as scarce as condor sightings and Donald Trump apologies. Between 2007 and 2009, the Rams’ record was an appalling 6-42.

LA fans may yearn for the glory days of Deacon Jones and Jack Youngblood, or Norm Van Brocklin and Elroy “crazylegs” Hirsh. For now, they have a great running back in Todd Gurley, a promising defense, and not much more. The 49ers spoiled LA’s season opener, throttling the Rams 28-0, but the Rams have since rebounded with two wins and share the NFC West lead with Seattle.

Arizona can pull into a three-way tie with a home victory over LA today and a Seattle loss to the NY Jets. But a loss would leave the Cardinals in the division cellar, and the cauldron of a packed University of Phoenix Stadium would surely boil over with exasperation.

LONDON, AGAIN

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is keen to grow the game internationally, yet every season he flings substandard teams across the Atlantic like Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Oakland—and now Sunday’s contestants, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts.

The British gave us Newton’s Laws, the programmable computer, the steam locomotive, and the theory of evolution. Oh, and the English language. What have we given them? The Jacksonville Jaguars, every year since 2013.

The Jaguars’ 0-3 record this year squares with their recent history—they’ve notched only three winning seasons since 2000—and this time the good citizens of London will shuffle into Wembley Stadium to endure the Jags’ scrum against 1-2 Indianapolis. It’s a “home” game for Jacksonville, in the sense that it’s 4,259 miles from Florida. While trying to grow the fan base abroad, Mr. Goodell, might you be softening a U.S. base accustomed to watching games on home soil?

This series is not a glad-hearted tale of cultural exchange. It’s an all-too-familiar story of corporate greed.

WATCHING HILARIOUS CAT VIDEOS

The following players are unable to play this week, and may be otherwise engaged:

Frostee Rucker, defensive tackle: knee
Drew Butler, punter: calf
Kameron Canaday, long snapper: embarrassment

  • Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Arizona Cardinals: Buffalo Bill and the Queen

patrick-peterson

Patrick Peterson

After a tentative season-opening loss to New England, the Arizona Cardinals found their stride against visiting Tampa Bay last week. Carson Palmer threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the 40-7 victory, and the defense proved it can be one of the league’s premier units when all pistons are firing. When it was over, Arizona found itself in a flat-footed tie with every team in the NFC West at 1-1.

On to Buffalo.

Historically, western teams traveling east for morning games haven’t fared well. But the Cardinals catch a break traveling to upstate New York in snow-free September, and they face a stumbling 0-2 Bills team fresh off the firing of Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman. That early-season move comes with a whiff of desperation, considering Buffalo’s defense was far worse last week, giving up 37 points and nearly 500 yards in a loss to the visiting Jets.

But the Buffalo Bills lead the league in one respect: they are the only team named after a 19th century frontiersman.

“Buffalo Bill” (William Frederick Cody) was a ranch hand, Pony Express rider, fur trapper, gold prospector, and buffalo hunter. In 1867, he was contracted to supply Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with meat. He set off on a wild-eyed 18-month spree, slaughtering 4,282 buffalo. The bloody deed earned him the moniker that would stick with him the rest of his life.

Cody cemented his legend in 1883 with his formation of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, a sweeping spectacle with a cast of hundreds, Indian attacks on wagon trains, stage coach robberies and yes, a buffalo hunt. It portrayed a western frontier that was rapidly disappearing but captured the public’s appetite for tales of daring and conquest–not unlike Buffalo’s 2015 hiring of Coach Rex Ryan, a tough-talking gunslinger type who led the New York Jets to the doorstep of the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2010. But wins have been scarce lately and some fans are calling for his head.

The natives are restless.

Meanwhile, the mood lightened considerably in the Valley of the Sun after Arizona dismantled Tampa Bay last week. The victory was partly spurred by Carson Palmer warming up in a Stay Puft marshmallow suit prior to the game. Really. Palmer had lost the team’s weekly quarterback competition, and the loser must take the field questionably dressed. Check out the video: http://foxs.pt/2cXsWJx.

Palmer’s exploits helped keep the team loose, but their improved performance was likely due to solid game-planning and execution. The Cardinals defense picked off Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston four times. Larry Fitzgerald had been the lone bright spot in the receiving corps in week one, and this time seven different receivers caught passes. And the offense didn’t turn the ball over. Since 1940, the only other time the Cardinals started the season with consecutive turnover-free games was 2008, the year the franchise reached the Super Bowl.

Arizona’s defense strives to be one of the league’s top units, and it was especially promising last week. Coach Bruce Arians had uncharacteristically called many of the defensive plays in week one, and the zone coverages he dialed up took the edge off the aggression the squad is known for. Arians stayed away from that side of the ball against Tampa Bay, and Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher returned to man coverage and called for blitzes 43% of the time, from all angles, leaving the Buccaneers flummoxed.

Arizona looks to corral Buffalo QB Tyrod Taylor today, who threw for 297 yards and three TDs last week. Taylor may be scrambling to find viable targets this week though, with Sammy Watkins, Greg Salas and tight end Charles Shaw all questionable with injuries.

The Cardinals are healthier but are still missing some pieces, most notably right guard Evan Mathis, who is sitting out with turf toe and didn’t even make the trip to Buffalo. Mathis had played in pain against the Bucs Sunday and Carson Palmer noted that when he came in Monday morning, “his entire foot was purple.” Medical issues aside, I find the color purple unsettling, as it brings to mind unpleasant things such as Barney and eggplant. I suppose it’s the color of royalty though, which conjures images of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who at this moment may be holed up in her bedchamber in Buckingham Palace, Welsh Corgis lapping at the purple spider veins in her feet.

I’ve gone off the rails. Again.

SORTING SOCK DRAWERS

The following players will be unavailable Sunday, and may be otherwise engaged:
Buffalo:
Cordy Glenn, offensive tackle: ankle
Colt Anderson, safety: foot
Arizona:
Evan Mathis, guard: purple foot

The Cardinals’ task today is to overcome jet lag and a hostile Buffalo crowd. A loss would leave them with a 1-2 record, and raise fresh questions about a team with Super Bowl aspirations. A victory would keep them tied for the division lead and help their season-opening loss recede safely into memory.

– Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Arizona Cardinals, Week Two: Back on Track or Panic Time?

fitzgerald-ponders

Arizona’s last-second game-winning 46 yard field goal attempt in Sunday night’s opener was a four-step process: Low snap, late hold, wide left, heads hung.

Kicker Chandler Catanzaro had converted 100% of his kicks from that distance and closer last season. Not this time, and the Cardinals sputtered out of the 2016 gate with a 23-21 loss to the visiting Patriots. Without offensive stalwarts Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, Coach Bill Belichick had tricks up his sleeve—he’s Houdini in a hoodie—and too often he left the Cardinals mystified. Damage had been done well before that kick.

After the disappointing result, many Arizona fans fashioned a two-step process of their own:

Step one: Locate panic button.
Step two: Press it, with vigor.

Catanzaro’s wide-swinger was the final act of a special teams unit that was sub-par all day. The return game offered little. Punts were short. Coach Bruce Arians will tell you that, and he’ll regale you with tales of poor tackling, missed assignments, third down defensive laxness, vanishing receivers, lack of sustained offensive flow, and much more. Monday morning, GM Steve Keim used words like “disappointed” and “embarrassed” when he assessed the effort.

Still, Arizona came within a whisker of beating the vaunted Patriots and helping to wipe away the foul memory of last year’s NFC Championship smack down at the hands of the Carolina Panthers.

Don’t press that button just yet, folks.

Keep it handy though, just in case. Tampa Bay’s wunderkind QB Jameis Winston rolls into town today with his aerial circus in tow. Winston is fresh off Offensive Player of the Week honors after completing 23 of 32 passes for 281 yards and four touchdowns in a Buccaneers win over the Falcons last week. Arizona’s cornerbacks will have their hands full as Winston slings it to talented Buc receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, who are both tall and can stretch the field.

The Cardinals’ mood is more anger than panic. They aim to prove they still belong in conversations about the NFL elite.

KEYS TO THE GAME

  1. More touches for running back David Johnson. Johnson gained 89 yards on 16 carries and caught four passes for a 10.8 yard average last week. Johnson may be the most elusive 225 pounder on the planet and he can plow over you if needed. He has a flair for first downs and touchdowns. Get him the ball.
  2. Help Larry. Larry Fitzgerald hauled in eight catches last week and scored twice. He has sticky hands and he’ll be in Canton someday. But he needs some help right now. Michael Floyd caught three passes last week. No other Cardinal wide receiver caught more than one.
  3. Boost Brandon Williams’ confidence. The rookie cornerback won the job in the preseason, though it would likely be Justin Bethel’s if he wasn’t playing with pain in his surgically-repaired foot. Williams blew a coverage and misplayed a pass last week, both leading to Patriots scores. Tampa Bay will want to throw his way, and the Cards will have to play more zone to help Williams.

KNITTING DOG SWEATERS
The following players will be unavailable Sunday and may be otherwise occupied:

Frostee Rucker, DT (knee).
Kareem Martin, LB (knee).

The season is young, but this feels like a pivotal game for Arizona. A win over Tampa Bay makes the Patriots game a blip. A loss makes it a trend.

Fans: If you need to push that panic button, please wipe the BBQ sauce off your fingers first. It’s mannerly, and simply good hygiene.

– Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Cardinals Entertain Brady-free Patriots in Season Opener

carson-palmer

Bud Light is the most popular beer in Arizona, and Cardinals fans reached for more than their share as they fidgeted their way through the first three games of a wobbly preseason. Arizona was outscored 83-37 by Oakland, San Diego and Houston.

The Cardinals’ 38-17 drubbing of Denver in game four came as a relief, even though both sides flung out players who were clinging to the bottom of the depth charts by their fingernails. Intellectually, fans know the preseason means almost nothing. But the Red Wave has grown accustomed to victory during Coach Bruce Arians’ tenure, no matter the date or circumstance.

And no wonder.

Arians came aboard in 2013 and coaxed 10 wins out of a Cardinals team that finished 5-11 the previous year. Arizona went on to win 11 games in 2014 and 13 games last year. The trajectory is not hard to plot. A franchise that for decades seemed devoted to mediocrity has experienced a tectonic shift in expectations and quality of play. The team is built to win, but can it get into and then roll through the playoffs?

Critical components from all over the field return, such as Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, and a healthier Tyrann Mathieu. This bodes well.

KEY ADDITIONS
Frustrated by the lack of pressure the defense put on Cam Newton in Carolina’s 49-15 beat down of the Cards in last season’s NFC Championship game, Arizona GM Steve Keim worked the phones and brought in outside linebacker Chandler Jones from the Patriots. The 2015 Pro Bowler’s 30 sacks the last three years ties him with Denver’s Von Miller, one of the game’s finest at his craft. Keim also imported Tyvon Branch from Kansas City, who was among the league’s top cover safeties in 2015.

FIRST UP: ARIZONA V. NEW ENGLAND
A grateful nation will tune into NBC’s Sunday Night Football as Arizona locks horns with the visiting Patriots, who are among Vegas’ preseason Super Bowl favorites. The Cardinals catch a break in this one—Tom Brady is in the penalty box for air pressure transgressions and All-Pro tight end and party beast Rob Gronkowski is expected to sit out with a balky hamstring. Arizona has been masterful at University of Phoenix Stadium the last few years, and is 20-4 in QB Carson Palmer’s last 24 starts, whether home or away.

PLAYER TO WATCH: DAVID JOHNSON
30-year-old running back Chris Johnson enjoyed a resurgence last season, stabilizing what had been a spotty Arizona running game. But when he fractured his tibia in game 11 he opened the door for young David Johnson. Johnson registers 6’1”, 224 lbs., and he’s proven to be the rare back with the ability to run over or around would-be tacklers. He has good hands out of the backfield and a nose for daylight and the big play. In short, he’s been a revelation and he’s earned the starting job.

FUN FACTS ABOUT DAVID JOHNSON
– Last season, Johnson forced 41% more missed tackles than any other RB in the NFL.
This really happened: Bobby Flay selected David Johnson first overall in ESPN’s celebrity NFL fantasy league draft. Of course Bobby Flay knows as much about football as David Johnson knows about pan-seared brook trout with Malabar pepper-infused aioli. So take it with a grain of sea salt.

If David ever falters, a healthier Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington have shown they are fully capable of making big contributions.

HUNTING POKÉMON
The following players will not play Sunday, and may be otherwise occupied:
Arizona: Kareem Martin, LB—knee.
New England: Tom Brady, QB—deflated. Rob Gronkowski, TE—hammy. Nate Solder, OT—hammy.

Arizona has won five of its last six openers. New England has won 11 of its last 12. Which team will take the first step toward the Super Bowl in Houston Feb. 5? Tune in at 5:30 PST.

– Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Battle for the Conference Title: Arizona v. Carolina

After today’s games, the losers will settle in for months of whittling, breeding miniature schnauzers or whatever it is NFL players do in the off-season.

Conference Championship day has arrived.

The Arizona Cardinals will butt heads with MVP candidate QB Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte this evening, and the prize is a Super Bowl berth against the winner of the New England/Denver war.

Were it not for Larry Fitzgerald’s late-game heroics in last week’s rousing home win against the Packers, the Cardinals would be watching this one at home, guacamole at the ready, mojitos in hand.

Novellas may well be penned about the last five minutes alone last Saturday. But even the most subdued telling would be rejected by any credible publisher, so rife were those minutes with improbability, pendulum swings, Hail Mary success and twists of fate. Space precludes an analysis here, but Arizona rose from the mat after a body blow and in the end, Big Game Larry hoisted the football to wild cheers and pushed the franchise’s best season to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.

When Carson Palmer started dreaming of winning the NFC Championship game 13 years ago, Pluto was a planet and no one had heard of Billy Ray Cyrus’ daughter. I imagine Palmer’s rookie musings played out on a sun-splashed field before an adoring throng. But the Cardinals fly into hostile territory for this one, and a recent blizzard has dropped more than two feet of snow across the mid-Atlantic region and blanketed Bank of America Stadium.

Nothing rousts a dreamer from sleep like a cold shiver.

Carolina was 8-0 at home in the regular season and 15-1 overall. The defense is punishing, the team leads the NFL in turnover differential, and Cam Newton became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 35 touchdown passes and run for 10. Newton flashes his toothy smile, strikes superhero poses, and possibly feeds the hungry, roots out terrorist sleeper cells and adopts stray animals. But one thing he does delights Panthers fans more than any other: he wins games.

Coach Bruce Arians and his staff are tasked with dialing the tumblers into place and cracking Carolina’s winning code, and doing so in front of an antagonistic crowd that could well celebrate a win by draining beer kegs and discharging firearms into the snowy woods.

As a three point underdog and a western team flying east, the Cardinals will need to bring all their weapons to the fight. Their 7-1 road record is a point of pride, and as always, Palmer is the linchpin. He finished the regular season with a career high 104.6 passer rating and threw for 35 touchdowns, tied for second best in the league. He led the offense to an NFL-best 408.3 yards per game and the NFC West title. Palmer doesn’t have Newton’s legs and his passing hand seems to be bothering him a bit, but he’s experienced, relatively healthy, and he’s mastered coach Arians’ offense.

Palmer and Newton are the first Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks to meet in the playoffs.

Considering the unfriendly confines, jet lag, uncertain turf conditions and frigid game-time temperatures, the deck seems stacked against coach Arians and the Cardinals. But this team appears to have shaken off the stigma of too many decades without a title. The reigning NFL Coach of the Year brings his long, glowing history as a football mentor and mentee to the turf today. Arians has the pedigree to win with this team, and he’ll add a dash of gambler’s bravado to the tactics.

With a trip to the Super Bowl on the table, look for Arians to belly up and slide in all of his chips.

Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Arizona Cardinals v. Green Bay Packers: Burn the Boats

The wait is over. The Arizona Cardinals have enjoyed a well-earned playoff bye and two weeks’ rest. It’s time again to lace ‘em up, strap it on and start slapping butts in the locker room.

The Green Bay Packers are in town, and they don’t expect a cordial welcome from 63,400 strong in University of Phoenix Stadium. It will be the venue’s 104th straight sellout.

Arizona’s 38-8 home triumph over Green Bay twenty days ago is still fresh in mind for the “Red Wave.” The Cardinals faithful watched their team sack QB Aaron Rodgers eight times and hold him to 151 passing yards Dec. 27. A vengeful Packers team will take the field today, fresh off a comeback win over Washington in the wild card round last Sunday. The contest will hinge on whether Green Bay has the firepower to match that of Cardinals, and conventional wisdom says no. Arizona leads the NFL in total offense with 408 yards per game and is second in points scored with 30.6.

But Green Bay has more playoff experience than Arizona. And Rodgers is one of the best at his craft, leading the Packers to a Super Bowl win in 2010.

Quarterback Carson Palmer has no NFL playoff victories to his credit. He shares that distinction with you, my attorney and the I.T. guy at work, the one with excessive chest hair. To be fair, Palmer’s only had two cracks at it, both with the Cincinnati Bengals. Cincy lost to Pittsburgh in 2005 and the New York Jets in 2009.

2009 was a bewitching playoff season in the Valley of the Sun, thanks to the late-career wizardry of QB Kurt Warner, who led Arizona on an improbable run that died in a crushing last-minute loss to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. With his heroic status cemented, Warner hasn’t had to pay for a drink since. Never mind that he doesn’t drink. He’s in the pantheon of Cardinals greats, and Carson Palmer’s on a quest to join that lofty fraternity.

Is Palmer too old at 36 to find playoff success in today’s speedy and powerful NFL? Warner was 37 in 2009. Tom Brady’s still agile and accurate at 38. Palmer has his health, abounding offensive weapons and has led the Cardinals to 13 wins this season. He set franchise records with 4,671 passing yards and 35 TDs. This is his time.

Palmer and coach Bruce Arians are pleased with the 13 wins but they’ve cast their eyes forward and are hell bent on notching three more and gripping the ultimate prize. To inspire his troops, Arians would do well to remember the story of Alexander the Great, whose army arrived on Persian shores and found it was vastly outnumbered. Alexander did not slip into retreat or call in reinforcements. Instead he gave the order to burn boats.

Nothing readies a man for a fight more than the savage realization that there is simply no avenue of retreat. You win or you die.

Welcome to the NFL playoffs.

Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Arizona Cardinals: Quantum Physics and the Whiff of Rivalry

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The Arizona Cardinals’ long dream of a season continues, win piled upon win, and so far, at 13-2, this has been the finest year in franchise history. The dream rose out of a reverie fueled by last year’s stunted success—and the hope that this season, health and good fortune would merge with talent and hard work to elevate this team to elite status. And so it has.

Dutch children leave hay and a carrot in their shoes for Sinterklaas and his horse this time of year, which are replaced by a gift, often a marzipan figurine. On New Year’s Eve their parents make great bonfires in the streets out of Christmas trees, which helps purge the old and greet the new.

The new year in the Valley of the Sun is flecked with children draped in red, pint-sized jerseys emblazoned with names like Palmer, Fitzgerald and Peterson, courtesy of Santa. Long-suffering parents are now raising youngsters who believe Arizona victories are simply part of the natural order of things.

It’s a conundrum of quantum physics that the very act of closely observing something can change the behavior of the subject. Still, one is compelled to ask: How did the Cardinals get here? Nine straight wins—five on the road—in a sprint to the playoffs that began with an October 26 win over visiting Baltimore. In a 40-16 win over Philadelphia Dec. 20, star safety and inspirational leader Tyrann Mathieu went down with a season-ending knee injury following an interception. The defense responded by sacking Aaron Rodgers eight times last week and returning two of his fumbles for touchdowns in a 38-8 blowout. “You want to play your best ball at the end of the season,” Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell said, “and I think this is the best game we’ve played.”

Arizona clinched a first round playoff bye with the win, and a home victory against Seattle today combined with a Carolina loss to Atlanta will give the Cardinals home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Tesla v. Edison, Mozart v. Salieri, Burr v. Hamilton—rivalries are born from the clash of two forces of abounding talent and ambition struggling to gain the same bit of ground. The scuffle between Arizona and Seattle for NFC West supremacy has risen only in the last few seasons but it figures to have staying power and it packs an NFL-sized punch. Coach Pete Carroll’s Seahawks reached the Super Bowl the last two years, and they won a ring with a 43-8 thumping of Denver in 2013. Now Arizona coach Bruce Arians wants to take that stage and bring home the prize, which he has voiced since training camp. And Arians is not one to make his feelings known in haiku form.

The Cardinals journeyed north to drop 39 points on Seattle in a Nov. 15 victory, and would like nothing better than to sweep the season series today. Pride and a clearer path to the playoff finish line are at stake. The Seahawks have surged in recent weeks, winning five of six to reserve their place at the playoff table. They will take to the road whether they win or lose today. Job one for Arizona? Slow down QB Russell Wilson, who has thrown for a scorching 21 TDs and only one interception since the Cards’ week 10 victory over Seattle.

The venerable Cardinals franchise has already begun updating its record book, and by the end of the day a few more entries may well be in order:
– QB Carson Palmer needs 73 yards to set the all-time single season passing yards mark.
Larry Fitzgerald’s next catch will give him the single season receiving record at 104.
– Kicker Chandler Catanzaro will establish the franchise’s single season high for points if he scores four or more.

And for good measure, a victory over Seattle today will tie the 10-game winning streak of the 1948 Chicago Cardinals.

Coach Arians says he’s playing the starters today. He’s not one to ease off the throttle, as is often the case when the playoffs are imminent for teams that have already clinched. Certainly not with newly-minted rival Seattle in the building. Between calling plays and working the officials, expect a few flinty stares across the pitch between the head coaches.

The NFL has provided its share of coaching rivalries over the years. Think Lombardi v. Landry, Noll v. Shula and Madden v. Stram.

Arians v. Carroll? Believe it.

– Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Arizona Cardinals: King Olaf and a Date with History

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King Olaf Tryggvason ruled Norway from 995 to 1000 C.E. and was hailed as a master of both mountain climbing and oar-jumping. The latter art involved leaping from oar to oar on the outside of longships as they were being rowed. His majesty was also a capable knife juggler.

When the Vikings weren’t raiding, plundering and pillaging they indulged in those tests of skill and more, such as wrestling, fist fighting and stone lifting competitions. And then there was horse fighting, with two stallions pitted against each other within sight and smell of fenced-off mares. Brimming with testosterone and bloodlust, the Vikings had a taste for both sport and the expansion of empire.

The modern-day Vikings hail from Minnesota, and they’re a crew on the rise. Their forebears were known to attack by sea, but these marauders infiltrated Arizona by air for the Dec. 10 clash with the Cardinals, one of the premier matchups of that NFL week.

The contest featured big plays, fumbles, lead changes and drama. But it came down to this:

Muhammad Ali had the rope-a-dope. Allen Iverson had the killer crossover. Deacon Jones had the head slap, Kareem had the sky hook and LeBron has the talcum powder toss. Signature moves all. Recently acquired Arizona defensive tackle Dwight Freeney? He has the spin move.

With the game tied and under five minutes to play, QB Carson Palmer drove Arizona 55 yards to the Minnesota 29 and Chandler Catanzaro booted a 47-yard field goal to put the Cards up 23-20 with 1:23 remaining. Minnesota surged right back into range of a game-tying try from kicker Blair Walsh with 18 seconds left. Then Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater dropped back and looked to get Minnesota a little closer for the tie, or even pitch one deep for a winning touchdown. That’s when seven-time Pro Bowler Freeney whirled with menace around Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil and sacked Bridgewater just as he cocked his arm to throw. The ball popped loose and Calais Campbell pounced on it to preserve the narrow victory for Arizona.

Catanzaro earned NFC special teams player of the week honors, Arizona reached 11 wins and clinched a playoff spot and 35-year old Freeney earned a $200,000 bonus for reaching four sacks on the season. He will now earn $100,000 for each sack he notches for the rest of the season.

Statistical oddity: The Cardinals’ opponents have not missed a field goal this year in 22 attempts.

Sunday night, Arizona will step into the prime time spotlight again when they travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles.

NBC started airing Sunday night games in 2006 in a broadcast dubbed “Football Night in America”, a brazen swipe at the brand that Monday Night Football starting building Sep. 21, 1970.

The Browns defeated the Jets in that first MNF contest 31-21, clinching the win when Joe Namath threw a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. Keith Jackson handled the play by play and was joined in the booth by Howard Cosell and “Dandy” Don Meredith. Jackson was awarded the job because neither Vin Scully nor Curt Gowdy were able to get out of their contracts with other networks.

Meredith was a former Dallas Cowboy quarterback and Cosell was plucked from the sports desk of WABC-TV in New York. Never far from controversy, Cosell infamously showed up ill and allegedly intoxicated for the November 23rd Giants-Eagles game that year and proceeded to vomit on Meredith’s cowboy boots. The incident earned Cosell a cab ride home at halftime, and he and Meredith went on to exchange mostly congenial on-air verbal barbs for years. Meredith served as a folksy foil to the bombastic Cosell, producing an unlikely but potent brew and an innovative angle on sports broadcasting.

Has NBC’s prime-time NFL experiment succeeded? No doubt. The network has poached a chunk of the MNF audience and consistently scores the higher ratings of the two, adding to the Sunday sorrows of football widows nationwide.

Arizona will take the field Sunday night in the city known for Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell, the Rocky franchise, and exquisite cheesesteak sandwiches. Philadelphia fans don’t lack passion, as they famously proved at halftime of the final game of the 1968 season when they loudly booed Santa Claus and pelted him with snowballs. Philly’s opponent that day? The Minnesota Vikings, the team the Cardinals just conquered.

And you thought I would never tie all this together.

Tonight Arizona faces an Eagles team that closed out November with three straight losses to sub-.500 teams. Already angered that the team was underperforming compared to expectations, Eagles fans were calling for coach Chip Kelly’s head. Cue the snowballs. But Philly righted the ship with a huge win at New England, garnished with another against Buffalo last week. They are tied for first in the anemic NFC East with a 6-7 record.

Calculating playoff scenarios at this point in the season is an excellent way to kill time you might have spent, say, with loved ones. Thankfully the New York Times’ NFL Playoff Simulator has saved you the trouble, and has spit out the news that Philadelphia has a 43% chance of making the playoffs. Despite a disappointing season, the brass ring is still within reach.

Coach Bruce Arians and the Cardinals are seeking something more precious, and are not content with 11 wins, a ticket to the playoffs, and a chance to set a franchise record this evening with their 12th win.

“Somebody texted me, ‘Hey, you punched your ticket,” Arians noted. “I said, `Yeah, we’re trying to upgrade to first class.”

Winners of seven straight, Arizona keeps pushing toward a playoff bye and home field advantage throughout. Carson Palmer is having an MVP-type season, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 31 touchdown passes. Tom Brady is the only other QB to do so this season. Larry Fitzgerald has caught 11 TD passes in his last seven games against the Eagles. The Cardinals’ defense has allowed the fourth fewest yards per game in the league.

Philadelphia is ranked 16th in offense and 26th in defense. But the Eagles are 5-1 in the last 6 games QB Sam Bradford has started and finished, and they’ve generally played well against good opponents. When in rhythm, they pass the eye test with ease.

One more number? Game time temperature is expected to be a brisk 35 degrees.

Arizona clinches the division with a win or a Seattle loss today, and secures a playoff bye if Green Bay cooperates and loses to Oakland. But don’t fritter away your time contemplating the scenarios.

Go hug your kids. Or someone else’s.

Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.