Tag Archives: Larry Fitzgerald

Arizona Cardinals 2017: The Journey Begins in Detroit

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: For the Cardinals to succeed this season, they’ll need to keep QB Carson Palmer upright and healthy. Indeed, that’s been the charge of the offensive line for the last few years. Some player pedigrees are good, especially that of four-time Pro-Bowler Mike Iupati, but injuries have led to position-shifting and uncertainty up and down the line. 37-year-old Palmer was sacked 40 times last year, and coach Bruce Arians winced every time.

Palmer’s a throwback to the pure pocket-passer tradition your father enjoyed. You know—Unitas, Lamonica, Starr. His style is losing favor in today’s NFL, where nimble-legged QB’s can spoil the third-down blitz to move the chains or buy more time for receivers to come open. One of those targets will be the venerable Larry Fitzgerald, who like Palmer, has hinted this may be his last season.

Fitz has a shot at joining an exclusive club in Detroit today against the Lions—with 82 receiving yards, he’ll become the fifth player with 1,000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns over a career in season openers. Other members of the club? Don Maynard (ask your father), Andre Reed, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice—three Hall of Famers, and Moss is knocking on the door.

The Cardinals’ faithful pray for Palmer’s health, and surely also for the health and fortune of the NFL’s quiet superstar: David Johnson. The average man on the street has never heard of Johnson; unless that man is on Camelback Road in Phoenix, in which case he may be wearing Johnson’s jersey and have his poster on the wall at home.

Johnson became the first player in league history to gain at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first 15 games. He rushed for 1,239 yards and added 879 receiving yards, falling 121 yards short of becoming only the third player in league history to gain 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. “I feel like I definitely had the chance. I should have had it. I messed up a couple plays,” Johnson said.

Johnson may have been more than a couple plays away, but he’s unsatisfied and hungry. He wants more.

Same goes for Arians, Palmer, Fitzgerald, GM Steve Keim and that guy walking down Camelback Road. Last year’s 7-8-1 record left an ugly smudge on the end of a gleaming four-season run.

Can the Cardinals shake off a disappointing 2016 season and become a force again, starting in Detroit today? Bruce Arians was impressed with the summer and preseason work. He perhaps too-optimistically said, “Let’s get ready to put a ring on our finger.”

Echoes of Beyoncé there, and she’s done alright for herself.

-Eric Forgaard

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

Arizona Cardinals Finale: Men, Beasts and Glory

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Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer turned 37 this week and his body turned 49. Over his 13-year career, Palmer has suffered injuries to his shoulder, ribs, nose, ankle, head, knee, and elbow. He has suffered a concussion and blown out his ACL twice.

But in the final game of a discouraging season Palmer may well feel rejuvenated today when he leads his Cardinals teammates onto the sun-soaked lawn of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, an arena that still rings faintly with cheers from his halcyon days with the USC Trojans. The fair-haired Palmer detonated the school and conference record books, collected a Heisman Trophy, married his college sweetheart and was drafted into the NFL by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003.

Palmer’s exploits in the Coliseum were perhaps more palatable to the modern fan than the goings-on in Rome’s first-century Colosseum, after which the stadium was named. There, before the emperor and the blood-thirsty wails of 80,000 spectators, criminals sentenced to death were released to fend for themselves against an assortment of beasts such as hippos, elephants, lions and leopards. A man might be mauled by a bear, trampled by a rhinoceros, and then have his rib meat picked over by an ostrich. Acrobats and magicians performed in the intervals, perhaps to lighten the mood (“Behold Emperor, the olive branch has vanished!!!”).

Palmer will face a stout Rams defense today, but there is little chance he’ll have a limb gnawed off by a Caspian tiger. Arizona is fresh off a road win against rival Seattle, a small consolation for a Cardinals team that will watch the playoffs from the comfort and safety of Barcaloungers. Another small prize is at stake today, as Arizona hopes to avenge a week-four 17-13 home loss to the Rams, who have lost 10 of their last 11 since.

Some will tune in today to see if Cardinals running back David Johnson can set a record: at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game of an NFL season. Johnson, the 86th pick of the 2015 draft out of unheralded Northern Iowa, has been a revelation. He’s rushed for over 1,200 yards and added 841 receiving yards at a sterling 10.9 yards-per-catch clip. It’s not likely, but Johnson could hit another high mark today: with 159 yards receiving, he’d join NFL legends Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig as the only players to reach 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in a single season.

With little else to play for, Arizona may well feed Johnson the ball today in hopes he might earn some personal glory. But the unassuming Johnson would gladly trade that for the game’s ultimate prize.

Tiffany’s silversmiths will not be etching Arizona’s name on the Super Bowl trophy this season. And one wonders if they might do so next season, considering that Palmer and star receiver Larry Fitzgerald are mulling retirement.

Cardinals Nation is hoping those inner fires will flicker to life next spring. And through the long off-season one question will enrich dinner conversations and barroom debates: Can coach Bruce Arians, movitator, philosopher and tinkerer, pry open the championship window that slammed shut this year?

Eric Forgaard

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

Arizona Cardinals: Miami Invasion

palmer-and-beatles

After the Beatles’ first performance on American soil, February 9th, 1964, before a swarm of shrieking, swooning teenagers on the Ed Sullivan show, the band jetted south from snowy New York to take up a week’s residence in Miami’s Deauville Beach Resort, a sunny, swanky, palm-lined paradise then favored by Sinatra, Sammy and Joey, where fawning fans wrote love letters in the sand and offered free rides on their powerboats and yachts, prompting Ringo Starr to refer to Miami Beach as “The most magnificent place I’ve ever seen.”

The Arizona Cardinals flew into Miami International Airport with less fanfare Friday. They were whisked off to an undisclosed location, a flicker of desperation behind the eyes of a team fighting for its playoff life. Sunday’s clash with the Dolphins is a must win game for the 5-6-1 Cardinals against a Miami team that needs a victory to hold on to its own playoff position. This is a stern test for an Arizona team that has only one road win this season–against the hapless San Francisco 49ers. This is a business trip.

It’s serious business indeed, but this is the land of dangling chads, and the Cardinals need only look at actual headlines such as these to ease any stress:

  • Man sprinkled fiancée’s ashes at LensCrafters, causing Florida mall’s evacuation
  • Man who “exposed himself” tells police: “I was just airing out my penis”
  • Florida goat skateboards into Guinness Book of World Records
  • Babysitter accused of sleeping on toilet as 2-year-old wanders to canal with alligators
  • Florida man calls 911 80 times to demand Kool-Aid, hamburgers, and weed
  • Lawmaker files bill to repeal state ban on dwarf-tossing in bars
  • Kangaroo leads Florida deputies on 10-hour chase
  • Accused Florida man says his cat downloaded child porn, not him.
  • Florida woman renews marriage vows with Ferris wheel named Bruce

Strange things happen in Florida, but would an Arizona victory be so odd? Best to stick to the game plan: slow down Miami running back Jay Ajayi, who has sprung from obscurity to rush for a 5.2 yard average and seven TDs; devise a way for undrafted free agents John Wetzel and Ulrick John to slow down the onrushing bull that is Ndamukong Suh; and trust the defense to rise up in critical moments like it did last week in the Cards’ 31-23 victory over Washington.

Arizona’s leading lights shone in that Redskins game. 36-year-old Carson Palmer looked spry and solid for long stretches, and his 300 passing yards and three TD’s rekindled memories of last year’s glories. Quiet superstar David Johnson added two touchdowns of his own. With 175 yards from scrimmage, Johnson became only the second player in NFL history to gain 100+ yards in a season’s first 12 games. Larry Fitzgerald caught 10 balls for 78 yards, and moved into third on the all-time receiving list. Coach Bruce Arians rolled the dice and went for it on 4th down and 1 from Arizona’s own 34 yard line late in the game with the Cardinals holding a 24-20 lead. Johnson ripped off a 14 yard run, then Palmer chucked a 42 yard TD pass to struggling J. J. Nelson to add to the lead. And finally, Patrick Peterson intercepted Redskins QB Kirk Cousins with 41 seconds left to preserve the win.

Succeeding on key plays has gone from last year’s routine to this year’s rarity. The Washington triumph restored a dash of confidence though, and distracted from subtle retirement hints dropped by Palmer and Fitzgerald, if not after this season then perhaps the next.

But years from now, when those two recall this season on the porch to a huddle of grandkids, they’re more likely to hold the youngsters spellbound with tales of long bombs, one-handed catches, toe taps in the corner of the end zone and a raucous championship celebration than with the current slog of injuries, under-performance, offensive line position-shuffling, kicking game misadventures and a mediocre record.

Today’s game isn’t just about holding on to the bottom rung of the playoff ladder. It’s about the kids.

Eric Forgaard

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

Arizona Cardinals: Michael Floyd and other Desert Mysteries

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Veteran Cardinals scribe Darren Urban writes that receiver Michael Floyd’s season “will go down as one of the greatest mysteries in recent Cardinals history.”  There are other desert mysteries, like the large sliding stones of “The Racetrack” in Death Valley, or the massive Nazca Lines–the Pre-Colombian geoglyphs of monkeys and spiders and hummingbirds etched into the desert sands of Southern Peru, which can only be comprehended from the air. Arizona fans would settle for simply solving the Floyd Enigma.

After his consecutive sparkling seasons at Notre Dame, the Cardinals selected Floyd 13th overall in the 2012 draft. He and Larry Fitzgerald were to be the double-barreled weapon flanking an Arizona touchdown machine, but too often this year Floyd has misfired. From 65 catches and over 1,000 yards in 2013, Floyd has regressed to 28 grabs and 410 yards this season. Most troubling are the dropped balls and the difficulty in creating separation, and now he has a balky hamstring.

But Floyd has not struggled alone. After 1,003 yards receiving and seven touchdowns last year, speedy wideout John “Smokey” Brown has managed just 399 yards and one touchdown this season, due largely to being slowed by leg pain from battling the Sickle cell trait. Without the disruptive zip and deep threat that Brown can provide, routes have been shorter and defensive coverage has been more focused on Fitzgerald, who has had to scuffle to get open enough for QB Carson Palmer to try to thread balls into tight windows. And due to injuries and shuffling of the offensive line, Palmer has had less time to throw. Less time, less separation and dropped balls are not a potent cocktail for NFL offensive success.

This was not in Arizona’s plans. In the glow of the off-season following a 13-3 record, there were visions of Palmer and Fitzgerald hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this year amid a swirl of confetti, bathed in a cascade of cheers, savoring a moment on the mountaintop before the twilight of their careers was snuffed out by the talents and desires of younger men. Instead there are retirement murmurs and the Cardinals sit at 4-6-1, needing a winning streak like Secretariat’s just to make the playoffs with five games left.

Any run for the postseason must begin this afternoon at 1:25 p.m. PST, when the Cardinals square off against the visiting Redskins. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is the second biggest story to come out of Washington since November 8th. At 28 years old and in a contract year, Cousins has quietly emerged as one of the best QBs in the NFL. He’s thrown for over 3,500 yards, and he’s just 47 yards from surpassing Drew Brees for the NFL lead. He’s also just a tick behind Brees with 322 passing yards per game, and has one of the best QB ratings in the league. The ‘Skins are 6-4-1 despite losing their first two games, and Cousins dropped 449 passing yards on Dallas last week. Sporting News writes that we should not be surprised if Cousins becomes the highest paid player in the game next year.

The Cardinals’ defense has performed admirably, and they know they must stop Cousins today and operate at peak efficiency the rest of season. This stat leaps off the page: they’ve allowed the fewest yards per game in the NFL. Impressive, but a closer examination reveals that Arizona has allowed 20.7 points per game, which ranks a more pedestrian 11th. The Cardinals’ offense is averaging just over 22 points per game, and even the math-impaired can discern that at this rate, every win will be hard-earned.

Whatever the result today, with 19 yards Larry Fitzgerald would move into the NFL’s top ten in all-time receiving yards—and with eight catches, he would stand third in receptions. Those close to Larry will tell you he’d gladly trade those personal milestones for a win. Same goes for the gathered throng in University of Phoenix Stadium today. With a loss, the Cardinals’ playoff hopes would die along with the late afternoon light in the Sonoran desert.

Eric Forgaard

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

Arizona Cardinals Pause, Reflect, and Return to War

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Christmas Truce – The Illustrated London News

As dawn broke on Christmas morning, 1914, entrenched British troops on the Western Front of World War I heard singing from the German side, across no man’s land, accompanied by a brass band. Soon after, German soldiers rose and walked toward the British side, calling out “Merry Christmas.” Eyeing them with suspicion but noticing the troops were unarmed, British soldiers lowered their rifles and took to the field themselves, their linguists calling out “Fröhliche Weihnachten.” Plum puddings and cigarettes were exchanged, carols were sung, and a soccer game broke out. The “Christmas Truce” was a welcome respite from the brutality of the Great War.

The Arizona Cardinals are coming off their much-needed bye week, a ceasefire in the hostilities of a long NFL season. The Cards sit at a disappointing 3-4-1, but some wounds are healing, such as speedy WR John Brown’s achy legs after treatment following diagnosis of the sickle cell trait. All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu was expected to be out several more weeks with a shoulder injury, but the Honey Badger was observed prowling the practice field this week. He’ll miss today’s home game against the 49ers, but his progress is encouraging.

Another beneficiary of the week off may have been Chandler “The Cat” Catanzaro, the Cardinals’ beleaguered placekicker. Cats are not known for their kicking, except perhaps for certain European breeds, but Catanzaro performed well last year, converting every kick from 46 yards and in. This season he missed game-winners in weeks one and seven, the latter a chip shot against rival Seattle that now surely visits his dreams. Arizona GM Steve Keim could be forgiven if over the break he had auditioned former NFL kickers, a couple of Rockettes and a mule.

To clear his head, Catanzaro retreated home to South Carolina during the break to visit family and friends and to “self-medicate.” No word on the nature of the medication but Cardinals Nation is praying for its potency.

Coach Bruce Arians and his staff settled in over the bye week to review game video, noshing and gnashing and trying to solve the puzzle of an underperforming offense. The films are unlikely to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but they may reveal clues to a team that has fallen from number one in offense last season to 16th this year.

Even to the naked eye, the receiving corps has vastly underachieved after being one of the league’s most feared units last season. Michael Floyd has declared himself a top receiver in the NFL, but his numbers (19 catches, three TD’s, multiple drops) have yet to reflect that in the last year of his rookie contract. Larry Fitzgerald has gone 15 games without a 100-yard effort, his longest such streak since 2004.

Field General Carson Palmer simply hasn’t looked like himself all year. He’s been slowed by ailments and he hasn’t connected on the big plays that lit up scoreboards last year. The Cardinals aim for at least five “explosive” plays per game—22 yards or more—but that feature of their attack has been muffled so far. It doesn’t help that 6’8”, 321 pound offensive tackle Jared Veldheer is on injured reserve with a torn tricep, giving Palmer a tick less time to throw.

Arizona continues to lean heavily on running back David Johnson, the only player in the NFL with at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game this season. And despite its share of injuries, the defense has sparkled, allowing the fewest yards in the league.

Arizona hosts the 1-7 San Francisco 49ers today at University of Phoenix Stadium, which may be just the tonic to settle the nerves. It’s a must-win game for a team still stocked with talent and with playoff aspirations. After today, the Cardinals set off on a lengthy road peppered with land mines—three early games in the Eastern Time Zone, a looming skirmish in Seattle, and five of their last seven contests away from the comforts of home.

After a welcome break, it’s back to business for Arizona today at 1:25 p.m. PST for the season’s second half. Cardinals Nation is hoping it only faintly resembles the first.

– Eric Forgaard

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

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: Buffalo Bill and the Queen

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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?

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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

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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