It wasn’t just another nationally televised disappointment for the Arizona Cardinals. It was, for all intents and purposes, another season ending before Halloween.
Not mathematically, of course. At just 3-4, Arizona is right in the thick of the hunt. With a few home games on the horizon, hope will revive anew. But Thursday’s 34-22 loss to Seattle, four days after a road loss in San Francisco, dropped Arizona’s NFC West record to 0-3 this year and 1-8 over the last two and proves that the chasm separating them from the rest of the division might be even wider.
Anyone feel good about the win over Tampa Bay? Carolina? The 4-2 Detroit Lions must still be shaking their heads over that September loss. The Cardinals have a new coach, scheme and a huge roster turnover, but the main problems of the 2012 that started 4-0 on a shaky foundation before crumbling still remain.
Fans that look at a struggling Carson Palmer and deduce that Arizona’s problems are as easy as a quarterback change aren’t seeing the big picture. There was a time when finding the next Kurt Warner would have put the Cardinals back in the playoffs. And while switching to the more athletic Drew Stanton might buy a few seconds in the pocket, it won’t cover all the warts of this anemic offense.
The Cardinals can’t run the ball, not consistently enough to pose even a threat to a good defense. When the running game shows glimpses of life, as it did in San Francisco, the Arizona offense suddenly shows some teeth and moves the chains. Rashard Mendenhall doesn’t have it. Andre Ellington is not an every-down back. Ryan Williams is so far in Bruce Arians’ doghouse, well, we’ll just never know.
So it’s up to Palmer and the passing game. And what does he have going for him?
The Cardinals don’t have a speed receiver to stretch the field. Even if they did, the offensive line can’t provide enough time for a long pass to develop. They don’t have a tight end — the same position that has killed Arizona defenses at every turn this year — that can work the middle of the field and give Palmer a go-to guy for short gains. Rob Housler doesn’t have what it takes. Jim Dray doesn’t have the tools.
Are they tight ends hard to find? Everyone else seems to have at least one.
That means opposing pass rushers can tee off on Arizona’s struggling tackles and opposing linebackers, corners and safeties can jump the short routes that is all Palmer has to work with.
This is not to absolve Palmer. His decision-making, especially early in games, is awful. His lack of mobility isn’t any new revelation, but his ability to make a good snap-decision and make a play early has been disappointing. When he has time and has a pocket to step up into, he’s made plays. But that’s not going to happen often enough against good teams.
Think Stanton will be better? His last NFL pass was three teams and four seasons ago. He’s more mobile. He can run out of danger. But when he pops into that huddle, the faces starting back at him will offer the same dilemmas. Without some extended drives, some third-down conversions and some clock management, the Arizona defense will continue make games look closer than they are — but no better.
With nine games left to play ... there’s always next year.
Jerry Brown is a contributing columnist who appears every Sunday in the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.