The Arizona Cardinals - check that, THE FOUR-AND-OH ARIZONA CARDINALS - have been the biggest surprise in the NFL season so far, and a major factor that sees the NFC West leading the league in wins at the quarter pole. But now they prepare to take on an improved Rams team that is undefeated in their home stadium so far.
If respectability starts at home - and the four NFC West teams are a perfect 8-0 in their own stadiums - true respect comes from big wins on the road. As suddenly tough as this division is, whoever can steal those road wins may just land themselves a playoff spot in the process. The Cardinals notched an impressive one over Josh McDaniels and the New England Patriots in week 3, but how will they respond on short rest and in prime time?
I'm not ashamed to say that I badly miscalculated the Cardinals' chances this season. I pegged them for a four-win team at best, with their QB and offensive line situation being what they are. So I was happy that Seth Cox, founder of The Sports Headquarters and lover of all professional sports of the desert climes, agreed to give me his inside perspective on this mystery team.
Is their 4-0 start for real? Is their success sustainable? Seth gives us his answers after the jump.
RamsHerd: The Cardinals are 4-0 to start the NFL season for the first time since the Don Coryell days in St Louis. How do you rank this Cardinals team among the teams that you've watched up close?
TSHQ: As happy as I am with this team’s start, and as good as they’ve played this season, they are not the best team I have seen thus far from the Cardinals.
As a Rams fan you know the importance of offensive line play, and this team is winning despite having perhaps the worst offensive line in the league, and I only put that caveat of "perhaps" because they are undefeated. Without an ability to get a push in the run game, and the fact that they are consistently allowing edge pressure in the passing game, I am not sure this success can be sustained. Even though it has been against decent-to-very good teams, I am not sure there is an answer to those issues on the roster.
To answer the question directly, I would rank this team below the two Kurt Warner-led teams and just above the Jake Plummer playoff team right now, and feel more confident about them moving down than moving up… unfortuntately.
RamsHerd: Most of the NFL world was ready to write the Cardinals off after their unfortunate preseason QB battle between a “frightened” Kevin Kolb and a just not very good John Skelton. What has Kolb done in these four games that he was unable to do in preseason, or in much of last year?
TSHQ:Simply… The game plan.
Kolb is actually a good quarterback, and within the right system and with a better offensive line I don’t think we would ever be questioning him, but that isn’t the case.
Coach Whisenhunt runs a vertical passing attack, with a power run game, and in all honesty that is probably the worst scheme for Kolb and this offensive line.
Kolb is the type of quarterback that needs to be put in a spread style offense, with multiple short or intermediate route options, and to have the ability to make a quick decision and get rid of the ball. Not so coincidentally the offensive line actually works better this way as well, as tackles D’Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie are not nearly good enough to hold their blocks for deep drops and long developing routes.
When Whisenhunt went with John Skelton to start the year, it was an indication that they wanted to have a quarterback to fit the system as opposed to fitting the system to the quarterback.
Well, when Skelton went down and Kolb stepped in, we saw a slight change in that offensive philosophy, and with that we have seen more immediate success from Kolb.
One of the things I think will be a good indicator for Thursday’s game of what system the Cards are running is how many times we see the Cardinals receivers catching the ball short of the marker and running after. If we see a lot of run after the catch, I am confident that the Cardinals are running the short stuff that makes Kolb the QB the Cardinals paid all that money too.
It also means that those great pass rushing ends of the Rams, Chris Long and Robert Quinn, have been neutralized, and you should see the “good” Kolb.
RamsHerd: The Cardinals' success has been noticeably led by their defense. Who has been the biggest catalyst for this unit?
TSHQ: If you had asked this question prior to Sunday's game I would have not hesitated to say Daryl Washington.
After Sunday’s debacle vs the Dolphins I have changed that thought, and will say Darnell Dockett.
While Washington has flashed all over the field, and is quickly and quietly becoming one of the better inside linebackers in the game, Darnell Dockett’s absence on the field Sunday was more evident than I expected it to be.
Dockett anchors the middle of the defense, eats up blockers, and is a constant source of interior pressure in the passing game, which is the most important type of pressure a defense can get on the QB in my book. When Dockett is on the field you see a defense that has playmakers making plays at every level, and most of that is because there are usually two offensive players paying attention to him, and in turn those guys, Calais Campbell, Sam Acho, Daryl Washington, Adrian Wilson, are able to make the bigger, splashier plays.
One of the guys that has to be talked about though is Patrick Peterson, and that’s why I failed to mention him above.
While he had an average game for him against the Dolphins on Sunday, 3 receptions allowed for 44 yards and a pass break up, he is quickly becoming one of the best cover men in the league. While he isn’t in the Darrelle Revis category yet, he is closing in on being someone that is rarely thrown at. This makes things easier for a defensive coordinator when he doesn’t have to game plan for certain players because the offense will likely ignore them for most of the game.
The flip side to that is it has really exposed the opposite side of the field, as William Gay has been less than stellar, and Greg Toler has been slow in his recovery from injury.
The one other player to keep an eye on that has flashed better than average ability is rookie Jamell Fleming. He is a physical guy who gets overly aggressive at times, but covers very well and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in there.
RamsHerd: Before the season, I would have rated Ken Whisenhunt’s hot seat as among the hottest in the game. Right now, though, he’s looking like a genius, and making doubters like me look like fools. (This isn’t hard to do.) What is the local fan base’s take on Coach Whiz?
TSHQ: The local take and mine are probably completely different, but I’ll give you what I can. As you said the hot seat was on Whisenhunt for a couple of reasons:
1. The lack of developing a quarterback after Kurt Warner (hello question 5).
2. The lack of offensive line development over his tenure, which is linked to his hiring and continual employment of one Russ Grimm.
Those are two issues that have been addressed and missed, in the case of reason 1, and never really addressed at all, in reason 2.
As the season has begun issue one is kind of answering itself in the development/improved play of Kevin Kolb. People tend to forget he has made less career starts than your own Sam Bradford there. As the QB goes this season, so this team will go, and with it, I feel Whisenhunt’s place on the proverbial hot seat.
If the Cardinals are able to sustain the success they’ve had early in the season then Whisenhunt will be off the hot seat and likely back at the negotiating table for an extension. (His current deal runs through 2014 with a team option in 2015.)
All the good things aside, I spoke to a larger issue earlier, and that is Whisenhunt’s stubbornness when it comes to his scheme. People forget that the Super Bowl run was not just fueled by Kurt Warner, but by up and coming offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who I miss by the way. Haley was given the ability to change up how things went, and tailor the offense to the strength of Warner.
When Haley left, Whisenhunt took over. He has turned over the play-calling, but it is still unmistakably Whisenhunt’s offense. If he refuses to continue to change things and go with what works for the personnel of the team, he may find himself out of a job, as the Cardinals will be crashing back to earth.
But for now, he isn’t just safe. He is, and rightfully so, being deified here.
RamsHerd: There are a lot of parallels between these teams. The Rams have a 110-150 record since arriving in St Louis in 1996. Our high point of that time is a Super Bowl win with Kurt Warner at QB. In that same span of time, the Cardinals have gone 105-155, and nearly won a Super Bowl with Kurt Warner at QB. Now, both teams appear to be on the upswing. How do you rate the rivalry between these two teams?
TSHQ: I think both teams have lacked a consistent run of success together to really consider this a rivalry outside of the fact they are division rivals and the Cardinals moved from St. Louis, but I think the possible rising of both of these squads could rectify that quickly.
I feel the pieces are there to create a rivalry soon and I would love to get to the point where there is a true rivalry, right along with how the Rams feel about Seattle and San Francisco, but right now, it is in its infancy.
My thanks to Seth for his time. Be sure to check out his work at TSHQ.com, and follow-him on Twitter at @SethCoxTSHQ
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