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Cardinals Fall Short Of Expectations In 2016

Posted Jan 2, 2017

Super Bowl hopes were extinguished early as team never found its groove

Safety D.J. Swearinger and the Cardinals played well against the Rams, but it was too little, too late.

The Cardinals went to a stadium they hadn’t seen in nearly three decades on Sunday and put together a throwback performance.

The 44-6 thrashing of the Rams at the L.A. Coliseum was reminiscent of the dominance displayed in the previous three seasons under Bruce Arians, when they won double-digit games each year and made the playoffs twice.

But for all the hype heading into 2016, those flashes were too fleeting.

“Everybody was flying around and having fun,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “You kind of miss having those moments.”

The Cardinals ended on a high note – winning in Seattle and then routing the Rams -- but the overall picture was disappointing: a 7-8-1 record and a seat at home for the playoffs when the Super Bowl felt within reach before the season began.

There were myriad reasons for the first losing campaign under Arians. Special teams gaffes hit at critical times; the wide receivers and the offensive line battled injuries and ineffectiveness for long stretches; a defense which ranked No. 2 in yards against let down inopportunely.

To Arians, something stood out among all else. He entered the season with a 23-5 head coaching record in games decided by one possession but the Cardinals went only 3-5-1 in those contests this year.

“The games we lost were always the games we won,” Arians said. “Win them at the end. Win close games. I think we did it better than anybody in the league for a couple years, and this year we didn’t. Whether it was make a completion, make a kick, get off the field defensively, whatever it was in those one-score games that we lost in the last five minutes.”

While special teams was a glaring issue, the problems rotated within it. There were errant snaps, blocked kicks, poor punts and poor coverage. The offense and the defense also ran hot and cold, while the cluster luck often seemed to hurt more than help the team.

The Cardinals finished seventh in the NFL with a plus-56 point-differential and in the top ten in both total offense and total defense, but crucial mistakes were their downfall.

“If you could put a finger on an individual, you’d replace them,” Arians said. “If you could put a finger on something, you’d fix it right away. This was different scenarios every week.”

The Cardinals have 22 free agents so the team could look vastly different next season, but Arians spoke like a coach who wants the core to remain. He said outside linebacker Chandler Jones, whose contract is expiring, will be with the team next year, be it a long-term deal or the franchise tag.

It could be tricky to bring back every key part since Jefferson, defensive tackle Calais Campbell and safety D.J. Swearinger all played well heading into free agency, while wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is contemplating retirement.

However, many of the stars are under contract, and Arians was happy to see the depth the Cardinals built up late in the season as injuries took their toll.

“Talent’s not the issue,” he said.

Arians also plans to keep the coaching staff intact unless one of his assistants leaves on their own accord. The players hope a similar group can return to prove 2016 was a blip, not a downward trend.

“If you ask me, I know for a fact we’re one of the best teams in the NFL, without a doubt,” money linebacker Deone Bucannon said. “I know that, top to bottom, we had one of the best offenses and one of the best defenses. When it came down to it, maybe in certain situations we didn’t pull it through.”

The Cardinals believe next season will be different, one where the familiar feeling of wins and happiness return. The final two games proved the contender still lurks, but it was dormant for too long in 2016 as the season fell way short of expectations.

“I think everybody feels that’s the team we should have been all year,” cornerback Justin Bethel said.

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