The pessimists have their ammunition.
The Cardinals went 7-8-1 this season, missed the playoffs and now must find a way to re-sign or replace 22 free agents. Quarterback
There’s a case to be made that the Cardinals’ best shot at winning a Super Bowl came and went during the 49-15 loss to the Panthers in last season’s NFC Championship game.
But the idea of better days ahead cannot be dismissed.
“I think the core is here,” coach Bruce Arians said. “There is no doubt that we had high expectations coming into this year with the roster we had. Those expectations will never change. We’ll set our goal to win a championship next year like we always do.”
There are some key factors pointing toward a potential bounceback in 2017.
Despite finishing with a losing record, the Cardinals were seventh in the NFL in point-differential at plus-56, ahead of playoff participants the Dolphins, Texans, Raiders, Giants, Packers and Lions. Based in their points scored (418) and points allowed (362), the Cardinals’ Pythagorean win expectation was 9.4 games, which suggests they were unlucky to finish below .500.
A main culprit in 2016 was losses in tight games. The Cardinals went 3-5-1 in games decided by one score, after Arians entered the season with an astonishing 23-5 head coaching record in such contests.
Close-game outcomes are rarely predictive, as teams that do well in one season can perform poorly the next -- something the Cardinals found out this season – and vice-versa. Some of next year’s fortune will ride on blind luck, but Arians will dissect carefully anything that can be done to maximize late-game execution in hopes of bringing back the close-game magic.
“We just didn’t play well enough in five ballgames, the last five minutes in those games, and that stopped us in playing in the rest of this tournament,” Arians said. “We will go back and research why we didn’t play well in those five minutes that cost us games that took us out of the playoffs.
“That will be the research we do as a coaching staff – if we asked them to do things that they couldn’t do too much, why we weren’t successful, because we had been successful in those scenarios for two to three years. Was it the personnel? Was it scheme? What it all was and we will evaluate every single situation and try to improve it.”
The Cardinals finished No. 2 in total defense and No. 9 in total offense this season, and while both units had lulls at critical times, there is enough talent on each side of the ball to feel optimistic moving forward.
The most glaring weakness in 2016, and the unit which needs to improve drastically in 2017, is special teams. The Cardinals were undercut by a variety of miscues throughout the year, including errant snaps, poor kicks and punts, blocked kicks and bad coverage.
It’s too simplistic to say special teams alone cost the Cardinals a certain number of games in 2016, but it contributed to the tie against Seattle and the close losses against the Patriots, Vikings, Rams and Dolphins.
Here’s the silver lining: It’s easier to revamp a special teams unit than to overhaul a struggling offense or defense. The Cardinals took their first swing at doing so Thursday, signing Canadian Football League punter
Special teams is just one facet, and General Manager Steve Keim will have his hands full this offseason, determining which players the team wants back, which ones to let go, which free agents to target and which players to draft.
Expectations will be muted after such a down year, but win-loss records aren’t always indicative of a team’s true talent level. There were enough positives radiating from the underlying metrics to believe 2016’s losing record was an anomaly, and that a return to the playoffs in 2017 is realistic.