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Football Outsiders Optimistic About 2020 Cardinals

Analytics site projects team to finish above .500, push for playoffs

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray throws a pass in a game against the Carolina Panthers in 2019.
QB Kyler Murray is a big reason why Football Outsiders is optimistic about the 2020 Cardinals.

The Cardinals only increased their win total from three to five last season, but Football Outsiders saw some tangible progress beyond the record.

As quarterback Kyler Murray enters his second season, the analytics site is forecasting a sizable step forward in 2020. The Cardinals have been projected to finish with 8.1 wins in Football Outsiders' regular season simulation, which is No. 15 in the NFL and within 0.6 wins of every other team in the NFC West.

The Cardinals are given a 42.7 percent chance to make it to the postseason and a 4.4 percent chance to reach the Super Bowl.

Despite last year's 5-10-1 record, Football Outsiders had the Cardinals at 7.1 estimated wins based on their DVOA formula, which was substantially better than the 2.5 estimated wins in 2018.

Aaron Schatz, the creator of Football Outsiders, explained why his prediction model expects a continuance of that trajectory in 2020.

"We have done research showing the most likely time for a quarterback to improve is Year 2, and this is a guy (Murray) who everybody feels has a lot of talent," said Schatz, whose Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 is available on Amazon, with a portion of the proceeds going to United Way Worldwide's COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund. "And then when you add DeAndre Hopkins to the offense – when you combine those two things to an offense that was already above average last year. … those two positives are very positive.

"And then the defense, you always see a little bit of regression to past performance, and we look at three years of past performance rather than just one. Last year is more important than the years before that, but when you look at the Arizona defense, we see it bouncing back from last year's decline."

The Cardinals had a major offensive turnaround in 2019, finishing No. 13 in the NFL after a historically poor performance the year prior. It's often hard to sustain such improvement, which is why Football Outsiders has the Cardinals finishing in the same spot in 2020.

Schatz, though, said his prediction model may be too conservative.

"Subjectively, I'll tell you, I expect them to be much better," Schatz said. "I'm a Kyler Murray believer."

The defense struggled last season – finishing No. 23 in Football Outsiders' DVOA -- but has three Pro Bowl-level talents returning in outside linebacker Chandler Jones, cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Budda Baker.

The additions of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, outside linebacker Devon Kennard and hybrid defender Isaiah Simmons should help fuel improvement, Schatz said. Football Outsiders projects the Cardinals to finish No. 18 in the NFL defensively in 2020.

"The more new talent that you're depending on, the more of a wide swing of the projections, but I still feel pretty confident about what our average projection is," Schatz said. "They had bad defense and bad special teams last year, and they are more likely to have closer to average defense and closer to average special teams this year."

The NFC West is projected to be a gauntlet, and Schatz believes there is "absolutely" the possibility that any of the four teams – the Cardinals, 49ers, Rams or Seahawks – could win it. San Francisco made the Super Bowl last year and is the conventional favorite, but Football Outsiders expects it to regress in 2020.

"First of all, every team has a chance to win their division because the NFL has a lot of randomness," Schatz said. "And this year is going to have more randomness than most (due to COVID-19), and we need to understand that.

"That being said, we have the entire NFC West with average projections over 8-8. The entire division is above average, and it is a big deal that we don't have the 49ers way ahead of the rest of the division. A big reason for that is what we call the plexiglass principle, which suggests that teams that take a big improvement from one year to the next will tend to regress in the third year. In the 35-year history of our numbers, the 49ers last year were the first team to ever have their DVOA on both sides of the ball improve by over 20 percent. Thirty-five years and it never happened.

"So when you see that much improvement on both sides of the ball in one year, you expect some reversion in the third year, especially when you have personnel losses – and the 49ers lost DeForest Buckner off their defense and Emmanuel Sanders off their offense. So we have the 49ers as part of the pack. We don't have them as a Super Bowl favorite."

The Cardinals are still projected to finish fourth in the NFC West, but the gap has closed considerably, and a slight outplaying of Football Outsiders' expectations would give the team a solid chance at the postseason, and possibly even the division title.

"It's a good time to be a Cardinals fan, assuming we have football," Schatz said.

Images of new Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and the other Cardinals during Tuesday's walkthrough, presented by Hyundai.