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The Zona Zone: The Sad Season of the Cardin-Ls

2022 was an atrocious season for the Arizona Cardinals. There were a multitude of red flags leading into the season, and those were confirmed in almost every game. Could Kliff compose a competent offense? Could Kyler carry this team on his back before he got hurt? Did Steve Keim really get these past few drafts right and fill holes in the depth chart? All of these questions have turned into fat NOs for answers, and there were other underlying issues that escalated throughout the season.

Photo: Darryl Webb/Associated Press

 

What Went Wrong?


1. Injuries


Even if our offense and defense had a sound plan in place, injuries derailed us from the start. Between D-Hop missing the first six games and the last two, Hollywood going on IR the same week Hopkins came back, Ertz suffering a season ending injury, and even more catastrophic ailments along the offensive line and the entire defense, this was going to be a rough season to string together wins with so much roster inconsistency.


2. Poor utilization of young players


I mentioned this in the previous Zona Zone that the Cardinals failed to put the right players in the right places, and until they were eliminated from playoffs, that held true. Through the first 12 weeks, young additions like Myjai Sanders and Cameron Thomas were riding behind vets JJ Watt and Markus Golden, despite being more productive as pass rushers (Cam & Myjai had 14.89% and 13.04% pressure rates, where JJ & Markus had 11.60% and 11.11% pressure rates respectively). Having a 4-man rush unit of MyJai and Cam at the edges, with Watt and Zach Allen inside would have been better than what we had with Markus and Leki Fotu (2.58% pressure rate) getting significant playing time.


Isaiah Simmons is another young stud who was underutilized early on, but then saw his snap count shoot up after the bye week. Through the first 12 weeks, he played on just 73.68% of all defensive snaps, which is a low number for a top 10 defensive draft pick, and it was even worse through the first 6 games as he saw the field just 63.42% of the time. Through the final 5 games, he played 95.1% of the snaps and had the 2nd highest total defensive snap count on the team, trailing only Jalen Thompson. In that same span, he saw his PFF grade increase 5.3 points to a 69.7 overall grade. Although this isn't great for a 3rd year player, I'll take it given where he started his career. It's also worth noting he played 61.71% of snaps at defensive back - mainly the nickel spot, during the final 5 games, compared to 50.6% through the first 12 games.


Lastly, I'd like to mention Greg Dortch as he was one of the best players on the Cardinals this season, despite getting shafted in playing time. I linked a Twitter thread below highlighting his stats compared to AJ Green, who saw similar playing time on receiving snaps.


3. Kliff and Keim kept their jobs after a horrific end to 2021


This is the biggest pain point this season. If the Cardinals were planning on firing Kliff and/or Keim, the bye week would have been the perfect time. This would have given them two weeks to prepare for the last 5 games of the season, install a new regime for the remainder of the year, and get the horrible game planning and depth rotation out the door. Since entering the NFL, Kliff went 28-37-1. For reference, the only coach who has performed similar to Kliff on paper in the same time span is Zac Taylor, who has a regular season record of 28-36-1, but has a Super Bowl appearance and has gotten better every year. Even Frank Reich, who was fired earlier this season, helped the Colts to a record of 30-27-1 since 2019, and that's with a rotating carousel at QB after Andrew Luck's retirement.


What To Look Forward To...


1. New General Manager and new Head Coach


Although we don't have a new Head Coach just yet, we have a slate of solid candidates and a major upgrade at GM. Monti Ossenfort did wonders with the Tennessee Titans in finding not only talent, but legitimate contributors when guys went down. In 2021, the Titans used 91 different players in games, the most in NFL history, en route to a 12-5 record and the #1 seed in the AFC. Before that, he spent over a decade with the New England Patriots and got learn under Bill Belichick. Along with that, the Cardinals recently added the Detroit Lions former director of college scouting, Dave Sears, to be the assistant GM. Let's take a look at some impact players they found in different drafts.

​Monti Ossenfort (New England Patriots)

​Dave Sears (Detroit Lions)

Julian Edelman (2009, Round 7)

Amon-Ra St. Brown (2021, Round 4)

Matthew Slater (2008, Round 5)

Amani Oruwariye (2019, Round 5)

Rob Ninkovich (2006, Round 5)

Malcolm Rodriguez (2022, Round 6)

Shaq Mason (2015, Round 4)

Kerby Joseph (2022, Round 3)

James White (2014, Round 4)

James Houston (2022, Round 5)

As far as the HC is concerned, the Cardinals have candidates like DeMeco Ryans, Dan Quinn, and Brian Flores lined up to take on their open role. While I don't think getting a defensive head coach is the best option long term, it does open the door for a schematic and priority change that is much needed at the moment. Between JJ Watt retiring, pending free agents such as Byron Murphy, Zach Allen, and four starters on the offensive line, and players who don't have a true solidified role with the team, there is a lot of room of improvement and consistency that needs to be instilled from the get-go. There are rumors that Sean Payton may become the Cardinals next HC, but I think this would only hurt us as he hasn't done well without Drew Brees, one of the best QBs to ever play the game.


2. High draft pick and top 12 in available cap space


With the 3rd overall pick in the draft and just over $15 million in cap space, the Cardinals could trade the 3rd pick to get better draft compensation, and also trade guys away to free up some much needed cap room. Trade candidates such us DeAndre Hopkins, James Conner, and Jalen Thompson could free up nearly $30 million if given a post-June 1st trade clause, even when adjusting for dead-cap money and savings. Although this money wouldn't reflect during the initial trades, the Cardinals could backload contracts for potential free agent signings to offset the losses they would incur.


With many QB needy teams drafting behind the Cardinals, they could trade back for more picks to revamp a depleted roster. If the Cardinals go the trade route, I think the best case scenario is to swap 1 rounder picks with the Texans, while acquiring one of their first rounders for next season as well. There would need to be more comp from the Cardinals side, but they would have more than enough draft capital to pull this off pending compensatory picks. With this, the Texans could draft a top QB and get a top pass rusher. The Cardinals could then move back to rebuild part of the offensive line this year, and then finish it and build the defense the following year.


In the event the Cardinals do not trade their #3 overall pick, I believe Will Anderson will be available for the taking and would provide instant help for the Cardinals. Will has been the best pass rusher at the college level for the past 2 seasons. Having an edge rush rotation of Will, Cam, and Myjai would be deadly, especially if we can re-sign Zach Allen to anchor the inside.


3. Last place schedule for 2023


The best part of losing so many games is playing a relatively easy schedule next season. Although our last place schedule will have a Bears team that could shock the world in 2023, they'll also play the Falcons and the Texans, both teams that are still rebuilding and should be easy wins next season. We'll also play the Commanders, Steelers, and Rams twice next season, which all add up to a potential 6 win slate. I don't think the Cardinals will win more than 8 games next season give or take some divisional matchup swings their way, especially since we don't have clarity on Kyler's recovery from his ACL tear, so their win total will massively depend on when those games are scheduled for.


Questions for 2023...


1. Kyler's recovery


After suffering a non-contact ACL tear, Kyler may not be back until Week 4 of next season. There is no doubt that Kyler struggled this year, but he instantly makes this team better when he plays, regardless of his supporting cast. In that time, Colt McCoy looks to be in command until Kyler returns, and it's not the worst thing in the world. He's started 6 games for the Cardinals in two seasons, posting a 3-3 record and averaging 203 yards a game. The Cardinals could also add a more dual-threat style QB like Tyler Huntley or Taylor Heinicke, both of which are younger and would be better options than Colt in my opinion. Until then, we'll have to wait and see which directions the Cardinals will go.


2. New Head Coach's mentality


By going defensive in the HC route, I believe the Cardinals will get back to their top-tier defensive days from the mid 2010s. With that being said, there are plenty of potential offensive coordinator candidates who could get this offense moving the right direction. If we bring in DeMeco Ryans, we could also bring in the 49ers pass game coordinator, Bobby Slowik, who has overseen a QB carousel in his first season in this role. In this time, we have seen magic appear before our eyes with Brock Purdy's play, while also getting a plethora of receiving weapons involved outside of Deebo Samuel and George Kittle. Getting two coaches from the Shanahan coaching tree would be fantastic in terms of this team's current state and future.


3. Rooting out a decade-long mediocrity regime


Along with bringing in a new mentality, we need to move away from goals of only winning the NFC West. Monti is focused on winning Super Bowls and will hire a staff with his same passion. Keim seemed concerned only with just getting by, and Michael Bidwill coasted with that thought process for a decade. In order to succeed as a team with a massive QB contract, multiple holes in the current roster, and a team projected to be extremely young over the next few seasons, we need to get scrappy players who make winning the #1 priority.

Photo: Caitlyn Epes/Arizona Cardinals

 

Final Notes:


I expected way too much from the Cardinals this season, especially given all of the red flags coming into this year and throughout the regular season. I'm even second-guessing myself in regards to winning 8 games at most for next season. Will the Cardinals be as bad as last season? As long as we get a competent offensive play caller, I don't think so. Going defensive minded at HC seems like the best short-term option, and could pay dividends as our young studs move into the veteran porition of their careers.


This offseason should be exciting, but not all of our problems will be solved, and we'll still have some holes in the roster going into 2024. I expect a big jump that year, but expect a middle of the road season for the Cardinals in 2023, pending they crush this offseason.

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