RENTON — Three months ago, the Arizona Cardinals were celebrating a come-from-behind victory over the Seahawks in their season opener. And two months ago, the Cardinals were one of the NFL’s biggest surprises, the league’s least likely 4-0 team after a fast start that included a road win over the mighty New England Patriots.
Combine that with the Cardinals’ strong finish last season — they won seven of their final nine games — and it looked very much like they, not the Seahawks, were going to be the team to give San Francisco a run for its money in the NFC West.
Since that 4-0 start, however, the Cardinals have come crashing back to earth with an emphatic thud. Once unbeaten, Arizona is now a team that can’t figure out how to win, a team in the midst of a league-worst eight-game losing streak.
So what the heck happened? How have things go so wrong for Arizona since its fast start, causing the Cardinals to go from being a team that opened the season with a win over the Seahawks to a team that now sits three games behind Seattle in the standings heading into Sunday’s rematch?
It seemingly would be too simplistic to say Arizona’s demise comes down to quarterback play, but with the Cardinals, it really does come down to quarterback play more than anything else.
While the Seahawks appear to have struck gold, finding Russell Wilson in the third round of the draft, the Cardinals are a pretty big mess at the game’s most important position. Prior to the 2011 season, the Cardinals traded away a second-round pick and Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to obtain Kevin Kolb, then they gave Kolb a huge contract. Kolb has battled injuries and inconsistent play, making that trade look more crippling by the day.
The Cardinals made a run at Peyton Manning in the offseason, but he ended up in Denver, so this year they’ve watched John Skelton, rookie Ryan Lindley and then Skelton again struggle to varying degrees, causing Arizona to stumble despite having a very good defense and Hall of Fame-caliber receiver Larry Fitzgerald. It’s probably fair to say that, just three seasons after the Cardinals had the best quarterback in the NFC West in Kurt Warner, there are five quarterbacks in the division now, including the backups in Seattle and San Francisco, who could start for Arizona.
“Continuity probably,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said on a conference call when asked what his team’s problem has been. “We’ve had a number of different players that had to go in and out, a number of different changes, and that I think makes it difficult at times. … We’ve been inconsistent offensively and we’ve had games where we’ve done some good things.
“It’s been kind of a mixed bag. A couple of games we run it OK, a couple of games we’ll throw it OK, but like I said we’ve had a number of different players, we’ve had different quarterbacks and I think as far as being consistent that has affected us.”
Nobody should look at the Cardinals eight-game losing streak and assume that it will be easy sledding for the Seahawks on Sunday. Four of the losses during their current streak have been by seven points or less, and while the offense has varied from inconsistent to just plain bad, the defense has remained strong despite getting no help.
The Cardinals rank dead last in total offense and scoring, 31st in rushing offense and 27th in passing offense, but their defense continues to play well, ranking seventh in total defense and scoring defense, third in passing defense and fourth in takeaways with 27.
“Even though they’re not doing so well the last few games, that doesn’t show up on the defensive side of the ball,” receiver Sidney Rice said. “… They’re just getting better. We’ve got to be on our jobs on Sunday.
Nobody will have his hands full more than Wilson, who had the misfortune of playing his first career game against a defense that doesn’t just bring pressure, but brings it often and in unorthodox ways. With the Cardinals pressing him all game long, particularly up the middle, Wilson was hit eight times and sacked three times, contributing to a rough day for the entire offense.
“Arizona’s record doesn’t show how great their defense is,” Wilson said. “They make a lot of plays, they do a lot of great things on defense, they’re very experienced, so we’re going to have to play our best game.”
And even if the Cardinals didn’t have a formidable defense to get Seattle’s attention, their losing record should probably make the Seahawks take note. While few NFL teams if any can boast as many impressive wins as the Seahawks, who have beaten the Patriots (9-3), the Bears (8-4) and the Packers (8-4), Seattle also has lost to four teams that currently have losing records: Arizona (4-8), St. Louis (5-6-1), Detroit (4-8) and Miami (5-7). And yeah, those losses did all come on the road, but the fact remains that Seattle, while able to get up for some of the best teams in the league, has been unable to put away some of the less talented ones.
“One could come to that conclusion,” fullback Michael Robinson said. “We need to take that next step as a team. The good teams, we need to try to make look normal, the bad teams, or the teams that aren’t as good as some of the elite teams, we need to make them look bad. That’s the attitude we have to have going forward.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.