Welcome to purgatory. The draft is over, and apart from a few outliers, so is free agency. This is the time in the NFL offseason where fans get that itch for the season to begin anew. With little in the way of the rumor mill, teams haven’t been able to get together for practice reps due to COVID-19, and are relinquished to the whims of Zoom meetings. That being said, there is still plenty to discuss. Today, we look at why the Arizona Cardinals could be the NFL’s next worst-to-first team.
Given current events, this offseason feels especially in need of a pressure release valve that only football can provide. And if you’re a desert-dwelling fan, there’s hope for a great 2020. But just how great?
Being a fan of the Arizona Cardinals has been tough. Since the move to Arizona in 1988, the Arizona Cardinals have amassed a total of three division championships and one Super Bowl appearance. By any stretch of the imagination, this would not be defined as historical success. Regardless, the fan base in Arizona consists of die-hard men, women, and children who spend nearly every offseason utterly convincing themselves why the next season will be better.
This offseason, they might actually be right.
For those of you who are lucky enough to be fans of winning organizations (sit down New England, no one wants to hear it), allow me to explain the process of being an Arizona Cardinals fan.
1 – The season ends.
2 – Blame the coaches or GM, Santonio Holmes, or the refs for why the season didn’t go the way only Cardinals fans thought it would.
3 – Get excited in the offseason about how the Cardinals are the dark horse going into the next season.
4 – Spend months completely convincing themselves that things are going to be better.
5 – Draft every Cardinals player they can in their fantasy draft because “they’re totally going to break out.”
6 – The season ends. The Cardinals sucked.
7 – They lost their fantasy league.
8 – Repeat steps 2-7.
It’s like clockwork. Sort of like Punxsutawney Phil, except the shadow never goes away. But alas! As of today, the Arizona Cardinals and their fans are living in step 4, and for good cause. Let’s break it down.
When arguing that the Arizona Cardinals might be 2020’s worst-to-first team, there are immediately two assumptions. One, that worst-to-first will happen at all. Second, it would be the Arizona Cardinals.
Let’s get the first assumption settled quickly. Since the 2015 season, six teams have gone from worst-to-first. Yes, you heard that correct. Five seasons, six teams. The 2015 Washington Redskins, the 2016 Dallas Cowboys, the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars, the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, the 2018 Houston Texans, and the 2018 Chicago Bears all went from worst-to-first.
The second assumption is just that – an assumption. But given that Cardinals fans are in step 4, on paper, the Arizona Cardinals seem destined to have one of the best chances for a worst-to-first campaign.
Let’s look back at how each of these worst-to-first teams were able to jettison the rankings, and why or why not the Arizona Cardinals have positioned themselves to have the best chance at achieving this goal.
When evaluating worst to first teams, I opted for six criteria:
- Strength of Schedule
- Defensive DVOA
- Offensive DVOA
- Veteran acquisitions
- Draft acquisitions
- Coaching changes
For those of you unfamiliar with DVOA, the acronym stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. According to Football Outsiders, “DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.” This is not a DVOA article, so if you’re interested you can find a more detailed break down here.
Let’s look at the similarities and differences each of these teams had on each level, and score where the Cardinals sit in comparison.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Four of the six worst-to-first teams saw dramatic improvements in their schedule, which obviously boosted their odds along their journey. The 2015-2016 Cowboys went from an opponent SoS of 18th to 28th, the Jaguars 19th to 26th, the Texans 22nd to 30th, and the Bears 4th to 31st. The 2014-2015 Redskins had a slightly easier SoS going from 27th to 25th, and the Eagles went from 8th to 9th.
The implication here being SoS is an important factor in going worst to first.
So how do the Cardinals stack up?
In 2019 the Arizona Cardinals were ranked 14th for most difficult schedule, which makes sense considering they play in the same division as the 49’ers, Seahawks, and Rams. Three teams who combined for 5 Super Bowl appearances last decade. With that type of competition within the division, there’s really no chance for an easy schedule.
Based on 2019 win percentages, the Arizona Cardinals have the 8th toughest SoS going into 2020. While this point is debatable, that’s for another time and another place. Let’s assume this projection is accurate.
This means the best comparison for the Cardinals on SoS is the Super Bowl champion 2017 Eagles who went from 8th to 9th.
It would be hard-pressed to find any analyst who considers the Arizona Cardinals a Super Bowl bound team. But one of the great things about the NFL is how frequently the tide changes, and how frequently we see underrated teams shock the NFL world every season. However, to keep some resemblance of logic would require the Arizona Cardinals to first focus on making the playoffs. Comparing them to the 2017 Eagles would be a stretch.
If we were to make the argument that the Arizona Cardinals are in line for worst-to-first purely based off schedule, the odds are not in their favor.
Schedule Score: Not great
The NFL is a passing league, of course, no argument there. So purely based on the look test, one key sign for a worst-to-first team would be their ability to improve on defending the pass.
Oddly enough, much like the strength of schedule outlined above, there was also a common theme across defenses. All but two worst-to-first teams improved defending against the pass. The greatest improvement came from the Jacksonville Jaguars who climbed from 15th to 1st. This dramatic change was helped when Jacksonville acquired CB A.J. Bouye who put together 6 interceptions that season and S Barry Church who contributed 4 interceptions.
The two teams to decline in pass defense? The Eagles who went from 2nd to 8th, and the Cowboys going from 17th to 19th. Nothing dramatic.
In 2019 the Cardinals defense ranked 27th against the pass. Ouch. Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim addressed the team defense this offseason with new free agent acquisitions and via the draft. However, the biggest impact that could put the Cardinals in line to better defend the pass could be a full season from Patrick Peterson. The All-Pro CB missed the first six games in 2019, combined with CB2 Robert Alford missing the entire season due to injury, the Cardinals defense was thin at best.
For a more detailed analysis on how Steve Keim addressed the defense through the draft and free agency, check out this Arizona Cardinals draft recap article, and further evaluation of the Arizona Cardinals 2020 defensive outlook here. But in summary, the improvements on defense look promising!
We won’t truly know if the free agent and draft acquisitions improve the Cardinals defensive DVOA until after the season. But the early outlook has major improvements over last season.
Defensive Score: Good
Here is where things get truly interesting.
The Arizona Cardinals ranked 13th across the NFL in offensive DVOA in 2019. Considering a rookie head coach, rookie quarterback, and an offense that had ranked dead last in 2018 offensive DVOA, climbing up to 13th might be the exact reason behind the Cardinals Hype Train.
But did you know the Cardinals ranked 20th in the league for passing DVOA in 2019?
This is an air raid offense featuring future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, quarterbacked by last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Yes, yes it is.
Maybe the biggest surprise from last season was that the Cardinals ranked 2nd in all of football in rushing DVOA, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens.
This also marks the most consistent aspect of the past six worst-to-first teams. Every single worst-to-first team since 2015 has improved in the passing game. All of them. And they all did it in dramatic fashion.
The smallest jump in passing DVOA among worst-to-first teams, you might ask? The Jacksonville Jaguars who went from 23rd to 15th. That’s an 8 slot move up the chain, representing the smallest jump.
The biggest leap? The Dallas Cowboys going from 32nd to 3rd. The Cowboys built their offensive juggernaut off the back of a truly insane draft that included two rookie Pro Bowlers in Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott.
What have the Arizona Cardinals done to set themselves up for improvement in the passing game? They only acquired Deandre Hopkins. No big deal. They also have more seasoning on Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury, with an improved offensive line. Quick reminder, Kyler didn’t earn OROTY honors for the first half of his season. Throw in Larry Fitzgerald announcing his return for another season, and they still have Christian Kirk.
Don’t sell the run game short. Statistically, improving the run is not a requirement for past worst-to-first teams. Three improved. Three did not. But the fact that the Cardinals retained Kenyan Drake can not be overlooked. In 8 games for the Cardinals, he put together 643 yards and 8 touchdowns. It doesn’t take a well thought out argument to prove that a quality run game has dramatic benefits for contributing to a world-class passing game. Of which the Cardinals project to have both.
Looking into previous worst-to-first teams, major changes were made contributing to their turn in fortune. Let’s take a brief look at how these teams improved their offense:
Cowboys – Drafted rookie Pro Bowler Dak Prescott to throw to an already good receiver core, and drafted rookie Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott to open up the passing game.
Jaguars – The Jaguars primarily rode their defense to their worst to first finish. But they drafted Leonard Fournette who put together a 1,000 yard, 9 touchdown rookie season opening up the passing game that already featured an effective Blake Bortles paired with Keelan Cole, Marqise Lee, and Allen Hurns.
Offensive Score: Great
We’ll keep this one short – Deandre Hopkins.
Acquisition Score: Great
The Cardinals selected four defensive players in the draft, highlighted by Isaiah Simmons with the 8th overall pick. Their second selection in the third round was a beast of a human in Josh Jones to secure the offensive line. High impact players on both sides of the ball.
As mentioned above, Steve Keim’s primary job was to put together a defensive depth chart that had a shot at relevancy. I broke down the Cardinals defense in this article.
Comparing the 2020 Cardinals draft to the other worst-to-first teams finds very little in terms of equal comparison. None of the other teams were nearly as defense heavy as the Cardinals in 2020.
Diving even deeper into the previous team’s draft success shows little to no consistency in terms of draft success, either. One team hit platinum, one team struck gold, three teams did well, and one team was mediocre.
Here’s the list of drafted players who contributed to their team finishing at the top of their division for each of the worst-to-first teams:
Dallas – QB Dak Prescott, RB Ezekiel Elliot. PLATINUM
Jaguars – RB Leonard Fournette, OT Cam Robinson. GOOD
What does this mean? The Cardinals draft class needs to be slightly better than “Good.” And given the value received in the draft, the Arizona Cardinals’ worst-to-first objective has more upside than down. For now.
Draft Score: TBD
Coaching changes were sporadic, and overall show no identifiable pattern for determining a worst to first season.
The Redskins swapped in a new Defensive Coordinator.
The Cowboys made no changes.
The Jaguars swapped in a new head coach and offensive coordinator.
The Eagles made no changes.
The Texans made no changes.
The Bears swapped in a new head coach and offensive coordinator.
A perfect split of changes and no changes. However, the Arizona Cardinals have a second-year head coach who is coming into the 2020 season with a lot of hype. Not only did Kliff Kingsbury earn major cool points during this years unprecedented virtual draft with the pic heard round the world, but a less heralded improvement has been the impact he has had on recruiting. Leveraging his college connections has shown to be an asset for the Arizona Cardinals when targeting veteran and rookie talent.
Coaching Score: Good
When it comes to choosing a worst-to-first team, the reality is most last place teams do not finish first the following season.
However, considering the frequency with which worst-to-first happens, the Arizona Cardinals are the team to watch in the upcoming 2020 season. With a dramatically improved offense and defense, stability on the coaching staff (for now? Looking at you Vance!), a bevy of Pro Bowlers, youth and swag, there’s only one thing standing in their way – having to play the Rams, 49’ers, and Seahawks twice, each.
No easy task, but doable. Just like going from worst-to-first.
Arizona Cardinals fans have a lot to be excited about, and many are justifiably clamoring for a change. Steve Keim delivered change, and the 2020 season is shaping up to be exciting for the #RedSea. On paper, this might be the year fans can have legitimate excitement for what might become several years of winning football, with the catalyst being the Arizona Cardinals worst-to-first 2020 season.
Final score: Good