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For The Arizona Cardinals, The NFC West Was Lost In The Offseason

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The Arizona Cardinals should be winning the NFC West this year. But they're not. It's not excusable.

If you've read any of my Pulitzer Prize-nominated work (don't research that) then you've probably figured out that besides being kind of a jerk, I'm also a bit of an Arizona sports historian. Being someone that is so versed in this state's history, you can also say that I've become quite an expert in heartbreak, disappointment, and missed opportunities. So when I say the 2010 Arizona Cardinals blew it, you should listen to me.

Sure, it's not Santonio Holmes, John Paxson, Robert Horry, or Mario Elie, but this edition of the Cardinals has provided their very own brand of disappointment. 

Put simply, this team should have won the NFC West this season. And it shouldn't have been close.

You're probably saying to yourself, "But Scott, the race isn't over yet and the Cardinals schedule in the last seven games is so easy!" Well, dear reader (or Cardinals employee), I'd like to share your optimism, but after watching the lifeless effort in a blowout loss at home against a brutal Seahawks team that had been beaten 41-7 and 33-3 in the past two weeks, it's pretty hard not to call this race over.

Don't get me wrong -- I realize the vast short-comings of this team. Following Sunday's game against Seattle, the Cards rank 30st in the NFL in passing offense and 29th in rushing offense while nearly matching the ineptitude on defense, ranking 27th in passing yards allowed and 28th in rushing yards allowed. But in this division, it wasn't going to take much.

Based in large part on the friendly division competition, I came into this season with the expectation that the Cardinals would win the West. True to form, the Seahawks, Niners, and Rams have basically cooperated in not being that great.

Talk all you want about the Rams' surprising 4-5 record, but they've yet to win a road game this season and besides a trip to University of Phoenix in a few weeks, they may never do so.

There's also our old pals the Seahawks, who may be 5-4 right now, but when they're not using Olindo Mare to bludgeon the Cardinals out of existence, they are getting beaten senseless by basically everyone else (at least outside of Qwest Field). 

It's also been helpful that the Niners are a disappointing 3-6 despite their lofty preseason expectations.

The easiest possible factor to point to in how the Cardinals should have won the division is the quarterback position. As I've said to friends time and again, the reason people immediately point to the QB is because it's by far the easiest position to comprehend in a complicated game. In the case of the Cardinals, it also serves as a primary failing of the team.

Look at each of the losses in the Cards' four-game losing streak:

  • Week 7 @ Seattle: Max Hall goes 4/16 with two turnovers.
  • Week 8 v. Tampa Bay: Hall throws two interceptions for touchdowns while Derek Anderson relieves him, only to throw a pair of picks of his own -- including a game crushing one with slightly over two minutes remaining and Arizona down just three.
  • Week 9 @ Minnesota: Yes, the defense blew a 14-point lead with 4:39 to go, but four consecutive three and outs from the Cardinals in which they "amassed" negative 15 yards didn't exactly help. Maybe if the defense didn't have to go back on the field immediately, it would have made a difference.
  • Week 10 v. Seattle: Anderson threw for 322 yards that were primarily amassed in garbage time, but it was leading the team to negative 10 yards in the third quarter against a leaky Seattle defense that killed the Cardinals.

I won't pretend that this team with a Donovan McNabb or Marc Bulger would be some sort of Super Bowl contender, but I will take the not-too-unrealistic leap that a good quarterback helps turn at least two of those four games into wins. In the NFC West, two games will mean the difference between hanging a banner and picking in the Top 15.

Go ahead and tell me that the Cardinals with an above-average quarterback aren't currently leading the NFC West by two games. I dare you. 

But enough about the quarterbacks. How about that offensive line? Specifically the tackles. Maybe it's just me and you'll have some stats to prove me wrong, but I can't recall a team getting so easily beat off the edge play after play as the Cardinals did Sunday.

Brandon Keith is currently starting at right tackle and Levi Brown is over on the left side. Keith is a first-time starter in 2010, while Brown was moved to the left side before the year began. Considering the shaky QB play, you'd hope that you could at least have an offensive line that would give a guy time to make decisions, but that isn't the case here.

As if Anderson (or Hall before him) needs any help making poor choices, he seems to be regularly running for his life from an edge rusher that blows by a tackle. Hell, on Sunday it seemed like the Seattle defenders were begging each other for the opportunity to rush at Brown -- like kids taking turns on the school principal at the dunk tank (except the target was two feet away).

If the Cards were going to hamstring themselves with a QB who could barely beat out Brady Quinn for a gig and another who wasn't drafted then they should have at least made an attempt to get a tackle who could block for him. Or at least one who had played his position at a professional level before the season.

I hate to excuse the defense in all of this, but anyone who has followed the Cardinals the last few years realizes that the defense feeds off the success of the offense. For better or for worse, this is a good time D. Maybe that falls on defensive coordinator Bill Davis for not getting the most out of a defense with three Pro Bowlers. Maybe it should have been apparent there was a problem when this team surrendered 90 points in two playoff games.

To put it as simply as possible, the Cardinals' primary problems this season were entirely predictable and entirely avoidable. It's awful hard to win a division with loads of question marks that aren't addressed.   

Some people apparently think there is some sort of shame associated with winning a bad division. If it were up to Cris Collinsworth, the 2008 Cardinals wouldn't have even had an opportunity to win the NFC. But banners are banners, and there should be a 2010 NFC West banner in University of Phoenix Stadium.

After all those years of three, four, five, or six wins and regular throttling in the NFC East taught me never to take a division title -- or any playoff berth -- for granted. You think the 2008 Chargers are apologizing for winning the AFC West with an 8-8 record? Did you even remember the Chargers won the division at 8-8 that year?

Of course you didn't. Nobody does because all people do is look at titles.

I don't have the answers to how this can be fixed in either this year or the next and I won't pretend to know better than the people who are paid to do this sort of thing, but this has been tough to watch. For the first time since Ken Whisenhunt arrived in the Valley, I feel like the Cardinals are playing out the string.   

At least the Suns beat the Lakers last night.