The Arizona offense is so unbalanced it could serve as governor of Illinois.
And this lack of balance is killing the Cardinals as they spit and sputter over the finish line.
Football players, fans and coaches, and even the dreaded pigskin “pundits,” almost all agree that some semblance of offensive balance helps lead to success in the NFL.
Run a little here, pass a little there and it all works out in the end. Sure, you may lean one way of the other; you may be better in one discipline than another. But you can’t do one thing all the time – no matter how well you do it – and expect success.
The Patriots and their fans learned this lesson the hard way last year, didn’t they? New England suddenly abandoned the ground game in the Super Bowl, attempting three passes for every run (48 to 16) and suffered their first and only loss in an otherwise unblemished season.
Apparently, the Arizona coaching staff didn’t watch the game tape – or any game tape for that matter.
Last week against Minnesota, the Cardinals attempted 50 passes – and just seven runs. They lost 35-14.
They boasted some semblance of balance a week earlier (33 passes, 22 runs) and beat St. Louis handily, 34-10.
It’s a pattern that runs like clockwork for the Cardinals this year: balance the passing attack with a few runs and they win. Abandon the run and they lose.
In Arizona’s eight wins, they’ve averaged 35 passes and 28 runs – a fairly balanced attack in this day and age of pass-happy offenses.
In Arizona’s six losses, they’ve averaged 47 passes and 14 runs – abandoning any semblance of a ground game when times get tough.
You can understand the aversion Ken Whisenhunt and his staff have to the run. The Cardinals average just 3.3 yards when they run the ball – dead last in the NFL – but a healthy 7.2 yards when they drop back to pass (using our formula that includes sacks), good enough for 5th in the NFL.
But clearly their strategy of depending too heavily on their great passing attack hasn’t worked. Sure, the Cardinals don’t run well. But they don’t win when they don’t run.
The Patriots offense was similar back in 2003: they were one of the worst running teams in football, averaging just 3.4 yards per rush. In fact, it was the worst ground game of any Super Bowl champion.
But they often pounded the ball to maintain some semblance of balance and – even though they didn’t have the receiving weapons the Cardinals have this year – they parlayed an ineffective ground game into a 17-2 record and, when needed, scored 32 points against the Panthers to win the greatest shoot-out in Super Bowl history.
Bottom line: the Patriots win this critical game Sunday if they strike quick and take an early lead, much like they did against the Raiders. If the pattern holds true, the Arizona coaching staff will panic – which it always seems to do – and abandon the run.
It’s a recipe for defeat for the Cardinals this year, but a recipe they seem to whip up eagerly every other Sunday no matter how distasteful.
Catching Arizona at the right time
About three weeks ago this looked like a very bad match-up for the Patriots – the Arizona passing attack was firing on all cylinders, while the Patriots pass defense made even bad quarterbacks look good.
New England’s defense still has more issues than Time magazine, but the Cardinals no longer look like a team to be feared.
Since beating the Cowboys back on Oct. 6, Arizona’s four wins have come against NFC West lightweights St. Louis (twice), Seattle and San Francisco.
Over the same stretch, they’ve lost to the Panthers, Giants, Eagles and Vikings, each one a playoff-caliber team. In fact, they were embarrassed against the last two, falling to Philadelphia and Minnesota – teams on par with the Patriots – by a combined score of 83-35.
Overall, the Cardinals are 2-5 this year vs. Quality Opponents (teams with winning records), with both victories (Miami and Dallas) coming early in the season.
Boston Globe: a day late and a dollar short
The Boston Globe ran a screaming headline in an above-the-fold lead story on its sports page Tuesday, in which the broadsheet breathlessly declared the Patriots ground game the team’s most productive in 25 years – two weeks after we told you the very same thing right here on WEEI.com.
And some people wonder why print journalism is in trouble.
Belichick’s best coaching job?
Many observers – including Bill Belichick himself – consider New England’s out-of-nowhere 2001 Super Bowl run the coach’s best job in a Hall of Fame career.
He took a team thin in the talent department with zero star power, cobbled it together with unheralded free agents and an unknown QB, and somehow managed to win the first championship in franchise history just a year after it went 5-11.
The 2008 season might not be up in that stratosphere. After all, the team is clearly not as good as it was last year. But the 2008 campaign should merit some mention when Belichick steps into Canton sometime around 2020.
The pass defense is a disaster. The team has suffered more injuries than Evel Knievel. And the offense is led by a guy who had never started a college game, let alone a pro game. NFL teams simply do not win – ever – with a combination of inexperienced quarterback and Swiss cheese pass defense. In fact, if you find a team that has won against these odds, let me know.
Hell, the quarterbacking situation alone is enough to ruin most teams.
Yet the Patriots have a very good shot at an 11-5 record and an outside chance to win their sixth straight division title. The credit starts with the coaching staff.
If the team can only overcome its problems finding talent in the draft and in free agency, the Patriots could return to dominance again next year.
Expect a big day from Cassel
Matt Cassel has certainly proven himself a legitimate NFL passer, with the big-time numbers to prove it. In fact, if we’re going solely by the numbers, he deserves a place in the Pro Bowl well ahead of old warhorse Brett Favre, who’s probably the biggest Pro Bowl joke in years (though there’s a long line of AFC quarterbacks who deserve the nod ahead of Favre).
Cassel tops Favre in most key categories, including passing yards (3,270 to 3,052), yards per attempt (6.9 to 6.8) and passer rating (87.1 to 86.5). Favre boasts more TD tosses (21 to 18), but he also leads the league (once again) with 17 INTs. Cassel has been picked off just 11 times – despite throwing the ball more often.
If the statistical match ups hold true, Cassel should certainly have a Pro Bowl-caliber day against Arizona.
After all, the Cardinals can stop anybody through the air. In fact, their pass defense is even worse than New England’s widely criticized unit. Arizona has a dreadful Defensive Passer Rating of 98.4 – in other words, opposing passers this year have combined for a passer rating of 98.4 when playing the Cardinals.
Only the historically bad unit in Detroit (108.2 Defensive Passer Rating) is worse this year. The Cardinals have allowed a league-worst 31 TD passes, to just 11 picks. That’s great news for Cassel on the heels of a week in which he threw a career-high four TDs against what had been a fairly respectable Raiders pass defense: Oakland had allowed just 15 touchdown tosses in their first 13 games before facing Cassel and the Patriots.
Arizona’s pass defense is even worse than it appears when you look at the poor quarterbacks and poor passing teams on Arizona’s schedule – every team in the NFC West, for example, has trouble passing the ball.
So expect a career day (again) from Cassel, at least if the weather cooperates.
Streaks and trends
(Data comes from NFL reports, ColdHardFootballFacts.com and ProFootballReference.com)
The Patriots have won 14 straight regular-season games against NFC opponents and four straight against the Cardinals.
New England’s last loss to the Cardinals was when they played as the Phoenix Cardinals in 1991. New England’s last loss to an NFC opponent was a 27-17 defeat in Carolina back in September 2005.
The Patriots have won 10 straight in December and are 22-2 (.917) in December dating back to 2003. New England’s last December loss was a 21-0 defeat in Miami in 2006.
Richard Seymour leads the Patriots with 7.5 sacks. His career high is 8 sacks in a season (2003).
Following his score against the Raiders last week, Ellis Hobbs has now returned three kicks for TDs, tying Raymond Clayborn for the New England franchise record.
Randy Moss has caught 134 TDs in his career, third all time behind Terrell Owens (138) and Jerry Rice (197).
In terms of TDs per game, however, Moss is No. 1 in the Super Bowl Era and second only to Packers Hall of Famer Don Hutson in NFL history.
Moss averages 0.80 TDs per game (134 in 168 games). Owens averages 0.74 TDs per game (138 in 187 games) while Rice averaged just 0.65 TDs per game (197 in 303 games).
Old-timer Hutson averaged a record 0.85 TDs per game (99 in 116 games).
Kerry J. Byrne is the publisher of ColdHardFootballFacts.com. His self-congratulatory column will appear here each Wednesday during football season. Send fawning praise, death threats or pictures of your 19-year-old sister to firstname.lastname@example.org.