Sunday, February 15, 2009

Best Cardinals Of My Fandom Team - Part 1

I recently saw where someone had constructed a roster of the greatest Chicago/St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals of all time. I don't know my Cardinals history well enough to have a prayer of doing that, but I figured I could construct a starting 22 from the years I've been a fan (1993-2008). Today is going to focus on the offensive "skill" position players. That's somewhat rude isn't it, to imply offensive linemen aren't skilled? By the by, if anyone knows of any sites that have data evaluating individual O-linemen going back to the early '90s, I'd appreciate the heads-up. I'm having a heck of a time picking those fellows. It's hard to describe my criteria. Longevity is part of it, as is exceptional performance (Pro Bowls, 1st team All-Pro, big time stats). Playoff success can also factor in. Any playoff statistics are listed separately from regular season production. Any discussion of where a player ranks in a statistical category will refer to the 93-08 time period, unless otherwise specified.

For the record, I'm going with a 1 RB/1 FB/1 TE/2 WR set offense.

Quarterback - Kurt Warner, 2005-2008; regular season record, 17-25; playoff record, 3-1.

Regular season: 1032-1592 (64.8%), 12090 yds, 74/44 TD/INT, QB rating - 91.72.

Postseason stats: 92-135 (68%), 1147, 11/3, QB rating - 112.18.

This was an extremely easy choice. If I had done this after the 2007 season, the choice would have been just as obvious, but it would have been a different QB. Namely Jake Plummer. Jake had been the primary starter for 6 years, Warner for just 2 (out of 3 seasons). Jake had 3 times as many starts (82 - 26) and a better record (30-52 vs. 8-18). He had more completions, attempts, yards, TDs (and cough, INTs), plus he lead Arizona to the franchise's 1st playoff victory in 50 years. Warner did have a superior completion percentage, TD/INT ratio, and QB rating, but he also had a worse record than the 2 QBs closest to him in # of starts, Steve Beuerlein (9-12) and Josh McCown (10-12). One year later, and Warner's lead the team to its first championship game in 60 years, he has the superior record now (40.5 win %, improving to 43.5 with postseason included, Jake's was 36.6 regular season, 36.9 overall), he's closed the gap in attempts, completions, yards and TDs, while maintaining (or improving) his lead in the aforementioned rate stats. Plummer does crush Warner in rushing yards, 1182 to 41, so he has that going for him.

I really liked Jake Plummer. He provided the first real glimmer of hope for the team since I had become a fan. I think he took too much blame for the team's failures, but I can't pick him over Warner at this point. Even if Warner falls on his face the next couple of season, like Jake did after '98 (assuming Kurt even comes back), I think Warner would have a solid hold on the position.

Honorable mention: Jake Plummer (regular season, 1540-2753, 17622, 90/114, 69.01; playoffs, 42-77, 455, 2/4, 59.17)

Running back - Edgerrin James, 2006-2008

Regular season: 45 games, 40 starts; 794 carries, 2897 yds (3.64 yds/carry), 16 TDs; 74 rec., 506 yds (6.84 yds/rec), 0 TDs

Playoffs: 4 games, 4 starts; 61, 236 (3.87), 1; 7, 62 (8.86), 0

I've been back and forth over this one, but ultimately James has raw numbers no one can match. The next nearest Cardinal is Marcel Shipp, and he's 190 carries, 700 yards, and 5 TDs behind James, and he's the one I debated choosing instead. Shipp's numbers suffer because the team kept forcing him to retake the starting job from whichever running back they'd wasted a high draft pick (Thomas Jones, J.J. Arrington) or free agent contract (Emmitt Smith) on. The 3 years Shipp lead the team in rushing (tied w/James for most over the timespan) he played in 46 games, but only started 28 games. It seems like just once he could win out over the more highly touted RB. Still, the fact remains, James is the only Cardinal to record 2 1,000 yard rushing seasons, and the only one to get over 1,100 yards. And, even if his rush average is an unimpressive 3.65 yds/carry, it still beats Shipp's (3.63).

Honorable mention: Marcel Shipp (605 carries, 2197 yds (3.63), 11 TDs), Michael Pittman (518, 1945 (3.76), 11), Ron Moore (552, 1973 (3.57), 13).

Fullback - Larry Centers, 1993-1998

Regular season: 95 games, 64 starts; 466 carries, 1553 yds (3.33 yds/carry), 1 TD; 466 rec, 3946 yds (8.47 yds/rec), 17 TDs

Playoffs: 2 games, 2 starts; 3 carries, 5 yds (1.67), 0 TDs; 9 rec, 61 yds (6.78), 1 TD

No contest. Technically, it should be even less of a contest, since Centers was on the team for 3 years before I started following them, so those stats aren't even included in his totals above. With those, he's #1 in receptions in all of franchise history, not just the last 16 years. He was a two-time Pro Bowler. Between 1995 and 1996, he caught a total of 200 passes. Over the course of the 6 seasons, he averaged 155 touches, 917 yards, and 3 TDs total, which is not too shabby for a fullback. The most total yards by any other FB is 654, so yeah, it's Larry Centers, standing alone on the mountain top. Plus, his excellent receiving abilities make up for Edge's less than superb skills in that area.

Honorable mention: No one really merits it.

Tight End - Freddie Jones, 2002-2004

Regular season: 48 games, 47 starts; 144 receptions, 1301 yards (9.03 yds/rec), 6 TDs

Another no-doubter. The only question here was whether I'd be better off selecting 3 WRs and 0 TEs, since the Cardinals apparently don't find tight ends to be of much use. No other TE has half the catches or half the yards as Jones. Jones even lead the team in receptions in 2002. Of course, he lead with 44 catches, because none of their wide receivers could stay healthy for more than 12 games. So it was more leading by default than anything else.

Honorable mention: Chris Gedney (regular season, 55, 607 (11.04), 5; playoffs, 3, 23 (7.67), 0), I guess

Wide receiver - Anquan Boldin, 2003-2008; Larry Fitzgerald, 2004-2008

Regular season - Boldin: 80 games, 78 starts; 502 rec, 6496 yds (12.94yds/rec), 40 TDs; 33 carries, 197 yds (5.97 yds/carry), 0 TDs. Fitzgerald: 76 games, 76 starts; 426 rec, 5975 yds (14.03 yds/rec), 46 TDs; 8 carries, 14 yds (1.75 yds/carry), 0 TDs.

Playoffs - Boldin: 3 games, 3 starts; 14 rec, 190 (13.57), 1 TD. Fitzgerald: 4 games, 4 starts; 30 rec, 546 yds (18.2), 7 TDs.

And this is where it gets tricky. See, it boils down to Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Frank Sanders. Boldin has the receptions, Fitzgerald the touchdowns, and Sanders the yardage. Sanders also has the longevity, but Boldin and Fitz have the Pro Bowls (3 Pro Bowls for each, 1 1st team All-Pro for Fitz). Fitzgerald also had that crazy postseason performance. Fitzgerald has lead the team in yards 4 times, Boldin and Sanders twice each. Fitzgerald and Boldin have better per game averages in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, but they've also played with Kurt Warner for much of their careers (though also Jeff Blake, Josh McCown, Shaun King, John Navarre, and Matt Leinart), while Jake Plummer was the best QB Sanders ever had throwing to him (the others being Stoney Case, Mike Buck, Dave Brown, McCown, Chris Griesen, Kent Graham, Dave Krieg at 900 years old and Boomer Esiason at roughly 825 years old). On the other hand, the Cards' running game was actually slightly better during Sanders' tenure (ranked 25.375 out of 30.675 on average from '95-'02, vs. 29 out of 32 from '03-'08). While that explains part of the increased passing, it should also make the throwing harder, since there's less semblance of balance for the defense to consider.

Part of me wants to make the argument that given Boldin's unhappiness over the disparity between his and Fitzgerald's contract, I should go with Sanders, since he never seemed to cause problems. Then again, Boldin came back from a broken face in like 3 weeks, so that toughness has to count for something, right? In the end, I can't shake the feeling that while Sanders was good, he was never really #1 wideout material, he just got placed in that position by injuries or double-teams to other wideouts. Correctly or not, I think of Boldin as a guy who can be a #1, since he's had a couple of seasons where he's been basically keeping pace with Fitzgerald. It's not an answer I'm totally satisfied with, but it's the best I've got.

Honorable mention: Frank Sanders (regular season, 493, 6579 (13.35), 24; playoffs, 7, 102 (14.57), 0)

Well, that's it for the "skill" position players. I don't know when the next segment will go up. Probably whenever I can come up with some decision about the offensive line. I know who the left tackle is, at least.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Looking To The Future

Probably too soon for this, but all the teams have started preparing for next year, so I guess I can as well. While I really would have liked for Arizona to win the Super Bowl, they certainly gave me more this year than I was expecting. The trick now is whether they can build on it. Recent trends suggest they can't, since only 1 out of the last eight teams to lose the Super Bowl even made the playoffs the next year*.

It's a real concern for me, because the last time the Cardinals made the playoffs, people were predicting it could be the start of something, only to have the Cardinals go 6-10 in 1999, as everything went to hell. That team didn't seem to address the flaws they had, and also seemed to allow new ones to open up. A quick review:

- They allowed Lomas Brown, their best offensive lineman, and the man responsible for guarding Jake Plummer's blindside**, to leave as a free agent. He was replaced by one of their 2 first round draft picks that year, L.J. Shelton. Now Brown was in his late 30s, so he was due to decline, but I question the wisdom of assigning a rookie the task of keeping Strahan off your QB twice a year. Not to mention Jim Johnson's Eagle defense.

- They let Larry Centers leave in free agency. Centers is only the #1 pass receiver (in catches) in franchise history, and a valuable safety valve for Jake, so he doesn't feel so compelled to heave the ball downfield into heavy coverage. Centers was replaced by another rookie, Joel Makovicka, who was essentially another O-lineman. He was certainly not a runner or receiver***. As best I can figure, the Cardinals wanted a more physical running game, ignoring the fact their primary back, Adrian Murrell was more of a cutback runner, as opposed to a big, punishing type of running back.

- They let outside linebacker Jamir Miller leave in free agency as well. Miller was primarily a pass-rushing, run-stuffing linebacker, whom they replaced with Rob Frederickson, whose strength was pass defense.

Now beyond that, they were hampered by injuries, some unforseen (WR Rob Moore blew out his Achillies ina preseason game), some predictable (Eric Swann got hurt? Again? Shock!), draft picks that didn't pan out (Shelton and Anthony Clement, meant to be massive tackles, never became what the team hoped, Andre Wadsworth was certainly not the next Bruce Smith, Johnny Rutledge never broke through as a LB), but it doesn't feel as though that team made the necessary steps to shore up their team, or fix the gaps that were present.

So what faces the 2009 Cardinals? As I udnerstand it, the Cards have only 37 players under contract for next year, which means a lot of free agents, including Warner, Karlos Dansby, J.J. Arrington, DE Antonio Smith, and Betrand Berry. Plus you have the possibility of needing to get Adrian Wilson a contract extension, and Edge James wanting to go elsewhere, and Anquan Boldin wanting a new contract. Some of the players will be back, some will be replaced by other free agents (the Ravens' Terrell Suggs supposedly would like to go to Arizona), and some spots are going to be filled by draft picks. This is the first offseason in awhile where I'm actually very curious to see what they do. Who they retain, who they bid farewell to, if they cut players still under contract to open up more space (though they supposedly have about $40 million under the cap currently).

Offhand, the O-line almost certainly needs work. If you're going to bank on Warner, then pass protection needs to be as strong as you can make it. or conversely, I guess you could emphasize run blockers, and try and improve the running game so Kurt doesn't need ot throw so often. Hoepfully you find linemen proficient at both. I'd say the secondary could use some help, tight end and running back as well. The Cardinals have several tight ends, but none of them really seem well-rounded, except for Stephen Spach, who was injured against Carolina and wasn't seen again. I have no clue if he's viable for next year.

* Without bothering to check, I'm guessing it was the 2006 Seahawks.

** It's worth mentioning that after the '98 season, management gave Jake a 4 year, $28 million contract, with a $15 million signing bonus. How much cap space that swallowed, I don't know, but you'd think keeping that investment upright would be a priority.

*** In 4 seasons (1999-2002), Makovicka rushed a total of 17 times, and caught 47 passes. Centers, just in the six years I had been watching the team (1993-1998), carried the ball 469 times, and caught 475 passes.
I guess they planned for those catches and carries to go to running backs, but I'm not sure it did.