Monday, December 30, 2013

Nice Try, Little Cardinal

It didn't wind up mattering, not with Tampa being blown out by the Saints, or Atlanta suffering a very Arizona-type loss last Monday night, but Arizona lost to the Niners 23-20. For some reason, the Cardinals thought it would be a good idea to spot the Niners a 17-point lead.

You'd think they would have learned from their last loss, against Philly, when they spotted the Eagles a 10 point lead. You can get away with that crap against the Jacksonville's of the world, but not actual good teams. And sure enough, Arizona, despite an impressive comeback that saw them tie the game at 17, then again at 20, wound up losing. Arizona lost the turnover battle, with Palmer throwing a pick and Mendenhall fumbling, while San Francisco committed no turnovers. It's only the second time all year Arizona failed to force a turnover, the other occasion being, you guessed it, the loss to Philadelphia.

Depending on which metric you use, Palmer may still have out-played Kaepernick. Quarterback rating leans heavily to Kaepernick, 111.2 to 89.4. ESPN's QBR actually gives the nod to Palmer, 73.8 to 68.6. Even beyond the fact the Niners won, I'd be inclined to give it to Kaepernick. He didn't turn the ball over, averaged 9.1 yards per attempt, and scrambled for an additional 24 yards. He was sacked twice, and I guess QBR is penalizing him for not accomplishing much in the middle of the game. After all, San Fran scored 17 points in the first quarter, then didn't accomplish doodley-squat until the last 2 minutes of the game.

Anyway, Palmer finishes 10-6, though he can hardly claim sole credit for those wins. Most of the losses are his, though. Even so, that makes him just the second Arizona QB with a winning record since I've followed them, and Palmer is at least considerably better than Jay Schroeder. Still, 22 INTs is unacceptable. Maybe he'd be better with another full year in Arians' system, especially if Arizona could upgrade the offensive line. But the persistent problem is he doesn't play that well against good teams. Or maybe it's more accurate to say he plays poorly to start against good teams, then rebounds later in the game. After he's put his team in a big hole. This week for example, the earlier loss to the Niners, last week against Seattle, the Eagles game. I'm not asking for him to come out and score two TDs each week in the first quarter - though that'd be swell - but at least stop shooting the team in the foot with turnovers. Arizona's defense was 6th in turnovers, but Arizona's 17th in turnover differential (at -1) in large part because of Palmer.

Mendenhall and Ellington both fell short of 700 yards rushing this year, as Arizona as a team had only 83 yards on 22 carries. Still beats San Francisco's 83 yards on 23 carries. Yeah, take that, Niners. Arizona had a whole 0.2 yards more per carry. If Mendenhall's going to be around next year, hopefully Arians puts his brain in gear and switches the number of touches the two backs get. Mendenhall averaged 15.7 touches, producing 54.7 yards. Ellington averaged 10.5 touches, netting 68.2 yards. Yeah, might want to get the productive back more touches next year.

Arizona might also want to upgrade their special teams. Feely missed 4 field goals from inside 40 yards, so maybe my confidence in him is misplaced. Or maybe it's just a bad stretch. I'm more concerned with their coverage and return units. Especially the return units. Peterson only averaged 6 yards per punt return, and Javier Arenas just 21.4 yards on kick returns. I don't know if that's down to the two of them, or if Arizona needs to work harder on blocking to open up lanes, but it needs to improve. The offense can use every bit of help it can get.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Holy Crap, Cardinals

Arizona went into Seattle and beat the Seahawks 17-10. It wasn't pretty; Palmer threw 4 INTs - two in the end zone - and had less than 200 yards passing. 6 of Arizona's 16 first downs were off Seattle penalties. Arizona may have gotten some favorable calls on a possible Mendenhall fumble and that interception Wilson threw. In both cases, if the refs' initial ruling had been different - meaning, that Mendenhall did fumble, or the pick bounced off the ground and not Baldwin's arm - those rulings likely would have stood. But the initial rulings were different, and they went in Arizona's favor.

Which isn't to take away from Arizona's victory. They earned that win. Seattle has a heck of a defense - just look at those stats I mentioned above, then throw in Arizona's 6-for-19 on 3rd down -  but Arizona's defense bested them. Handily.

Arizona only had 16 first downs? Seattle had 10. Arizona goes 6-19 on 3rd down? Seattle was 2-13. Arizona manages 307 yards of offense, at 4.4 yards per play? Seattle only gets 192 yards, at 3.8 yards per play. Seattle sacked Palmer twice? Arizona got Russell Wilson 4 times. Arizona gave up 60 yards on 11 carries to Marshawn Lynch in the first half, then held him to 11 yards on 7 carries in the second half. And they enjoyed some Skittles on the sidelines. Sorry, Beast Mode.

Arizona's offense wasn't entirely useless, either. They ran the ball 43 times for 139 yards, which helps explain why Arizona won time of possession by almost 15 minutes. Much like last week, the yardage was split fairly evenly. Mendenhall had 63 yards on 21 carries, Andre Ellington had 64 on 15. I know the Cardinals aren't going have a 1,000 yard back this season, but they have 2 guys each with an outside chance at 700 yards, which isn't too shabby.

And I need to give a nice nod to the special teams. Jay Feely's been killing it all year (I think he's missed one field goal, and had another blocked), added 3 more FGs yesterday. Dave Zastudil averaged 49 yards per punt, and had 3 of them downed inside the 20. That helps a defense out a lot, when the other team has to march a long way against them to score. It's why I get so frustrated when the offense turns the ball over in their own territory, because it puts the squeeze on the defense. And Justin Bethel recovered a fumble for Arizona. Glad he's in there, making plays.

Unfortunately, Carolina beat New Orleans. I don't have anything against the Panthers; but Arizona had a tie-breaker over them and not the Saints. So it was in the Cardinals' favor for the Panthers to lose, where the Arizona could edge them out for a wild card. Now Arizona, in addition to needing to beat the 49ers next week, need either for the Niners to lose to Atlanta tonight, or for the Saints to blow it against Tampa next week. Both the Saints and the 49ers will be at home for those games, so that's a tall order.

It won't mean anything if Arizona can't beat San Francisco, though, which I'm sure will be a tall order. The Niners have an outside shot at the division now, so they'll be fired up. Arizona let Vernon Davis go for 180 yards last time, and now the Niners have Patrick Peterson's personal Kryptonite, Michael Crabtree, back in action.

But at least there's a chance.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Cardinal Narrowly Escapes The Jaws of Death

You know how last week I said the problem with facing a QB who was just good enough for his team to almost win, is it only takes a few fortunate happenstances for him to win? I didn't expect Arizona to do their best to prove my point.

Arizona pissed away a 34-17 lead in about 3 minutes, then managed to pull it out in overtime, 37-34. The Titans accumulated 32 first downs, 460 yards of offense. Fitzpatrick went 36-58 for 402 yards (394 once you subtract the yards lost on his 3 sacks). He threw 4 TDs, but also 2 INTs, including the one that gave Arizona the ball in OT.

I had thought perhaps Arizona looked past Tennessee, to the trip to Seattle this week, but it seems it was more a matter of the defense being unsettled since Mathieu's injury. That's apparently turned the secondary upside-down, and they spent most of this game blowing assignments and leaving guys uncovered. If they're going to have any chance against the Seahawks, they better get things sorted quickly. Russell Wilson is a lot better than Ryan Fitzpatrick.

I saw someone say the offense bailed the defense out on this one. While that would certainly be a nice change of pace, I'm not sure how accurate that is. Arizona lost time of possession by three minutes, was out-gained by 100 yards and 8 first downs. The offense did avoid any turnovers, and Andre Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall combined for 140 yards on the ground. Ellington got his 71 yards on 10 carries, Mendenhall needed 21 carries for just 69 yards, which is largely in keeping with their respective performances up to this point.

This was a good game for the offense, don't get me wrong, but I wouldn't say they won the game exactly. 360 yards of offense isn't that good, and the defense still had to force 3 turnovers and score a touchdown of their own (Antoine Cason returned an INT to the house) to pull this game out.

Either way, both sides of the ball are going to have to up their game, which might be harder for the offense than the defense. Larry Fitzgerald was concussed during the game, so there's no telling whether he'll be good to go this weekend. I would totally understand if Fitz doesn't want to go, because brain trauma is nothing to sneeze at. I hope he can play, though. If Arizona has any hope in Seattle, they need to attack the Seahawks' secondary, which I'm pretty sure is still without some of their cornerbacks. Not having Fitzgerald would seriously impair their ability to do that.

But it may be moot. Larry would have to be medically cleared, and feel confident enough in himself to play. And even then, you could hardly pick Arizona to win. Seattle is the best team in the NFL right now, and even better at home. Arizona's good, but that's a steep order, Fitzgerald or no.

But Arizona pretty much has to win this game to have any hope of making the playoffs. Even though one of New Orleans or Carolina is sure to lose this week, the Cardinals have to win to tie them (and the Saints would have the tie-breaker over the Cards, while the Panthers wouldn't). And I wouldn't bet on San Francisco losing to the Falcons. Arizona has to keep winning.


Monday, December 09, 2013

Welcome A Cardinal Back To The Mad Playoff Rush

Arizona crushed the Rams 30-10 yesterday, moving to 8-5 on the season. Carson Palmer didn't practice this week, due to a sore elbow, but he played really well. 27-32, 269 yards, 1 TD. No INTs, no fumbles, only sacked once. Considering how Robert Quinn practically set up residence in Arizona's backfield in Week 1, major kudos to the O-line. Or the coaching staff. Or both. Palmer seems to have stuck to mostly short passes - Fitzgerald had 12 catches, but only 96 yards - which could have been an acknowledgement of either his elbow, or the the Ram's pass rush.

Arizona ran the ball 32 times. Only for 107 yards, but the commitment to the run is encouraging. Keeps the pressure off Palmer. Between rushes and catches, Andre Ellington had 13 touches for 63 yards and a TD. Nice to see him back in the lineup.

The defense did its usual fine job, outside of that one 56 yard run by Tavon Austin. Besides that, the Rams had 44 yards on 18 carries. I'll take that. They sacked Kellen Clemens 4 times, including a safety by John Abraham, and intercepted him twice, with Karlos Dansby returning his for a TD. That's 2 TDs in the last 3 games for Karlos. Anyway, the Rams had 257 yards of total offense, and the lost 90 yards on penalties. Arizona lost only 31, though there's video evidence of Darnell Dockett stomping on the hand of a Ram. That'll draw a fine, maybe a suspension depending on how Goodell's feeling. I wouldn't expect a suspension, but you can't tell with the Ginger Hammer.

The defense did get some bad news, as Tyrann Mathieu may have torn his ACL. If they thought it was that bad an injury on the field, I doubt it'll turn out to be something he can come back from before season's end. This stinks. Mathieu made a few mistakes, but there was real promise, and I'm not sure how many safeties can also be their team's nickel cornerback. I'm not sure what this means for Arizona's secondary. Rashad Johnson takes over at safety, I guess, but I'm not sure who the third CB is now. I feel bad for Mathieu, who I feel like got a bad rap because of how things went at LSU. So he smoked some pot, big whoop. Hardly seems like an offense worthy of being booted from the team, but Les Miles is a man known for questionable decision making skills, so perhaps no surprise he did so again. Anyway, to whatever extent things were going wrong in Mathieu's life, he seemed to be doing fine, his career was off to a good start, and now this.

At this stage, Arizona's still on the outside of the playoff picture. Let's say Dallas wins tonight. No guarantee, given Dallas' defense, but the Bears' run defense is even more pitiful, so let's work from that assumption. That puts Dallas in the lead for the NFC East, because they beat Philly the one time the teams played so far. Which makes Philly 7th in the seeding, ahead of Arizona because they beat the Cards last week. Carolina and the 49ers would be the two wild cards.

I would say what the Cardinals need is for one of the two East teams to collapse, allowing the other to win the division, while ensuring Arizona has a better record than the collapsing team. Given Dallas' D, and their past history of December swoons, they're the more likely candidate. Plus, if Philly's winning the division, their tiebreaker over Arizona is irrelevant.

The other thing is for either Carolina or San Fran to go into a swoon. The Panthers still have a game against the Saints, although it's in Carolina. But if Arizona can keep winning, they only need to make up one win. Then they have the same record as the Panthers, and Arizona has the tiebreaker over Carolina, from curbstomping them back before the Panthers started their winning streak. The Cardinals do get to play the Niners, so they could actively shape their fate there. But that game isn't until Week 17. It may be too late by then.

And none of it will matter if Arizona loses to the Titans next week. That's the closest thing to a gimmie the Cards have left on their schedule, and it's no cakewalk. The Titans gave the Broncos all they could handle for a half, and that was in Denver. Arizona has to go on the road to play the Titans. Granted, Arizona's defense is considerably better than Denver's, but the gap between Arizona and Denver's offenses might be even larger. I joke about Ryan Fitzpatrick, that's he just good enough so his teams lose close, but not good enough to win. Problem is, if you're a good enough QB to keep your team close, then all it takes is a fortunate bounce or bad call by the refs to take the team the rest of the way. So I'm concerned. Arizona's not nearly good enough to consider this a sure thing.

Still, them having a chance to make the playoffs, and for the offense to be actively helping it happen, is more than I might have expected at the beginning of the season.


Friday, December 06, 2013

Checking In With The Other Cardinals

I thought I'd look in on what the St. Louis Cardinals had been up to a few times during the offseason, but they may have taken care of all their needs already. There are three moves of note, and I'll take them in turn.

1) Cards make Carlos Beltran a qualifying offer. It was for 1 year, $14 million, and Beltran turned it down. Wisely, since there appear to be teams willing to pay him 14 million for multiple seasons. The Cardinals, wisely, are not one of those teams. Beltran's going to be 37 next year, and his value is entirely tied up in his bat at this point. He's lost the speed that made him a superb base-runner, and good arm or not, he's a real defensive liability in the outfield. I don't forsee either of those problems going away as he gets even older, which puts more pressure on his bat, and well, Carlos' bat shows a tendency to flag as the season progresses. In 2013, his first half OPS was .879; the second half was .758. In 2012 the first half OPS was .924; .742 in the second half. In both seasons, his slugging percentage dropped by over 100 points in the second half. This year, he went from 13 doubles and 19 HRs, to 17 and 5. A Carlos Beltran who posts above or near a .900 OPS, is probably worth committing to for multiple seasons. One who posts a mid-700s OPS is not.

It seems likely Allen Craig will take over in RF next season. I'm not sure how well that will go. I expect he will hit, but historically, his defense numbers in the outfield have been worse than Beltran's. Now that he's had a Lisfranc fracture in his foot, on top of that knee injury from a couple seasons ago, I don't expect that will improve. The Cardinals do have defensive options, though, if they're willing to take them.

2). Trade David Freese, Fernando Salas for Peter Bourjos and Randall Grichuk. A lot of people are touting this as a clear win for the Cardinals, and I certainly hope they're right. But both teams tried trading from a position of strength, to address a weakness, by essentially swapping players with injury-plagued careers. Th Cards figured they didn't need Freese because of Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong, and the Angels needed a 3rd baseman. The Angels don't need Bourjos' spectacular CF defense because they have Mike Trout; the Cards had a horrible outfield defense.

When Mozeliak announced the trade, he made it sound a forgone conclusion that Bourjos is the new starting centerfielder. Matheny was less certain of that, and it sounds like Jay is going to have the chance to earn the job in Spring Training, which is probably the right thing to do for a guy who has been the starter the last 2 seasons, and who you hope will be a valuable bench player if he isn't the starter. Whether they have a Tony LaRussa style "open competition", where the winner is pre-ordained, or an actual competition is yet to be seen.

Of course, even if Bourjos wins the job, he has to stay healthy, and in that regard, he's even worse than Freese. Both have been regulars in the majors for 4 seasons now. Freese has never had less than 270 plate appearances in a season, and has over 500 each of the last 2 years. Bourjos has topped 200 plate appearances exactly once, in 2011 when he collected over 500 PAs. The rest of the time, he's struggled with hamstring issues (bad for a guy banking on defense and speed for most of his value), and injuries to his wrist from being hit with pitches (which hasn't one his offense any good). Bourjos' hitting fluctuates wildly from year to year: his seasonal OPS+ go 69, 116, 72, 102. Overall, he a slightly below average (98) hitter, but that's a lot of variation. He doesn't walk much (about 5.5% of the time), and his power has dropped. In 2011, his ISO was 167, the last two years it's been 95 and 103. That's probably a function of the wrist injuries, but the question is, can he regain some of that power as he distances himself from those injuries, or is it gone forever?

Because if he can get that power back, well, it's worth noting that in 2011, Baseball-Reference has him listed as being worth over 5 wins. The only Cardinals that beat that in 2013 were Matt Carpenter, Wainwright, and Molina. And he only turns 27 this season, so if the injuries haven't killed his swing entirely, he still has some peak years ahead of him. That is one definite edge the Cardinals have, that Bourjos is still in his peak years, while Freese has already entered his 30s.

The reason I like this trade is because it improves the Cardinals defensively at 3 positions. Kolten Wong is better than Carpenter at 2nd, Carpenter beats Freese at 3rd, Bourjos beats Jay in CF. Last year may have been an aberration defensively for Jay and Freese (they've typically been about average, maybe a little better), but even if they returned to those levels, Carp/Bourjos still beats it. Assuming Bourjos stays healthy. And he adds some speed to the mix, along with the defense! These are two of my favorite things!

It might be risky to count on Wong to hold down 2nd, but I'm more encouraged by his impressive hitting in AAA over an entire season, than 60 PAs in the majors. Matt Carpenter got a brief call-up early in 2011 (because Freese was hurt), and had 1 hit in 19 PAs (also 4 BBs and 4 Ks). The Cardinals didn't give up on him, and look where he is now. Matt Adams posted a .669 OPS in 91 PAs in 2012. This year, given 319 PAs, it was .839. If you can really hit in AAA (and Wong posted an .835 OPS in a pitcher's environment there this year), you can probably handle the majors all right.

I hope so, anyway. I would really like St. Louis to start an actual second baseman at 2nd, not an outfielder or 3rd baseman. They haven't done so for an entire season since Adam Kennedy in 2008. The fact Wong's supposed to be above-average defensively, and a smart, if not blazingly fast baserunner, doesn't hurt. Put him and Bourjos in the 7th and 8th spots, see if they can get on and start wreaking havoc before the top of the lineup comes along.

Oh, about Salas and Grichuk. That's fine. Salas was going to be hard-pressed to even make the major league club, with all the young arms, so it's more dealing from a surplus. As for Grichuk, he's most likely a corner outfielder, with a lot of power, but little plate discipline. In 5 seasons in the minors (though he's only 22), he's collected 80 walks and 353 strikeouts. In 1855 PAs, so a 4.3% BB rate, and a 19% K rate. The Cardinals already have several promising corner outfielders, but he could always be a decent throw-in prospect in a trade, or maybe he could turn into something useful, if he can learn to take some walks, stop swinging at everything. His K rate was down below 17% this year in AA, so maybe it's coming together?

3). Sign Jhonny Peralta to a 4 year, $52 million contract. I'm reasonably OK with this answer to the SS problem. The Cardinals wanted to get a new SS without surrendering prospects or a draft pick, and Peralta was the only answer that fit those criteria. Stephen Drew was the only other free agent worth the time, and since Boston made him a qualifying offer, he would have cost them a draft pick. I know Drew's a year younger, but I'm not sure he would have been a significantly better option. Once you adjust for Drew spending almost his entire career in hitters' parks, he's actually a worse hitter than Peralta. While Peralta does run the risk of being gone for 100 games if he gets in PED trouble again, Drew has missed over 200 games the last two seasons. He might not be as injury-prone as his big brother J.D., but it's close. It looks like both are basically average defensively, so either would be a drop off from Kozma, with the glove, while more than making up for it in their edge with the bat. Even so, they look like roughly average players, worth 2-3 wins in a given season.

The nice thing is, that still represents a 2-3 win improvement over what StL got from SS this year. It was the only position the Cardinals could significantly improve relatively easily. They could, for example, find someone 2 wins better than Holliday to man LF, but then you're talking around a 5-win player. Those aren't that plentiful, or cheap.

The Cardinals opted for a front-loaded contract, paying Peralta 30 million the first 2 seasons. I've seen a few theories, that the Cardinals have more payroll space now than they will in a few seasons when all those young pitchers get pricey, or they figure Peralta won't be able to stay at SS in a few years. They know he can also play 2nd and 3rd, but they're hoping they won't need him for that (Carp and Wong), but an average 3rd or 2nd baseman making $10 million might be attractive to other teams as a trade target. But that's for the future.

Peralta's not the exciting choice, like Tulowitzki or Elvis Andrus (I have spent entirely too much time the last few days comparing Andrus' offensive numbers to Ozzie Smith's), but he also doesn't cost them Shelby Miller, Rosenthal, Matt Adams, etc. If he gets hurt (a real possibility for Tulo) then you've got nothing. Not the player, or all the guys you traded to get the player.

It's been a pretty good offseason. They upgraded their weakest position, and even if SS is worse a little defensively, upgrading the defense at the 2 positions on either side should mitigate that. The outfield defense is better, they've added speed, they have a lot of positional versatility. Multiple guys who can play infield positions, 4 solid outfielders you can mix-and-match to keep everybody healthy and rested. And they didn't really sacrifice any significant pitching depth to do any of it.


Monday, December 02, 2013

The Cardinal Ran Into An Eagle. Things Went Poorly

The winning streak was bound to end eventually, and Arizona lost to the Eagles 24-21.

I'm pinning this one on Palmer and the offensive line. The defense held the Eagles to just over 300 yards of offense. Lesean McCoy didn't break 80 yards rushing. The Eagles were 5-for-16 on third down, even worse than Arizona's 4-for-12 (guess last week's game was an aberration). They sacked Foles 5 times. Rashard Mendenhall ran for 76 yards on 18 carries.

But Palmer was also sacked 5 times, and he threw two interceptions, and he lost a fumble on the first drive, handing the Eagles the ball at Arizona's 25. I mentioned this last year, when they lost to the Packers, but it is much more frustrating to be able to watch the game as they're losing, than just seeing the score at the bottom of the screen. I saw the fumble and the resulting Philly touchdown. Then I watched Palmer throw a interception. Then I watched Peterson almost pick off Foles on that deep pass to the end zone, but Desean Jackson did a good job playing defense and swatted it away. Oh, I wanted that pick, especially when Philly scored a TD about 5 plays later.

At this point, Arizona's on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, and the real problem is two of the teams ahead of them - Philly and the 49ers - have beaten the Cards already, so they have tiebreakers. Arizona does have a tiebreaker over Carolina, but the Panthers would have to seriously stumble for that to come into play. The next game is against St. Louis, which the Cardinals can hopefully handle. They narrowly lost to the Rams in week 1, but that was in St. Louis, and the Rams had Sam Bradford. Granted, now the Rams have a running game, and Tavon Austin's become a serious threat, but I'm more worried about Arizona's offensive line holding up against the Rams' pass rushers. Robert Quinn had a field day against them in that first game.