They were in many ways the darlings-on-the-rise in the NFL, these Arizona Cardinals.
A high-scoring big-play offense led by a blunt 60-something coach with an unusual hat and a colorful vocabulary. Their 13-3 season in 2015 was chronicled in great detail by NFL Films for the “All or Nothing” series on Amazon.
“That was added attention that you don’t normally have,” coach Bruce Arians said, “to have a season documented when it was as special as that one was I think added to the expectations. But we don’t ever shy away from the expectations.”
They were a group of likable personalities and nearly all of them were back this season.
Every player who gained a yard or scored a point for the No. 1 offense in the NFL last season returned. Players embraced the highest of expectations.
Then the whole thing fell flat.
The Cardinals enter the bye week, the halfway mark of their season at 3-4-1, facing an uphill climb to even make the playoffs.
“It is shocking,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said, “As a team, we have to find a way to get out of this hole.”
Arizona has gone from one of the favorites to one of the league’s biggest disappointments.
“I’ve been through a hell of a lot worse,” Arians said. “This is just another challenge. I love it when we’re the underdog. That’s the easiest coaching in the world.”
The fans are grumbling and inside linebacker Kevin Minter said it’s up to the players to band together and turn things around.
“Regardless of the noise outside of the locker room it’s really about us,” Minter said. “Obviously we didn’t do what we wanted to do. We feel like we underachieved as well.
“But at the same time there’s a lot of ball left. There’s still a chance for us to get hot. I would say to the people who give up on us that we haven’t given up on ourselves. If you’re a bandwagon fan, good riddance.”
The offense is ranked 10th in the NFL at 374.4 yards per game, 30 yards fewer than a season ago. The big plays have been few and far between. The Cardinals are 24th in the NFL at 6.4 yards per pass attempt.
Carson Palmer set a franchise record with 35 touchdown passes last season. Halfway through this season, he has 10.
Defenses are scheming to take away the long throws that were Arizona’s trademark. Sometimes Palmer has underthrown receivers. Sometimes the receivers have been to blame.
And the personality of the offense has changed around dynamic second-year running back David Johnson. Johnson has topped 100 yards per scrimmage in every game and leads the NFL in that category (1,112). He was the NFC offensive player of the month for November.
But the offense has been slow to start. The team has scored in the first quarter only once in eight games. Two trips to the East have been ugly — one-sided losses at Buffalo and Carolina.
Yet, had Chandler Catanzaro not missed two game-ending field goals, one against New England in the opener and the other, most memorably, a 24-yarder in overtime against Seattle, Arizona would be 5-3.
Statistically, the Cardinals’ defense has been outstanding. They lead the NFL in allowing 297 yards per game.
But there have been costly breakdowns. Now the team will be without do-everything defensive back Tyrann Mathieu for up to five weeks with a shoulder injury.
Left tackle Jared Veldheer, the anchor of the offensive line, is out for the season with a torn triceps, with little-used John Wetzel stepping in. The team already had lost right guard Evan Mathis for the season with an ankle injury.
Palmer had his best passing game of the season in the 30-20 loss to Carolina, but was sacked eight times.
And the schedule is rough. After a home game against San Francisco next Sunday, the Cardinals play at Minnesota and Atlanta.
Five of Arizona’s final seven are on the road, including a Dec. 24 game at Seattle in a rematch of teams that played to that bizarre 6-6 tie.
At 4-2-1, the Seahawks aren’t running away with the NFC West. That offers the Cardinals a whiff of hope. There also is a pack of teams just ahead of them in the wild-card race.
“For us to kind of still be in it with the record we have is a blessing,” Minter said. “We can still be the top seed out of this division. So don’t give up on us. That’s all I have to say.”