The free agency effect

Posted by Darren Urban on June 9, 2011 – 4:13 pm

So I was looking over this article by Football Outsiders about the top 10 most disappointing NFL free agents of the past 25 years and it got me thinking about the Cardinals (although no, there are no Cards on the list). My first full free-agent offseason came in 2001, when the Cards — up against the salary cap — chose to sign Seattle guard Pete Kendall as their one big purchase, to team with center Mike Gruttadauria from the year before and first-rounder Leonard Davis to build the “Big Red Line.” Kendall, as always, was blunt; when he came in for his press conference and was asked, why the Cardinals, he said, “Because they paid me the most money.”

That’s usually how it goes.

The bottom line is that, occasionally, help comes via free agency. More often than not, you acquire the best players through the draft because, aside from a player here or there, there is a reason a team lets a player go. Usually it’s because they don’t see him being worth the money he commands on the open market. (Karlos Dansby? Maybe he was. Antrel Rolle? Probably not.) I would argue that, if you charted all the “bigger-name” free-agent signings in the NFL over the years, there would be more that underperformed to expectations rather than met them.

Anyway, you look back through the years and think about the “key” free agents the Cards signed. How many provided the impact that people thought they would provide the day they signed?

  • 2002 – CB Duane Starks, TE Freddie Jones
  • 2003 – QB Jeff Blake, RB Emmitt Smith, S Dexter Jackson
  • 2004 – DE Bertrand Berry (now this one was a real winner, even with Bertrand’s later injuries)
  • 2005 – DE Chike Okeafor, QB Kurt Warner (OK, that one turned out pretty well)
  • 2006 – RB Edgerrin James (Edge was actually pretty effective, but certainly not the star his contract said he should be)
  • 2007 – T Mike Gandy, C Al Johnson, CB Rod Hood (The Cards decide not to get FA “stars” under Whiz, just pieces to the puzzle).
  • 2008 – DE Travis LaBoy, NT Bryan Robinson
  • 2009 – CB Bryant McFadden
  • 2010 – QB Derek Anderson, LB Joey Porter, LB Paris Lenon, K Jay Feely

Certainly a mixed bag over the years. The biggest disappointment? No, I’m not going with Anderson — remember, he was signed to be Matt Leinart’s backup, so how much disappointment can there be? (Careful now …) I think I’d probably go with Duane Starks, who parlayed his spot in that great Ravens defense into the idea he could be a shutdown corner, which he wasn’t, especially on a team that sometimes used Fred Wakefield as the right defensive end (Fred was a great guy but didn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of quarterbacks). Realistically, Emmitt probably provided what everyone expected and so did Edgerrin, especially since he never seemed to fit Whisenhunt’s style (and was clearly at the end, which was proven out after the Cards let him go).

Berry, by far, was the best signing, based on his 2004 season alone. I would have loved to see what sack numbers he would have had if he hadn’t gotten hurt every year after that. UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Some of you want to know how I could ever pick Berry over Warner. The simple fact is that Berry, as a free-agent signee, impacted imemdiately. Warner’s time in Arizona didn’t come across that well until after a change in coaches. That was Warner’s third season as a Card by then. Am I splitting hairs? Maybe. But in the context of this discussion, it’s difficult to argue that, as a free agent coming in, Berry didn’t produce better than Warner.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Blog | 43 Comments »

A chat, Fitz, A-Dub and a towel in Belize

Posted by Darren Urban on June 8, 2011 – 2:38 pm

A few notes on a Wednesday afternoon, after pointing out I will be hosting a live chat (right here) tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. Arizona time (3:30 p.m. EST). I’ll go as long as there are questions to be asked. Anyway …

— Larry Fitzgerald is doing the interview rounds right now (looks like sponsor EAS is hooking him up with whomever wants to talk to him) and continuing to say he wants to stay in Arizona. This I absolutely believe, and, as I have previously mentioned, I do not believe money will be an issue. I believe he’ll get what he wants from the Cardinals. That said, I have to disagree with those who have said this leaves little wiggle room for Fitz (sorry, Dave Burns) because saying you want to stay and actually staying are absolutely two different things. He’d be saying the same things if the money was going to be an issue, which it won’t. In that case, he’d just say, “Well, I wanted to stay but the Cards didn’t pony up.” In this scenario, it’s the quarterback/offense that needs to be upgraded. I think that will happen, and I still think Fitz will remain a Cardinal. But until things are tweaked (and that can’t happen until the labor situation sorts itself out) Fitz’s future remains relatively vague regardless of his interviews.

— It’s been just about a year since we took a trip out to North Carolina and finally got a chance — after he had spent 10 years as a Cardinal — to tell the Adrian Wilson story. And put it to video (in two parts). Here in the dead of this offseason, a chance to re-visit it, if you hadn’t read/seen it already.

— Finally, staffer Scott Gavin just got back from a vacation in Belize (ask him about the night in the jungle hotel room with the bats, big brown spiders, cockroaches and, as a capper, the huge scorpion on the inside of the bed’s mosquito netting). One night on a cave tour, they met a girl from North Carolina who happened to bring a certain towel with her. Small world …

Tags: , ,
Posted in Blog | 6 Comments »

Wrapping up

Posted by Darren Urban on June 8, 2011 – 9:57 am

As we continue to search for things to ponder football-wise while hoping the current labor talks evolve into an end of the lockout, another Football Outsiders breakdown brings us the subject of broken tackles on the defensive side for 2010. The Cards had a handful of players show up on the list.

FO makes it clear — and this almost goes without saying — that charting broken tackles is an inexact science at the very least. It’s like charting dropped passes in many ways; it’s always going to be a judgement call and even then, it is usually debatable. So keep that in mind. They are also working off TV video that doesn’t always provide the best angles. You have to take it for what it is worth. For instance, they have safety Adrian Wilson allowing a player to get away 16 times in 2010. That may or may not be totally exact, but they point out they only charted him with two such broken tackles in 2009, so it is the swing in statistics that is noteworthy.

Obviously, the Cards’ defense had it’s ups and downs in 2010. Realistically, given the talent level on all teams in the NFL, good and bad, it’s usually stuff like this — missed tackles, mental mistakes — that separate success and failure, moreso than a massive gap in talent (and why coach Ken Whisenhunt wanted to see his a handful or normally quality defenders be able to up their play in 2011 from 2010). Football Outsiders counted 28 defenders across the NFL with at least 10 broken tackles last season; four were Cards — Wilson, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (10), safety Kerry Rhodes (11) and linebacker Paris Lenon (14). If you have a shot to bring a guy down, you need to bring him down.

The other part of this study is how the percentages fall. FO bases their percentages on total tackles. I am not sure if they chart broken tackles via their own study or by NFL gamebook, but the totals are, not surprisingly, different than the coaches’ tallies that the Cardinals (and every team, for that matter) release.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Blog | 6 Comments »

Revisionist History: Boomer’s 522-yard day

Posted by Darren Urban on June 7, 2011 – 4:13 pm

The latest in a series of offseason posts looking back:

Back in 1996, the Cards – again – were searching for a quarterback.

Vince Tobin had taken over for Buddy Ryan as coach, and the Cards cleaned house at the most important position. They signed Kent Graham, who had limited experience in his first three seasons with the New York Giants. And for their other option, they also plucked a New York QB – Jets castoff Boomer Esiason, who seemed to be on his last legs after a stellar career with the Bengals and Jets.

Indeed, Esiason didn’t show enough to stay on the field, losing the first three starts and his job to Graham. Graham played decently as a starter but then hurt his knee. Esiason was back in the lineup, and for a brief time, he recaptured some of his previous magic. None more than an early November game in Washington, when the Cards pulled off a 37-34 overtime win and Esiason threw for a stunning 522 yards – one of the most prolific efforts in NFL history. (It was and still is the third-most in NFL annals, behind the 554 the Rams’ Norm Van Brocklin piled up in a 1951 game and the 527 Warren Moon had for the Oilers in a 1990 game.)

Esiason talked about how his time on the bench was important to the Cards and how brutally his Cards’ career had started. Given that Graham was still going to be out for the time being with his injury, Esiason could ride the wave of good feelings. Beating the Giants and then the Eagles the next two weeks didn’t hurt, especially since those performances (in which Boomer passed for another 627 yards, 5 TDs, one interception and a passer rating of 107) got the Cards to a 6-6 record and into the playoff hunt.

Then, the Boomer era collapsed as quickly as it had re-started.

The Cards were blown out in Minnesota by a mediocre Vikings team and lost a close home game to Dallas and Esiason not playing great, but not horrible either. With the playoffs out of the picture and two games left, Tobin decided to let Graham get some more experience going into 1997, not altogether shocking on the surface – except Esiason took it personally, walking out on the team and saying he thought it was because he would have made extra money in incentives had he continued to play. That didn’t sit well with Tobin, who insisted he was making choices based on football only.

Esiason returned and played in the season finale against Philadelphia in relief of Graham, but his time in Arizona was over (his biggest incentive was $100,000 for 2,300 passing yards; Esiason fell seven yards short although he had a chance, completing just 12 of 26 passes versus the Eagles). By the next season, the Cards drafted Jake Plummer, and Esiason was gone.

Still, the 522-yard game remains atop the Cards’ record book, a number Kurt Warner couldn’t even really threaten.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Blog | 11 Comments »

Avoiding sacks

Posted by Darren Urban on June 7, 2011 – 9:29 am

The website posted a study yesterday about different ways teams handled pass-rush pressure last year and how it broke down in terms of “blame” for the offensive line, other skill positions when blocking and on the quarterback (Kent Somers broke it down further in terms of the Cardinals here.) The Cardinals actually weren’t as low as some might expect — 22nd in terms of pressure per play in the NFL, 23rd with the offensive line allowing pressure per play and, somewhat surprisingly, only 10th when it came to “QB-invited” pressures. It’s worth noting that the worst team in the NFL in allowing pressures per play was Pittsburgh at more than 50 percent of the time. The Steelers, who just happened to make the Super Bowl.

It goes to show that a) Ben Roethlisberger probably makes more plays with his feet than anything and b) a good quarterback changes the equation with things like this.

That’s why today’s PFF post about the percentage of times a team allowed pressure to become a sack becomes even more relevant. Is it any surprise that the best two teams in the league when it comes to making sure pressure doesn’t become a killer sack have quarterbacks named Manning? Eli and the Giants are first, Peyton and the Colts are second. Roethlisberger still takes too many sacks — the Steelers were 27th — but his percentage was still a tick better than the 28th-ranked Cardinals, who at 17.86 percent were 28th in the NFL. The Bears, Seahawks, Ravens and Panthers were worse.

I’d be curious to know what the Cards’ percentage was in 2009 when Kurt Warner was still QB.

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Blog | 4 Comments »

Fitz immortalized McFarlane-style – again

Posted by Darren Urban on June 6, 2011 – 11:23 am

Earlier this year, comic book/toy tycoon Todd McFarlane — whose offices are just down the street from the Cardinals’ Tempe complex — hosted Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston for a visit. It was a natural, because Breaston is such a huge comic book fan.

What is also natural is McFarlane’s SportsPicks line of figurines delving back into the market of another Cardinals’ wideout. So here on, we unveil for the first time publicly a photo of the McFarlane’s latest Larry Fitzgerald figure, one of Fitz running downfield and moving the ball from his right to his left hand (don’t want to get stripped by a defender, after all).

The first SportsPicks Fitz came out early in 2008, with Fitz diving for the pylon. About a year later, Fitz ended up making McFarlane a fortune-teller when he did practically the same move against Carolina in the playoffs:

Later, SportsPicks also re-issued the Fitz dive with Fitz in his college uniform of the Pittsburgh Panthers. Now comes the new Cardinals version, which will be on sale in September as part of the NFL 27 series from McFarlane Toys and, I’m sure, be in plentiful supply at the McFarlane store in the Westgate Center right next to University of Phoenix Stadium (or at the online store at, with feedback through his Facebook or Twitter pages).

Obviously, I haven’t had a chance to talk to Fitz about this, but my experience in the past is that guys usually don’t mind having a mini-me of them out there. It says a lot about Fitzgerald’s reputation that McFarlane has gone back to him a couple of times too — these are marketed well beyond the boundaries of Arizona. Fitz truly has star power.

Tags: , ,
Posted in Blog | 5 Comments »

One perspective on Cards’ all-time QBs

Posted by Darren Urban on June 3, 2011 – 1:26 pm

Football Outsiders has put together a list of the top five quarterbacks all-time for each of the four NFC West teams. Here is their list for the Cardinals:

  1. 1. Jim Hart
  2. 2. Kurt Warner
  3. 3. Neil Lomax
  4. 4. Charley Johnson
  5. 5. Jake Plummer

Interesting that Hart would be above Warner, but their reasoning is a longer resume for Hart, and that’s not unfair. Kurt was great in 2008 and 2009. In 2007, he had good stats, but I would tend to agree with FO, it didn’t always seem to totally translate that season, at least not as well as the next two years. And pre-Whiz, Warner’s years under Denny Green were like everything else under Green — all over the map (plus, in 2006, Warner played poorly and was benched most of the season).

Hart was the leader of that mid-70s team that was the only real bar set for the Cardinals in terms of success. His stats were solid given the era. Lomax would have been higher on the list had he not had the hip problem that doomed long-term success before he even reached the NFL. Johnson was the guy in the team record book who kept getting pushed aside by Warner. And Plummer, well, he led the amazing 1998 playoff run but in the end, sputtered before he left.

In all, rankings that seem accurate. Of course, it’s always up for debate. It’d be tough to battle anyone who wanted to swap Warner and Hart.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Blog | 39 Comments »

Revisionist History: Charging into the ’98 playoffs

Posted by Darren Urban on June 3, 2011 – 1:02 pm

The latest in a series of offseason posts looking back:

These were heady times for the Cardinals.

The team was far from dominant and weekly, the Cards were barely scraping by with wins to stay in the playoff hunt. But there they were in 1998, going into the season finale at home knowing a win over the Chargers would put them in the playoffs for the first time since the team moved to Arizona a decade earlier.

It was two days after Christmas. Quarterback Jake Plummer, all of 23 and in his second season, got his Christmas present early – a giant contract extension with a record-setting bonus of $15 million, setting up the former Arizona State star as the team’s long-term franchise QB. (In hindsight, Plummer wasn’t quite that guy and left as a free agent after the extension expired after the 2002 season.) Having Plummer around was the reason the Cardinals were able to make a one-sided trade with the Chargers for the rights to take the infamous Ryan Leaf – at the time, the trade got the Cards Andre Wadsworth in the 1998 draft and David Boston with the extra pick in the 1999 draft, and both looked like good ideas for a while.

But that was just back story for the real story: a chance to make the playoffs. And once again, it was harder than it probably should have been. Safety Kwamie Lassiter came up with a career game, making four interceptions of immortal San Diego quarterback Craig Whelihan.  And in the end, kicker Chris Jacke (pictured above) booted a 52-yard field goal on the final play to win the game.

Getting there was heart-pounding. Somehow, the Cards let Whelihan – in the middle of a horrific day, thanks to Lassiter – throw a 30-yard TD pass with 16 second left to tie the game. But Eric Metcalf picked up a squib kick on the Arizona 10-yard line and ran it all the way to the San Diego 46 with seven seconds left. A quick Plummer-to-Frank Sanders 11-yard pass gave Jacke his shot with two second on the clock.

Jacke didn’t miss. The crowd – a rare Sun Devil Stadium sellout of 71,000-plus – went crazy, going after the goalposts. The Cards were in the playoffs, a crazy ride that continued when they won in Dallas (a “Revisionist History” for another day).

The fun didn’t last as long as it should have, after the Cards lost key players in the offseason and fell to 6-10 the next season (after starting 6-6). It took until 2008 and the Super Bowl run to get back to the postseason. But in 1998, it was fun while it lasted.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Blog | 9 Comments »

A little of this, a little of that

Posted by Darren Urban on June 2, 2011 – 11:35 am

How much it ultimately means is anyone’s guess, but the under-the-radar meeting between owners and the NFLPA’s De Smith has to be a good sign, right? There is a hearing scheduled for tomorrow about the lockout once again, but it’s June and as long as there is talking, well, that’s better than the alternative.

— Hard to argue that Fitz is the fourth-best offensive player in the NFL (non-QB) when Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Andre Johnson are ahead of him. Interestingly, three of the four have no idea on this date who their quarterback will be for 2011. That always will impact how any running back or wide receiver will do (although lately, it’s not like Chris Johnson has had greatness in the backfield to lean upon).

— Interesting breakdown on “Run Stop Rates” for 2011 by position. Essentially, it measures the plays a defender made on a run and how effective that stop was (The post itself explains the whole thing). Alan Branch had a 90 percent stop rate, third in the NFL among defensive linemen and in the end, one reason why he finally emerged as a player the Cards likely want to keep around after so much disappointment.

The other two Cards on the list came at defensive back, and neither are big surprises. Strong safety Adrian Wilson was fifth (62 percent) as far as best run-stop rate as a defensive back — he’s always been solid against the run — and free safety Kerry Rhodes was sixth (26 percent) among the worst DBs. Then again, the entire “worst” list is virtually all free safeties, and those guys are usually further down the field before getting a crack at a ballcarrier. UPDATE: Not sure how I missed CB Greg Toler, who also made the list at 59 percent. He’s another guy who isn’t afraid to be physical, which should serve him well under new DC Ray Horton.

Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Blog | 23 Comments »

Revisionist History: McCown produces Fitz

Posted by Darren Urban on June 1, 2011 – 11:04 am

The latest in a series of offseason posts looking back:

The Cardinals were sitting with the third overall pick in a draft heavy with quality quarterback options, so when the just-hired Dennis Green decided to cut incumbent veteran Jeff Blake in early February of 2004, it didn’t really raise any eyebrows (although it did lead to one of the greatest quotes I have ever collected, from Blake when talking about his career: “It’s not like I’ve played bad ball. I’ve just been on bad teams.”)

That changed quickly. So too did the future of the Cardinals.

Less than a week later, I happened to be at the Cards’ facility when Green was going to give what was expected to be an innocuous TV interview. No other reporters were there. Denny proceeded to say odds were “slim” the Cards would take a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft.

“Josh McCown, I think he is going to be a great one,” Green said. Wait … what? I was stunned.

(So were a couple of other print reporters, who worked around their absence by coming the next day in an attempt to get Denny to repeat himself. He wouldn’t – not as strongly. At one point one reporter said, “We’re trying to get you to say what you told Darren yesterday.” Denny’s response was classic Denny: “That was yesterday.”)

McCown’s résumé wasn’t long. He had made the miracle pass to beat the Vikings in the season finale of 2003. He had five touchdowns and six interceptions in a three-game starting stint, but with a new coach, it just seemed like the Cards would nab someone like Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger.

The new coach was Green, however. As became evident soon, his belief in Pitt wideout Larry Fitzgerald – with whom Green was also close personally – was strong enough to make Fitz the Cards’ target. Clearly, Fitz was talented, and Green’s thoughts on what Fitzgerald could be have definitely played out over the years. Yet quarterback is always important, and regardless of how talented Fitzgerald would be, was it worth passing on what was available? You have to wonder, did it color Green’s evaluation of McCown? Because the only way the Cards could really justify taking Fitz at the time was the knowledge McCown could play. Green never was big with the draft smokescreens. I remember at the Scouting combine in 2005 he all but announced he wanted J.J. Arrington. In 2004, it was obvious he wanted Fitzgerald.

Draft weekend was a memorable couple of days. Pat Tillman’s death came to light on Friday, the day before the draft, overshadowing football. Then, as expected, the weeks of Green talking up McCown was capped when the Cards took Fitzgerald. (Green also kept to his word about the first three rounds, taking non-QBs Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett in one heck of a first-day draft haul. John Navarre was the QB selected, in the seventh round.) McCown was the Cardinals’ guy.

I believe the Cards would have taken Roethlisberger if they had decided on a quarterback. How different would things have been for so many connected to the Cards? Big Ben and no Fitz in Arizona probably would have meant Anquan staying and Kurt never coming. Would the Steelers – with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt – won a Super Bowl after the 2005 season? Would Whiz still have ended up with the Cards?

In the long term, it worked out well for the Cards. Warner and Whisenhunt did come to the desert, a combination that led to a Super Bowl appearance. McCown – one of the greatest guys ever to come through the Cards’ locker room – didn’t work out. But without him, there was no way the Cards take Fitzgerald, a potential Hall of Famer.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Blog | 37 Comments »