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Bengals aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on December 24, 2011 – 6:27 pm

It’s Christmas Eve, 30,000 feet above Missouri according to the “moving map” in the seatback in front of me, and at this point, it’s tough to not think more about my kids and the next 24 hours than the Cardinals.

That’s what happens when the finish doesn’t go the Cards’ way – a Cardiac Cards game in reverse. All the components were there for another amazing rally. I have no doubt, frankly, that had Early Doucet caught that ball, or the Cards had been able to find their way to a tying score, that they would have won in overtime. But that didn’t happen, and after so many of the late breaks that went their way over the past month, the tangling of feet just seemed bound to happen. The law of averages and all that.

The Cardinals are done, and now the game against the Seahawks next week is about the chance to finish .500 – still a feat given the start to the season – and taking second place in the NFC West.

First, a shorter (I say that as I start out) aftermath, since Christmas is on the mind:

— John Skelton, the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde. How does the guy who did what he did in the first three quarters do what he did in the final quarter? The pressure is off? A switch is flipped? Through three quarters, his passing rating was 18.0. Forced interceptions, overthrows, inaccurate throws.

In the fourth quarter, his passing rating was 112.8. What you saw is the reason you can’t go all-in with him. Not yet, anyway. The defense works without a net when Skelton plays like that, and he has yet to not play like that, really. I’m sure he’d love to know why too, but he doesn’t. I’ve never seen such a dramatic difference in how a guy plays. Make no mistake – the pass to Doucet was a good read and good throw. He would have had another TD pass. It’s why he’s so hard to bench. Because that streak always seems to come.

— Calais Campbell set a career-high with his eighth sack, and forced that last fumble that looked like it would get the Cards the tie.

— Safety Kerry Rhodes was back as a playmaker too – he recovered both Bengals fumbles.

— Safety Adrian Wilson forced a fumble, but the big play was his roughing the passer call that seemed iffy. Some have said the right replay showed helmet-to-helmet. I just didn’t see it, and it stole a big play from the Cards.

— A.J. Jefferson was the kickoff returner, so that LaRod Stephens-Howling – dealing with a sore hamstring – could concentrate on his offensive packages. Jefferson struggled, averaging just 17.3 yards a return.

— The Cardinals finally put Deuce Lutui in on offense. He took over at right guard in the second half. No way to know how he graded out yet, but since Lutui will be a free agent after the season, it’s interesting. You wonder if there will be some evaluating going on.

— On the play before Doucet’s miss, the Cards ran a screen to Larry Fitzgerald. It was set up well – but tight end Todd Heap missed a block, and that was the man who made the tackle. It only gained two yards, and probably should have gained more. Not that it mattered much, since the Cards needed to convert the Doucet pass, but worth noting.

— The Cardinals have played an NFL-high 12 games decided by seven points or less. That they added to the total Saturday is simply crazy.

— It was a weary Ken Whisenhunt who talked after the game. There was no anger. He mentioned the frustration many times, and he was asked if that was partly because he thought the Cards were past playing like that. A tired smile crossed his face. “I never thought we were past playing like that,” he said.

He knew his team didn’t play well enough. But he wasn’t in the mood to complain much. Maybe it was the Christmas spirit.

“It’s not any fun when it starts like that,” Whisenhunt said. “But I do have a lot of respect for our players for the way they didn’t quit. It didn’t look good there in the fourth quarter. We fought all the way back. We had chances to make plays, we just didn’t get it done. It’s disappointing from that aspect, especially as hard as we fought this year to get back to where we were.”

OK, big props to anyone actually reading this tonight. I’m taking tomorrow off, if everyone doesn’t mind. Merry Christmas.


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Friday before the Bengals

Posted by Darren Urban on December 23, 2011 – 12:02 pm

I won’t have a Christmas poem this year, but I do have a representative from the North Pole.

OK, it’s North Pole, Alaska, birthplace of starting left guard Daryn Colledge, but you know it fits the theme as we head into Christmas weekend, including the Christmas Eve game tomorrow in Cincinnati. Before we get to that, though, a moment with Colledge, who would have to have a heightened sense of the holiday given his roots. Right?

“When you come from a place like North Pole, you obviously are bit by the Christmas bug at a young age,” Colledge said. “I’ve always been a Christmas guy, a winter guy, enjoy the snow and stuff, but I’ll tell you what, now that I am later in my career, I’m not crying about not having snow at the end of my football season.”

A good mindset since he has moved from playing in Green Bay to Arizona, possibly one of the farthest weather leaps you can make in the NFL, especially in December.

“You know what, I might have some people truck down some snow from Flagstaff, just to have in the yard, build a snowman for a day,” Colledge said. “I wouldn’t mind if there was a freak snowstorm around here one day, but that would be tough for everyone else around here, I don’t know if they’d be ready for it.”

Here’s one plus: The weather in Cincy should be mild, with forecasted temperatures in the mid-40s and no precipitation. Then again, as Colledge noted, the weather forecasts in the Midwest this time of year “are good for about 30 minutes.” Enough about the weather – how about the game:

— We will start, yet again, with the quarterback. No official announcement Friday. Kevin Kolb is officially listed as questionable, however, and that alone says to me John Skelton is the starter. I had that feeling as soon as Kolb was listed as limited Wednesday that would be the case – there’s no reason to turn away from Skelton if Kolb isn’t totally ready to go – and let’s face it, when Kolb has been ready to start, we all knew right away. When there has been a question, Skelton has gotten the nod.

— This opponent plays right into the type of game the Cards have been playing, because the Bengals play a similar type of game: Close, while making just enough things happen to win. The Cards have to control running back Cedric Benson, and that would go a long way toward giving them a shot tomorrow. The sexy matchup is A.J. Green versus Patrick Peterson, but it will be Benson’s production that will impact the game more.

— A win tomorrow gives the Cards a 4-0 record in December, and it would be the franchise’s first four-win month since October, 1984.

— The Cardinals lead the NFL in allowing an average of just 2.26 points on drives following their own turnovers, a big reason they have been able to start gathering wins of late.

“It’s good because we have turned it over way too much,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “One of the things you preach to your team is responding and you have to have a mentality to do that. It’s good to see our defense has done that.”

— The Cards have 27 turnovers on the season.

— Peterson needs just 21 punt return yards to set the NFL rookie record. The Steelers’ Louis Lipps holds the current mark with 656 yards.

–Tackle Levi Brown has taken his share of criticism, and it hasn’t been unwarranted, but he  has been performing well of late. Check out this line from profootballfocus.com: “I’m starting to wonder if Brown may have just turned a corner.”

— Wells needs just six yards to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the season. Stop if you’ve heard this one before – Beanie was 84 yards short two games ago and has yet to cross the threshold – but it is coming in Cincinnati. There’s something fitting about that, anyway, since Beanie is from fairly-nearby Akron.

“It means so much for me because every running back in the NFL wants to hit that 1,000-yard milestone because it’s great for a team to have a 1,000-yard rusher,” Wells said. “It would mean a whole lot to me to get that in Ohio where I started playing football.”

— Whisenhunt said the mark would also mean something to the offensive line. “The line has been criticized quite a bit, but when you have a 1,000-yard rusher, especially when you go through a stretch like we did and we didn’t win a lot of games, it says a lot about the offensive squad.”

Tomorrow will be a day of waiting on the edge of the seat, and not just about Santa’s impending arrival. Assuming the Cards win – and remember, any playoff hopes start right there – the games the Cards must have break right all are later kickoffs: Chargers at Lions in the afternoon, Bears at Packers that night, and Falcons at Saints Monday night.

Here we go. And happy holidays.

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Hightower traded to Redskins, Deuce suddenly returns

Posted by Darren Urban on July 31, 2011 – 3:00 pm

I suppose, in this crazy, condensed offseason, the unexpected should be expected. So I wasn’t too surprised today to hear running back Tim Hightower was traded to the Redskins, in exchange for veteran defensive end Vonnie Holliday and a sixth-round draft pick. I was, however, stunned to hear that guard Deuce Lutui flunked his physical with the Bengals, with whom he signed last week. I was also stunned to hear the Cardinals then brought him back on a one-year contract. That’s certainly not how Lutui wanted his free agency to play out. That dynamic now that he is returning, and how/if he fits into the lineup, will be very, very interesting.

As for Hightower, another good man in that locker room, it was clear when they drafted Ryan Williams that, eventually, Hightower or Beanie Wells would be moving on. I thought it might not be until after this season. Turns out it’s today. The fumbling issues really hurt Hightower. So he signed his tender and gets a shot with the Redskins (Cards at Washington, Week Two, by the way) and the Cards alleviate the crowd in the backfield and get vet depth to work along the defensive line.

Dang, I can barely keep up.

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Some room for “The Plan”

Posted by Darren Urban on June 27, 2011 – 2:23 pm

Several times this offseason both general manager Rod Graves and coach Ken Whisenhunt (and president Michael Bidwill, for that matter) have talked about the plan the team has in place once the offseason starts. Both Whisenhunt and Bidwill have used the term “aggressive” when it comes to free agency, and that will help given the situation that the Cards have a lot of work to do to firm up a roster in what figures to be a short time period.

It’s impossible to know what is “aggressive” and how the plan will play out (and part of that includes the moving parts once everything is able to begin; for instance, a trade for a quarterback complicates/affects things more than a straight free-agent signing of a QB would). The Cardinals will have some room to maneuver, however. ESPN’s John Clayton, in fact, thinks the Cards are one of the teams best suited to get things done given their potential salary-cap room (and every labor report seems to believe there indeed will be a salary cap once football resumes).

Writes Clayton, “The Cardinals are in great position to be players in free agency and the trade market. They have $37.38 million of cap room along with a current payroll of $85.76 million. They have the fourth most cap room of any team in football, giving them plenty of incentive to trade for quarterback Kevin Kolb and give him a huge long-term contract.”

The other teams in good shape, according to Clayton are the Redskins, Seahawks, Panthers and Eagles. The teams not in such good shape? Bengals, Bucs, Raiders, Cowboys and Jets — although it’s funny, the Bucs and Bengals land on the list not because they have poor cap room but actually because they may have too much, given their current roster situations.

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Warner’s pick would be Palmer

Posted by Darren Urban on May 3, 2011 – 8:55 am

Former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner appeared on The Dan Patrick Show today and the NFL Network analyst was talking, not surprisingly, about quarterbacks. He spoke about Cam Newton (he’d start him right away in Carolina given the Panthers’ QB situation, although he thinks it is better for a rookie to sit) and then was asked about the QB situation here in Arizona.

Warner said he talked to coach Ken Whisenhunt recently and Whiz asked him his opinion on some possible available QBs. Marc Bulger was one, Donovan McNabb was not (shocker!). Then Patrick asked Warner, out of Kevin Kolb, Carson Palmer, McNabb and Bulger, who would Warner’s pick be for the Cardinals.

Warner said it would be Palmer (who, again, comes with the caveat that he would have to be acquired in a trade and the Bengals have said they will not trade him). Palmer still is playing at a high level, Warner said, and thought that Palmer fits Whisenhunt’s style of offense perfectly. It’s an interesting take, especially since the draft weekend rumors seemed to make Palmer’s destination Seattle if Palmer was indeed moved.

But until the labor situation is cleared up and the Cards can actually get their hands on a veteran QB, this is the kind of stuff we will be speculating about.

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Schedule hope

Posted by Darren Urban on April 18, 2011 – 3:19 pm

In the middle of waiting for the labor problems to be resolved comes the news the 2011 regular-season schedule will be released tomorrow — Tuesday — at 4 p.m. Arizona time (which is 7 p.m. Eastern). I know, I know, there are some of you who feel “What’s the point” until there is a labor agreement, and clearly, the NFL has taken part of that into account. Another game in London, between the Bears and Bucs, has been scheduled for Oct. 23 — except there is a caveat that the game will move back to Tampa Bay if a new labor agreement hasn’t been reached by Aug. 1.

As a quick reminder, the Cards’ home schedule includes the NFC West teams, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Carolina, Cleveland and the New York Giants. The away schedule includes the NFC West, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Washington.

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Haunting Horton

Posted by Darren Urban on April 8, 2011 – 11:19 am

It doesn’t take much to change the outcome of a game. Ray Horton has seen that a couple of times, in a couple of instances when it couldn’t have been on a bigger stage.

In doing an interview with the Cards’ new defensive coordinator the other day, the subject of the little things – and Super Bowls – came up. Don’t forget, Horton was on the defensive staff of that Steelers’ team that beat the Cards a couple of years ago. We started talking about the interception return of linebacker James Harrison right before halftime (careful, don’t throw things at the computer screen).

Afterward, Horton said, he figured the coaching staff watched that play 50 times over and over. He can tell you exactly where everyone on both teams was and ended up. Despite claims by Kurt Warner to the contrary, Horton said the Cards lined up for that play just like they had all season. But Harrison, a linebacker, decided not to blitz as called and for some reason stayed home.

(This is the stomach-punch part of the post, so if you’re faint of heart, look away now).

“You can look at each guy and think, ‘If one guy does one thing different, he doesn’t score,’ ” Horton said of Harrison’s 100-yard touchdown. “It was a dramatic play and it turned the game around. It won or lost that Super Bowl.

“Really, if James Harrison would have done what he was supposed to do … the play (the Cards called) was a perfect play and they would have scored, walked in and probably won the game. But because one guy did something different … the ramifications …”

Horton knows of ramifications. Because if you ask him what play during his 10-year NFL career sticks out, it’s a play just like that – and for Horton, it had the same painful type of result.

He was playing for the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, the one where Montana hit John Taylor for a game-winning 10-yard touchdown with 30-some seconds to go – just barely past the outstretched fingers of a diving Horton.

The play the Bengals had called was to double-team both Taylor and Jerry Rice (who had 11 catches for 215 yards that day), the right call for the formation. But then Rice went in motion – a change-up – and Horton thought, “We’re screwed.” He thought about calling time out but didn’t, which still sticks with him.

While we talked, Horton jumped up to scribble the play on a white board to explain what happened. Safety David Fulcher was supposed to come across for Taylor. Horton was supposed to stay with Rice, but he quickly realized Rice was the diversion. He tried to jump back and make the play. He just missed the ball, and was lying in the end zone as Taylor finished off the play.

“We are sitting on the bus on the way back and David said, ‘Ray, I could’ve picked that ball, I had nothing to do,’ ” Horton remembered. “I said, ‘I know. I know.’

“It still haunts me.”

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Taking the thought process wide

Posted by Darren Urban on April 7, 2011 – 3:29 pm

Took part in a mock draft (it’ll be on Patriots.com sooner rather than later) today and got another version of the top four. I wasn’t told who took who, but by the time my “pick” came up, these were the four gone — Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus and Blaine Gabbert.

(That was the order listed too; it’d be interesting to see if that matches the teams. Miller to Denver? Dareus to Buffalo? Gabbert to Cincy?)

I stayed chalk with my thought process in that regard. I stuck with defense and went with cornerback Patrick Peterson. But … obviously, wide receiver A.J. Green remains on the board in that scenario. Anyone reading my stuff knows I think receiver here is highly unlikely. Highly unlikely. The Cards already have a top receiver in Larry Fitzgerald and they clearly want/expect him to be here long-term. Bringing in a second such playmaker at that position — especially when you very well should  be able to find a playmaker at another position (like Peterson, for instance) — makes little sense to me. You aren’t even sure you have a QB who can get it to Fitz yet, much less to two such guys.

That being said, there are those who’d like to see it (I’m looking at you, Georgiebird) and there are arguments that can be made, as long as you operate under the assumption the Cardinals see Green as an exceptional, off-the-charts talent. (I’m not saying they do, and there are those who don’t even think Green is better than fellow draftee-to-be Julio Jones). For the moment, let’s make that assumption.

The Cardinals aren’t sure if they can keep Fitzgerald, whose contract runs out after the 2011 season, long-term. He needs to sign an extension, and while both he and the team have said many times they want it to happen, Fitz has also made plain his desire to win, and that involves the fluid situation of finding a QB. Even if Fitz is a lifetime Card, the rest of the receiving corps is still in question. Steve Breaston doesn’t have a contract. Early Doucet hasn’t proven he can stay healthy. Andre Roberts, as well as he finished the season, hasn’t proven he will succeed.

Then there is the idea — again, depending on the grades we won’t know — that Green would be the best player available, too good to pass up. We’ve played this game before, back in 2007, when it was Levi over Peterson when Edge was around. Need was above “best player,” and maybe this year the need — other than QB — lies on the defense.

(But even then it’s not always cut-and-dried even when it works. Cards went BPA in 2004, because Fitz was the BPA. Would the Cards, who already had star-in-the-making Anquan Boldin, been better off with a top three class of Roethlisberger, Dansby and Dockett instead? Sure, Kurt Warner came along a year later, but it’s interesting food for thought).

I reiterate, I think the Cards go defense. I think Peterson would be the pick over Green. But there’s always room to speculate.

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The Top Five

Posted by Darren Urban on March 30, 2011 – 1:54 pm

No, we’re not talking former Cardinals cornerback Robert “Top Five” Tate, who used to put together top five lists all the time — including football lists, which inevitably included himself. Instead, we’re talking about the guys who will be considered for the top five picks in the draft. It sure seems like this is the list:

  • QB Cam Newton
  • QB Blaine Gabbert
  • DT Marcell Dareus
  • WR A.J. Green
  • DE Da’Quan Bowers
  • LB Von Miller
  • CB Patrick Peterson

I don’t include DT Nick Fairley anymore because it doesn’t seem like anyone else is either. It leaves us with seven names, and the all-powerful quarterback situation. In Carolina, my man Darin Gantt believes there are only three legit possibilities for the No. 1 pick, and he has long believed it will end up being Cam Newton. For Denver, the pull has been strong for Dareus, since a) John Fox has always been a guy who likes to build up front; b) the Broncos were so porous and c) they have Elvis Dumervil coming back from injury so Miller might not be as necessary. Although Miller and Peterson have been mentioned (It has to be defense in Denver, right?).

Buffalo could use a QB, but Chan Gailey seems to want defense, so Miller has been a popular possibility for a team that uses the 3-4 and needs a pass rush. If the Cards want Miller, it seems the Bills will be the key. The Bengals figure to go offense, whether a QB or WR. The Cards, who have hinted many times they aren’t necessarily looking QB early, still don’t seem to make sense with a pick like that. Here’s the question, assuming Miller is gone: Could you make Bowers work in your defense? Is Peterson good enough? Do you reach outside the above list of names? By the time we get to the draft, would my list above change?

I wonder what Top Five Tate’s list would look like?

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Breaking down draft order, 2011 schedule

Posted by Darren Urban on December 27, 2010 – 9:38 am

With one game left — and the Cards safely out of the playoff picture — it’s a lot easier to narrow down some key portions of 2011 concerning both draft position and the schedule.

— As for the draft, the Cardinals have four teams with worse records than their own 5-10 mark. Arizona is one of seven teams with five wins. But as of right now, the Cardinals are fifth overall in the draft and “first” among those seven teams because of the Cards’ weak strength of schedule (Draft position is not broken by head-to-head or various playoff-type tiebreakers but instead the inverse — the weaker the opponents you played were, the higher pick, because the thought process is if your record is the same against weaker opponents, you are considered the weaker team and in need of a higher pick).

The Cardinals’ strength-of-schedule is so weak, in fact, that no matter any team(s) they end up tied with in the draft position, they will be choosing higher. So, for instance, even if the Cards beat the 49ers this weekend and the Seahawks lose and both the Cards and Seahawks finish with six wins, the Cards will be slotted higher in the draft. (Of course, beating the 49ers will mean the Cards end up with a better record than San Francisco, meaning the Niners will of course be ahead in the order).

Looking over the standings, the “lowest” the Cardinals will be picking will be 11th in the draft. If the Cardinals beat San Francisco, the Niners would be “ahead” of the Cards, while of the other five teams who have five wins, four could lose (two of the five-win teams play each other, Minnesota at Detroit, and I am assuming the Vikings lose in Philadelphia tomorrow night). Cleveland (hosting Pittsburgh), Dallas (at Philly) and Houston (hosting Jacksonville) are the other five-win teams.

If the Cards lose to the 49ers, they could still in theory have as high as the No. 2 pick in the draft, but that would mean Denver (hosting San Diego), Cincinnati (at Baltimore) and Buffalo (at the Jets) all won this weekend. Carolina has already clinched Andrew Lu, errr, the No. 1 pick overall.

— As for the schedule, that is always all but set. In cement are home games against the three NFC West foes, Dallas, the Giants, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The Cardinals will go on the road to the three NFC West opponents, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and Cincinnati.

The remaining road/home games set up like this: If the Cards win, they will host Tampa Bay again. (UPDATE: My mistake — if the Saints lose tonight and then the Buccaneers beat the Saints next week, the Cards would host the Saints again next year in this scenario). If they lose, the extra home game will be Carolina.

For the final road game, a Cardinal win means the Cards will play at the winner of this weekend’s Minnesota-Detroit game. A loss in San Francisco means they will travel to the loser of the Vikings-Lions.

— UPDATE II: For those confused about why the schedule, for instance, has the Cards hosting Pittsburgh again after the Steelers came in 2007 and the Cards last went to Pittsburgh in 2003, here was the info I received on the subject from the league:

“You need to look at the scheduling formula on a larger scale. it’s not as simple as just alternating the home games for every opponent – the math would not work out that way. The formula is set so that you’ll play all non-division conference opponents at least one every three years and at home at least once every six years. Also, keep in mind for non-division opponents in the conference, you’re rotating three divisions over a period of time, so if you take the original eight-year rotation, the math doesn’t work out so that it’s a straight alternating system. So by just taking selective end points and asking about ’04, ’07 and ’10, you’re not looking at a complete picture.”

Under the formula, every team within a division plays 16 games as follows:

  • Home and away against its three division opponents (6 games).
  • The four teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle (4 games).
  • The four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle (4 games).
  • Two intraconference games based on the prior year’s standings (2 games).  These games match a first-place team against the first-place teams in the two same-conference divisions the team is not scheduled to play that season.  The second-place, third-place, and fourth-place teams in a conference are matched in the same way each year.

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