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Blogs

The hard, hard NFC West

Posted by Darren Urban on July 21, 2014 – 10:39 am

Some NFL training camps are underway. The Cardinals get started themselves by the end of the week, with the team’s “Quarterback School” going on in a couple of days. The season is here. Many believe the Cardinals — including those who work at 8701 South Hardy — are going to be competing for a playoff spot again this season. It makes a lot of sense. But the raw reality of the division is also apparent, driven home this morning by Peter King’s initial “Fine Fifteen” ranking in the NFL.

King has the Cardinals 11th in the NFL, not altogether a bad spot (and about where many of these types of things put the Cards). There are 12 playoff teams in the NFL, so conferences aside, there is the thought the Cards belong in the postseason. But it is interesting to note that, if King’s rankings were to hold, the Cardinals would also be the last place team in the NFC West.

He has Seattle No. 1 and San Francisco No. 3, and also as St. Louis as No. 10. In the end, such rankings mean little, because they play the games on the field and not on paper and yada, yada, yada. But it does underscore what everyone talks about when it comes to the “NFC Best.” The division still plays a role in your season, although not as big as it once did — you can in theory go winless in your division and still finish with 10 victories. Last year, the Cardinals lamented their 2-4 division record, especially two close losses to the 49ers they felt were within their grasp.

It makes for an interesting question: Is it better to have your division be the best in football? Or would it be better to harken back to the days of 2008-2010, when the Cards not only were able to see lesser teams around them but in the case of 2010, remain in the hunt for the division title late in the year even though it was a bad year? Carson Palmer votes for the way it is now. “It’s a great challenge the competition within the division,” Palmer told NFL Network. “I think it really kind of hardens you as the season goes on. … It’s a grind getting through this division, but I think with Seattle and San Francisco getting to the championship game, a lot of that has to do with playing within this division. It gives you an edge.”

 


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Cardinals among top 50 valued sports teams

Posted by Darren Urban on July 16, 2014 – 9:54 am

Forbes came out with another list ranking the (estimated) value of sports teams, in this case, the world’s 50 most valuable franchises. The Cardinals make the list at No. 40, with an estimated worth of $961 million. Only the Raiders and Jaguars don’t make the top 50 list among NFL teams, meaning that even though it is top-heavy with soccer clubs (the top three are soccer, a major nod to the global fan base the sport produces) the list still provides context of how powerful the NFL — which dominates the United States — remains.

The top team is the soccer club Real Madrid, valued at $3.44 billion. The top non-soccer franchise is the New York Yankees, worth $2.5 billion, at No. 4. The top NFL team is at No. 5, with the Dallas Cowboys coming in at $2.3 billion. The Patriots, Redskins and Giants are also in the top 10.

Among NFC West teams, the San Francisco 49ers ($1.224 billion) are 20th, the Seattle Seahawks ($1.081 billion) are 28th, and the St. Louis Rams ($875 million and hoping for a new stadium, which would boost their value) are 45th.

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Game recognize game – Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman [GIF]

Posted by since1898 on May 23, 2014 – 9:15 am

JerseySwap

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Draft doesn’t end after the seventh

Posted by Darren Urban on May 6, 2014 – 4:12 pm

As GM Steve Keim mentioned last week, the Cardinals had already begun to reach out to call players (or their agents) who they think could go undrafted, beginning the weird recruiting process that is the undrafted rookie class. At once, the best of these undrafted guys are wooed by multiple teams like they are trying to pick a college all over again, while at the same time dealing with the disappointment that they were not picked at all.

(That’s not always an easy thing. Safety Tony Jefferson was one of those priority undrafted guys last year and while he ended up in a good place and was wanted, he admitted his undrafted reality actually affected his play for part of last year.)

The Cardinals usually assign a scout to a coach and then the two work together to reach out to the players. Yes, as was pointed out on Twitter today, if a team likes the player that much, they could instead draft him, but that’s a story for another day. Bottom line, only so many guys can be picked, and other potential worthy draftees are going undrafted.

“We’ve been aggressively calling players and planting seeds that if somehow they go undrafted, we feel like this would be a great fit for them,” Keim said.

This early UDFA push isn’t unique to the Cardinals. It came out Tuesday the Seahawks not only are doing their own recruiting but actually put together a brochure to send to agents with their own recruiting pitch. The race when the draft is over to pick up the other players to be included in the draft class is always intriguing. If the Cardinals don’t add any late picks — remember, they right now are scheduled to be done after the 20th pick of the sixth round — they will have plenty of time to work the phones and hoping their targets aren’t picked in the extended seventh round. These guys make a difference and some make the team every year. It’s where you find depth through the Jeffersons and Jaron Browns and Lyle Sendleins.

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Thomas deal impacts Cardinals

Posted by Darren Urban on April 29, 2014 – 9:32 am

Seattle’s Earl Thomas is regarded by many (most?) as the best safety in the NFL right now. The Seahawks are now paying him like it, giving him an extension worth a reported $10 million average with more than $27 million guaranteed on his four extra years. This will impact the Cardinals, and in more than just Thomas-will-stick-around-the-NFC-West-and-be-a-pain type of way.

Shorter-term, the Seahawks have now cleared the way to also sign cornerback Richard Sherman to an extension. Given his position, he stands to make more than Thomas (although it’s arguable who is more valuable) and now both Sherman and the Seahawks know from where to start. Sherman has said this contract is about respect, although I am guessing he and Seattle will not have a hard time coming up with a deal that averages $11-to-$12M. And that’s where the Cardinals come in, because it will be the Sherman contract to which Patrick Peterson — who no doubt is awaiting his own extension — and the Cardinals will look when they start to negotiate. On one hand, Peterson was hurt being a first-round pick, because the Cardinals were able to exercise a player option for 2015 and delay talks if needed. Sherman, a fifth-round pick in 2011 long after Peterson was taken, had no such team option and the Seahawks are forced to deal with him right now. That said, Peterson’s 2015 option is worth more than $10 million, and after Sherman signs, his price should become more clear.

Peterson’s situation isn’t the only way this will resonate in Arizona, however. It’s also the first step in an evolving Seattle financial picture. Eventually, the team built in part because they had such key parts playing on cheap rookie deals (Thomas, Sherman, Russell Wilson, for example) will have to start paying those parts. Which means less money elsewhere. That isn’t to say the Seahawks can’t maneuver their way through it while winning big, but it again underscores the balancing act of sustaining a winner in the salary-capped NFL, and why rosters don’t and can’t stay the same long-term.

– For those asking, click here for some details on the upcoming draft party a week from Thursday, being held inside University of Phoenix Stadium.

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“Throw gas” on a potentially dominant defense

Posted by Darren Urban on March 28, 2014 – 12:09 pm

The Cardinals’ initial foray into free agency was offense-heavy. Not a big shock, since that side of the ball need the most work. As the draft approaches, however, the focus may just shift. Because even though Bruce Arians is an offensive guy, GM Steve Keim has a belief that the good teams in this salary cap work have a dominant side of the ball. And the Cardinals — with the No. 1 rush defense and the sixth-ranked defense overall — aren’t in that realm on the offensive side of the ball.

“Seattle was a dominant defense with a solid offense,” Keim said. “Denver was a dominant offense with an OK defense. In our situation, we are closer to having a dominant defense. So I think you have to continue to throw gas on the fire. Continue to build the strength.”

That’s why cornerback Antonio Cromartie shot to the top of the to-do list after he was cut by the Jets. The move surprised the Cards — they did not think New York would let him go — but rallied to understand the situation and aggressively court him. It was only a one-year contract, but the team proved last year with linebacker Karlos Dansby that could be a golden type of situation. There are still spots defensively that need shoring up (like the need for a safety or inside linebacker depth), and there is also Keim’s quest to get longer and more athletic with his 3-4 defensive ends and the pass rushers outside. The draft could very well provide those things. But when you start looking at the top end talent on the roster, it is the defense that claims many of the spots, whether it is Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell or Daryl Washington. (Or even, as Ron Wolfley points out, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who fortunately for the Cards did not get a head coaching job.)

The offense isn’t going to be ignored — “We know we have areas we need to fix and it certainly needs to catch up with the defense,” Keim said — but a defensive juggernaut is the first goal. It’s what has put the Seahawks and 49ers into the stratosphere they are in, and why the Cards returned to relevance last season.

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Salary cap heading into free agency

Posted by Darren Urban on February 26, 2014 – 10:36 am

The news around the salary cap — which will be officially set closer to the start of the new league year/free agency on March 11 — continues to be an adjustment upward of its estimate. Now the possibility is that it is around $132 million, which of course means every team’s projected cap space continues to get bigger. Kevin Seifert has the Cardinals, with that $132M cap, with a projected $15.295 million of cap space. That’s not a bad number, although it ranks in the lower half of the league — 18th, to be exact. A whopping 13 teams are projected to have more than $22M of cap space, and the Raiders ($66.39M), Jaguars ($55.13M), Browns ($51.23M) and Colts ($40.01M) all have more than $40M in cap space.

So there will be the possibility for some big free agent deals.

The Cards are in the same stratosphere, but that’s OK. The Cards don’t want to get sideways with big commitments to players who shouldn’t get them. There is enough room, however, to make some things work. The other plus is that the Cards, right now, have the most cap space in the NFC West. The 49ers are next with $11.84M, then the Rams at $6.32M and then the Seahawks at $4.78M.

This is all fluid, of course, with Seattle able to cut players if they want, for example, or the Cardinals re-signing one of their own guys (Karlos Dansby, anyone?). The Cardinals could still also release a player or two that they know they won’t be moving forward with to create more cap room.

The Dansby situation is one that bears watching, in fact. There is enough cap room across the league that would allow more than a few other teams to money-whip Dansby if they so chose. Again, in the case of Dansby, I don’t see the Cardinals getting into a big bidding war. They will want to reward him, but within reason. Extra space also could play into potential Patrick Peterson negotiations.

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Peyton’s place in the NFC West

Posted by Darren Urban on February 4, 2014 – 11:57 am

The chances of Peyton Manning repeating his historic 2013 season are slim anyway. No one has ever thrown 55 touchdown passes in a season for a reason. But after watching the Broncos’ offense struggle in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks, you wonder what kind of season Manning can compile when a fourth of his games will be against the intense defenses of the NFC West.

It was a notion I pondered briefly on Twitter yesterday. One game is not nearly enough of a sample size, of course. But — depending on whatever turnover all the teams involved have — the physical nature of all the defenses in the division seems unlike most of the ones the Broncos play. It certainly seemed that way Sunday. Manning got his completions (34 for 49) but only had 280 yards and one touchdown. In fact the 280-1-2 INT line looked a lot like what a QB might put up in an NFC West game. Something Carson Palmer might do. But Palmer had a much better defense at his disposal.

The NFC West defenses were ranked first (Seattle), fifth (SF), sixth (Arizona) and 15th (St. Louis). Of the 13 teams the Broncos faced in the regular season, eight were ranked 20th or lower, and only two — the Giants and the Texans — were officially top 10 defenses, although both teams struggled all season.

(And before anyone gets it twisted, I am a Peyton believer. He didn’t play well Sunday but that doesn’t take away from him being one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time — which is always going to be a subjective title anyway. No one else has done what he has done in a season like 2013, regardless of the defenses faced. And before anyone in the NFC West can get too high and mighty, remember that the Rams were the only team in the division who didn’t try to sign Manning in 2011.)

We’ll see if the gaudy stats make a comeback. Interestingly enough, the Broncos did see the NFC West this season, kind of. The four-game preseason slate was against all four NFC West teams. But that’s preseason, and with all due respect to Denny Green, it was pretty meaningless, even that third game against the Rams.

In Manning’s long career, the Cardinals have only faced him — truly, without him sitting in a meaningless game — once. That was in a Sunday night game in 2009, when Manning tore them up and the Colts bombed the Cards. Manning is still pretty dang good. But the Cards’ defense is much, much better than that 2009 version. The Broncos do get to host the Cardinals next year (the 49ers also go to Denver; the Broncos visit St. Louis and Seattle.) Already, a subplot emerges for the 2014 season.

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Pressure wins championships

Posted by Darren Urban on February 3, 2014 – 3:22 pm

The Seahawks’ defense is being lauded today and rightfully so for their throttling of the Broncos’ record-setting offense in the Super Bowl. There are a bunch of breakdowns out there comparing Seattle’s defensive year to those of the best ever, and the Seahawks deserve to be in that conversation with teams like the 2000 Ravens and the 1985 Bears (I’d think some of those Steel Curtain teams should be in the discussion too, but I digress.)

Defense doesn’t necessarily win championships — I saw a stat that said the team with the higher-ranked defense actually has lost six of the last eight Super Bowls — but it certainly doesn’t hurt. But I believe pressure can help win a title, and that’s certainly what the Seahawks did to Peyton Manning and why the Cardinals had defensive success this season.

Profootballfocus.com charted that the Seahawks blitzed Manning on only six of 51 dropbacks in the Super Bowl, yet were in his face all game. That’s the kind of pressure the Giants put on Tom Brady in the last Super Bowl played in Arizona, the one in which New York placed the stunning upset on the previously undefeated Patriots. When you can pressure with four, everything changes.

The Cardinals had a lot of pressure success in part because defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was a genius with mixing up attack plans on the quarterback, and there was a lot of blitzing involved in that. They also benefited when linebacker John Abraham played like the John Abraham who had spent a career getting double-digit sacks every season. That kind of rusher is important. And going forward, it’s one of the reasons General Manager Steve Keim will lean toward not only the offensive but the defensive line in terms of trying to make the most improvement. It’s great to have one of the best cornerbacks in the game in Patrick Peterson, but without pressure, it doesn’t mean much. The same goes for Seattle’s Richard Sherman and the rest of that defensive backfield — they can afford to be aggressive, because they know the pressure will be coming sooner rather than later.

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A way to beat the Seahawks

Posted by Darren Urban on January 31, 2014 – 2:17 pm

The Seahawks have lost just three times this season in 18 games, including the postseason. The largest margin of those losses was the seven points that separated the Cardinals and Seahawks during the Cards’ 17-10 win in Seattle in December. The Cardinals did it with a stifling defense and a good enough running game — parts that don’t particularly run parallel to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl opponent, Denver. The Broncos have been able to run and their offense was much more productive than the Cardinals (much more productive than any other team, actually), with a defense that doesn’t compare to what the Cards have.

Nevertheless, how the Cardinals knocked off the Seahawks was a demonstration in basic football. On offense, the Cards played it safe– 43 run plays, 27 pass plays — and played keep-away — time of possession was more than 37 minutes for Arizona. When the Cards did run, they were fairly effective, with their running backs gaining 142 yards on 38 carries (a not-spectacular-but-good-enough 3.7 yards a try). They often ran into the heart of the Seattle defense, not allowing the Seahawks’ speed to help run down the ballcarrier for little gain and looking to wear on them as the game went along.

Carson Palmer was only sacked twice so the protection held up most of the day. The Broncos shouldn’t have an issue since Peyton Manning is the best ever at getting the ball out quickly and to the right place almost all of the time. Palmer tried a couple times to make quick choices, but there was a reason he had four interceptions that day. Those four picks, by the way, should have cost the Cardinals the game.

They didn’t. Why? Because the Cardinals’ defense was unreal and to me, that is the ultimate hinge of this Super Bowl — can the Broncos keep Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson in check long enough to allow Manning time to get done what he needs done. Lynch got off to a decent start against the Cards that day but his production quickly fizzled, highlighted by his inability to force his way into the end zone late in the first-half after a terrible Cardinals’ turnover. The Cards’ defense stoned Lynch then, the Seahawks missed the gimme field goal, and that was a turning point.

Lynch, as everyone knows, is a pain in the rear to bring down. The Broncos have to be able to swarm, even when it looks like the play might be over. Then there is Wilson, who had probably his worst day as a pro against the Cards: 11-for-27 for only 108 yards, a touchdown but also a pick, four sacks and only two rushing attempts (for 32 yards.) Wilson was inaccurate all day, and the Cards got pressure through a Seattle offensive line that isn’t very good.

Of course, for as well as the defense did, it took some luck for the Cardinals that day as well, for instance the third-and-3 scramble out of the pocket by Palmer that led to an improbable 17-yard pass play to tight end Jake Ballard on the game-winning drive. But that drive was mostly about the run before Palmer flung his touchdown toss to Michael Floyd. One thing about Peyton Manning — he’s never forced passes when he thinks the run can work. And if it means tiring the Seattle defense/keeping Wilson off the field, I could see Manning doing that.

What I don’t think the Broncos can overcome is turnovers. The Cardinals were lucky Palmer’s picks didn’t turn into disaster. Manning’s abilities aside, the Seahawks feed off of that. But if there is a way to slow Lynch, the Seahawks’ offense has been less than dynamic of late. That, even with a great defense available, would seem to call for a close game. And in a close game, anyone can win.


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