Last night, while Carson Palmer was getting pummeled by the Vikings at the end of a 30-24 loss in Minneapolis, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians looked more baffled and dejected than we’ve seen after any loss in his previous three seasons with the team.
Linebacker Kevin Minter summed up that feeling quite well in an interview with the Arizona Republic.
“When are we going to wake up?” Minter said. “When are we going to finally do with Chinese NFL jerseys what we know we can do?”
The Cardinals (4-5-1) remain this season’s biggest mystery. In nearly all of their wins and losses this season, they have shown stretches of the behemoth they were just a year ago. The same held true Sunday against the Vikings when they put up 124 yards on the ground. David Johnson was gaining nearly five yards per carry. Combined with an increasingly healthy Carson Palmer and Arians’ play calling, this is a recipe for victory in the NFL nine times out of 10.
Arizona, however, is finally catching up to all of its good fortune.
“It’s hard to win, period, in the National Football League,” Larry Fitzgerald said. “It’s damn hard. These guys, every single week, prepare just like we prepare. You have to go out there and earn victories in the National Football League. No one is going to lay out for you. You have to be able to make cheap jerseys from China happen. Unfortunately, we haven’t done that enough this year.”
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Minnesota’s secondary bounced back in quite a way. Xavier Rhodes recorded two interceptions, including a 100-yard interception return for touchdown that wiped out a lengthy Arizona drive that had the Cardinals poised to retake the lead in the second. Trae Waynes, who was victimized repeatedly by various quarterback/receiver duos earlier in the season, blanketed whomever he covered. Sometimes it wasn’t enough — see Larry Fitzgerald’s incredible one-handed catch — but often, it forced Palmer to hold onto the ball longer and look elsewhere.
The Cardinals need to take a long look in the mirror and realize their strength, which lies in the backfield. Palmer still brings it from time to time, but he’s showing signs of his age (especially when under pressure) and it’s hampering Arizona’s offense. David Johnson broke 100 yards and scored a rushing touchdown, while also catching seven passes for 57 yards and another score, and Andre Ellington made a cameo on five carries for 21 yards, showing the bursts of speed that had Cardinals coaches and fans salivating just two seasons ago. That pairing can be lethal when turned to with volume. It’s hard to come back from a multiple-score deficit on the ground, but a slight shift to the run could have prevented Rhodes’ pick-six, caught on the goal line with Arizona deep in the red zone.
This is often the side effect of a talented player pushing his way back from injury. Mathieu tore his ACL back in December of 2015 and still recovered in time for a Week 1 loss to the New England Patriots — an expedited rehabilitation process that almost never goes according to plan. He first appeared on the injury report with a shoulder issue in 2016 at the end of October.
Mathieu told the team’s official site last week that he didn’t want to be shut down early.
“I’m not that kind of guy,” Mathieu said. “I’ve heard stories of guys like that. I don’t think I’m that guy with wholesale authentic jerseys. We’ve got three games left and I hope to be on the field for the last three.”
While this is against his wishes, it may be in his best interest. The Cardinals’ lost 2016 season is not the end of an era. The team is still loaded with excellent players and Bruce Arians remains one of the best head coaches in football. Should they try to regain control of the NFC West in 2017, a healthy Mathieu is paramount.
It’s difficult to see the former third-round pick struggle so much with health-related issues after he turned his life and career around with the Cardinals jersey. Now a fixture in the Phoenix community, the Cardinals wanted to ensure he would be a part of Chinese NFL jerseys of the team’s success for years to come. They need to now protect that investment.