The Arizona Cardinals 2014 season came to a quick, somewhat expected, ending Saturday in Charlotte with 27-16 loss to the Carolina Panthers in one of the NFC wild card match ups. Bruce Arians’ patchwork backfield finally met its’ match as Carolina’s swarming defense held Arizona to a playoff record low 78 total yards, while forcing three turnovers. The Cards couldn’t hold a 14-13 halftime lead and wilted down the stretch as the Panthers balanced attack (198 yards passing, 188 rushing) proved to be too much. Arizona had just 27 rushing yards on 13 carries.
“The end is never fun,” Arians said after the loss. “You never want a season like this to end, especially with some of the great things this team accomplished and what it overcame. I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a group of guys that go out and fight every week.”
The season was filled with several highs and some lows but provided a solid foundation of what we could expect next fall.
What went right: the Cards made the playoffs for the first time since Kurt Warner was quarterback and had a stranglehold on the tough NFC West (started 9-1) until the final couple weeks. Todd Bowles’ defense played at a high level for most of the season despite an unconventional lineup mixed with both veterans and youth. Arizona was fifth in scoring defense (18.7 points per game) and points allowed (299) in 2014. Before his season-ending injury Carson Palmer was playing some of his best football in his career. Arians and his staff proved 2013’s 10-win season was no fluke and despite the 2-4 finish, showed the Cards will be a force in the NFC when healthy heading into training camp. Arizona protected the nest, finishing 7-1 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
What went wrong: injuries…and lots of them. Eight players landed on injured reserve including underrated veteran punter Dave Zastudil who proved to be a field position difference-maker when healthy. No bigger casualty wrecked the Cards’ season like Palmer’s whose understanding of Arians’ downfield passing attack had come full circle. Backup Drew Stanton was okay in relief, while Ryan Lindley proved mostly incapable going 0-3 as Stanton’s replacement. The Bird Gang was second-to-last in the NFL in rushing yards (81.8), ahead of only the Oakland Raiders. Bowles’ defense sputtered down the stretch. Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson and second-year guard Jonathan Cooper were in-and-out of Arians’ dog house for inconsistent play much of the year.
What’s ahead: the uncertain future of Larry Fitzgerald who’s been the face of the franchise for most of his 11-year career in the desert. He’s due an $8 million roster bonus in two months and brings a hefty $23.5 million cap hit next season. General manager Steve Keim said the Cards won’t release Fitz but off-season roster flexibility could be difficult with #11 still on the books. To this point, both sides have played nice heading into the off-season. Bowles’ name has been a hot one and at the top of some team’s wish-list as they look to fill head coaching vacancies. It’s easy to see why as Bowles’ mixed and matched players into one of the most impressive units for most of the season before injuries and a tougher opponents eventually prevailed. Bet the house the 2015 version will come back hungrier than ever after tasting the post-season for the first time in five years.