When the Panthers hosted the Cardinals in January’s NFC championship game, both franchises seemed like burgeoning superpowers: Between them, they had 28 regular-season wins, the MVP front-runner in Cam Newton, and a growing list of stars on each side of the ball. Even as Carson Palmer unraveled on a national stage and Carolina smoked Arizona 49–15, there seemed to be little doubt that both rosters were positioned for playoff runs in 2016 and beyond.
Ten months — and 11 regular-season games — later, that notion has all but disappeared. With their losses Sunday (the Falcons drubbed the Cardinals, 38–19, and the Raiders edged the Panthers, 35–32), both teams’ playoff chances are on life support. Through Week 12 of the 2015 season, Carolina and Arizona boasted a combined record of 20–2. Through Week 12 of 2016, that mark sits at 8–13–1. For the first time since 2007, both participants in the previous season’s NFC title game will likely miss the playoffs.
How the wheels came off has been a frequent topic of conversation. After opponents picked apart Carolina’s pass defense early in the season, many second-guessed general manager Dave Gettleman’s April decision to rescind Josh Norman’s franchise tag and roll with the rookie duo of James Bradberry and Daryl Worley as the Panthers’ top two cornerbacks. Both have improved over the course of the 2016 campaign, and although the Raiders’ Derek Carr racked up 315 yards through the air on Sunday, a good chunk of that total came at the expense of middle linebacker A.J. Klein, who was filling for an injured Luke Kuechly.
On paper, the 2015 Panthers looked like a juggernaut, with a 15–1 record, the league’s highest-scoring offense (31.3 points per game), and a defense ranked second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. But the route they took to that type of season was nearly impossible to retrace. They stayed remarkably healthy last year, finishing fourth in adjusted games lost and enjoying continuity in several vital areas. Carolina’s starting offensive linemen missed a combined four starts in 2015 (one by center Ryan Kalil, three by left guard Andrew Norwell). This fall, that number is already at 11.
By the end of Sunday’s loss, the line was in complete disarray. Center Gino Gradkowski, starting in place of the injured Kalil, went down with a knee injury late in the third quarter and was replaced by undrafted rookie Tyler Larsen. Backup right tackle Daryl Williams, already filling in for Mike Remmers — who was forced to move to the left side after starter Michael Oher had been put on the injured reserve with a concussion following Week 3 — left with a leg injury in the second quarter. To compensate, Carolina moved right guard Trai Turner to tackle. Asking a Pro Bowl guard, midway through a game, to play tackle against Khalil Mack is like asking someone fluent in Spanish to defuse a bomb using instructions written in Portuguese. It’s no fault of Turner’s that Mack beat him to record the game-ending strip-sack.
Individually, all of these adjustments on the line might seem small; together, they can derail an offense that was already playing with little margin for error. When they were at their best, the Panthers were dangerous because of Newton’s ability to make ridiculous throws into tight windows and a ground game that was as varied and complex as any in the league. With tailback Jonathan Stewart banged up for much of this season and the line forced to shuffle in ways that it didn’t have to last fall, the latter part of that equation was never available. The offense has suffered as a result, and it begins to make sense why a team that opened last year 11–0 now sits at 4–7.
With left tackle Jared Veldheer on the injured reserve for a torn triceps and right tackle D.J. Humphries struggling (Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley consistently roasted him on Sunday), the Cardinals have had their own line troubles. But that’s only a small part of their larger offensive issues.
Last season, Arizona fielded the scariest downfield passing game in football. The Cardinals led the NFL in yards per drive, were third in passing DVOA, and finished with 66 passes of 20-plus yards (third in the league). Through 11 games in the 2016 campaign, Arizona has 35 such passes — tied for 14th and fewer than both the Browns and the Rams have produced. Of those 35, running back David Johnson has nine, including two on Sunday that served as the Cardinals’ longest plays of the game.
Any pessimism surrounding Arizona before the season focused primarily on Palmer’s implosion in the NFC championship game and whether it’d carry over into this fall. Even early on, the answer seemed to be yes. Starting in Week 1’s 23–21 loss to the Patriots, the Cards were inconsistent in making explosive plays in the passing game, and that’s been the central theme throughout their 4–6–1 start.
With their seasons now lost, the question becomes where both franchises go from here. And unlike their parallel paths to this point, those outlooks seem very different. Arizona’s mantra during the last offseason was “All or Nothing,” to the point that it also became the name of an Amazon series on the team. That mind-set informed many of the front office’s moves (such as trading for Chandler Jones and extending Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald). Following a disappointing 2016, it’s left the Cardinals in a tight spot.
Only the Jets have less cap space than Arizona, and even though the Cardinals will get a bit of wiggle room this offseason (about $27 million in space, even if the cap doesn’t rise from its current $155.3 million), that’s only because they have a number of key guys set to hit free agency. Arizona has 10 starters — including valuable pieces such as Jones, defensive tackle Calais Campbell, safety Tony Jefferson, and receiver Michael Floyd — who will hit the market this spring. The front office has decisions to make, and many of them won’t be easy.
With the extension he got in August, Palmer’s dead-money hit for 2017 would be $13.3 million. That all but guarantees he’ll remain Arizona’s starter next season, and Fitzgerald has said that his future with the franchise is probably tied to Palmer’s. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Arizona move on from Floyd, who’s had a disastrous contract year (28 catches for 410 yards) but is only a day removed from his 27th birthday and possesses the type of talent for which desperate teams may be willing to overpay. Aside from Floyd’s potential departure and a bit of shuffling along the offensive line (such as rookie Evan Boehm replacing pending free agent A.Q. Shipley at center), the money and draft capital spent on the offense mean this unit will likely look similar next season.
The defensive side is where GM Steve Keim faces his toughest questions. Even as the offense’s production has fallen off, the Cardinals defense has been stout. (It was in the top 10 of both rushing and passing DVOA through Week 11.) The problem is that many of the players who’ve been at the center of that success face uncertain futures.
With eight sacks this fall, Jones has been the best individual edge rusher Arizona has featured in recent memory, and at 26 years old, he’s in line for a considerable payday. Jefferson, playing on a $1.7 million deal after entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2013, is one of the better bargains in all of football. He’s the sort of player the franchise has been content to let walk in the past (Rashad Johnson filled a similar role last season before signing with the Titans in March), but there’s no clear replacement on the Cardinals roster this time around. Looming largest is the choice Arizona has to make on Campbell, who remains an invaluable part of its defense and has been a franchise cornerstone for nine years. He’ll be 31 by the start of the 2017 season, and management will have to weigh whether his projected impact moving forward will match the deal he’ll likely seek in the spring.
Carolina, despite its success a season ago, entered this past offseason with a vastly different approach. Rather than take on money, Gettleman continued to purge his roster of high-priced talent, starting with Norman. The Panthers will have about $50.6 million in cap space in 2017, and their list of pending free agents — defensive end Charles Johnson, Remmers, and defensive tackle Kawann Short — isn’t daunting. Short will be the franchise’s priority, and like it often does, Carolina has a contingency plan if negotiations go south. Over the past two seasons, Short has proved that he deserves mention alongside the best interior players in football; if the Panthers balk at paying him a figure that approaches Ndamukong Suh and Fletcher Cox levels, though, 2016 first-round draft pick Vernon Butler is waiting in the wings.
For the most part, Carolina’s defense should remain intact, and given how it played in recent weeks when Kuechly was healthy, that would position the Panthers well moving forward. Unlike last offseason, Gettleman’s work in 2017 will likely focus on offense. After electing not to address the line in the past two drafts, this may be the time for Carolina to use one of its early selections on a tackle.
Even if it doesn’t, the good news for Carolina is that a lack of onerous contracts (and Newton’s palatable $20.2 million salary) leaves the roster with plenty of flexibility both this offseason and beyond. The same can’t be said about Arizona. The Cardinals made their big bet on 2016, and there’s a chance that this was their last shot.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Tampa Bay had a great defensive game plan against the Seahawks’ makeshift offensive line, and the Bucs executed it to perfection in a 14–5 win. With rookie Joey Hunt filling in for Justin Britt at center and deposed former left tackle Bradley Sowell replacing right tackle Garry Gilliam four plays into Sunday’s game, Seattle’s already troublesome line became even more of a mess. The Bucs took full advantage:
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith used a variety of twists and stunts to exploit the inevitable communication issues that arise whenever an offense breaks in a new center, and the Bucs terrorized Russell Wilson for six sacks and 11 quarterback hits. Now 6–5, Tampa Bay has victories over Seattle, Kansas City, and Atlanta and sits half a game back of Washington for the NFC’s second wild-card spot. Although every fiber of my being tells me not to fall into the Bucs’ trap, their playoff bandwagon will never stop calling to me.
2. It’s easy to take Odell Beckham Jr. for granted, but we should talk about the historic start to the Giants wide receiver’s career. With another six catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns in New York’s 27–13 win over the Browns, Beckham has 65 receptions, 915 yards, and eight scores in what’s becoming another patently absurd season.
The numbers barely make sense. Sunday was the ninth multi-touchdown game of Beckham’s career, which ties him for second-most all time in a wide receiver’s first three seasons, with Randy Moss and John Jefferson. The trio trails Jerry Rice (11), and looking at the rest of Beckham’s totals, those types of names are his only peers in nearly every major category.
With 33 career touchdowns, Beckham needs three more to tie Jefferson (36) — who is behind only Moss (43) and Rice (40) among players who came into the league since 1970 — for the most scores in a receiver’s first three seasons. He needs just eight catches to pass A.J. Green (260) for no. 1 in that category over the same span. To reach Moss’s yardage mark of 3,670, Beckham needs 493 more yards by season’s end. That seems like a tall order, until you consider that Beckham’s career per-game average is an all-time-best 96.6 yards, tied with Julio Jones. And before anyone attempts to marginalize any of these numbers with claims about volume, it’s worth noting that Beckham’s 63.5 percent catch rate is the 11th best of any qualified receiver since 1992.
Even in a golden age for receivers, what Beckham has accomplished in his first 38 games defies explanation. New York’s offense has been uninspiring for much of the fall, but there are days when Beckham is good enough that it doesn’t matter. On Sunday, he finished with 2 fewer yards than the rest of the Giants combined. He’s a singular talent who impacts the game in every way a receiver can, and he’s doing it to a degree that we’ve never seen before.
3. The Raiders used a running back to effectively recognize coverage in the red zone for the second straight week. Against the Texans last Monday, Oakland motioned change-of-pace back Jalen Richard from the backfield into the slot on a third-and-7 from Houston’s 17-yard line. When linebacker Benardrick McKinney followed Richard outside, quarterback Derek Carr knew that Houston was in man coverage and that he had the mismatch he wanted. Richard broke McKinney’s ankles with an option route in the middle of the field, and the result was an easy touchdown.
On the Raiders’ second drive against the Panthers in Week 12, Latavius Murray was the coverage-revealing guinea pig on a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line. When linebacker A.J. Klein followed Murray to the slot, Carr recognized man coverage and lofted a ball to Seth Roberts in the back of the end zone for a touchdown.
Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree may garner most of the attention in Oakland’s receiving corps, but Roberts — now in his second season after going undrafted out of West Alabama in 2015 — has proven to be an excellent complement in the slot. His understanding of angles and spacing in that area of the field is what any team would want from an inside receiver, and with four red zone touchdowns on the year, he’s emerged as a legitimate threat as the Raiders approach the goal line.
4. While we’re talking about undersized and undervalued receivers, let’s talk about what Taylor Gabriel has done for the Falcons. Mohamed Sanu was the new Atlanta receiver to get a big pay raise this offseason, but Gabriel is the addition who has given the passing game a different dimension over the past few weeks.
With a 47-yard touchdown against the Packers and a 76-yard score against the Eagles, much of Gabriel’s value before Sunday came in providing the Falcons with a down-the-field, speed element that the team sorely lacked a year ago. That speed was on display again in a win over the Cardinals, but this time offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan utilized it on a pair of short screens to the left that Gabriel turned into long touchdowns. Following the second score, the Falcons’ official Twitter account showed its appreciation to the Browns for cutting Gabriel shortly before the season.
As if life as a Browns fan wasn’t hard enough.
5. The Ravens defense, already a top-five unit by DVOA, casually just welcomed back Elvis Dumervil. Week 11’s loss to Dallas aside (the Cowboys make any defense look bad these days), Baltimore has been a defensive force all season, and Dumervil provides a kick to the one area that the team needed it.
The Ravens’ strength this year, at every level of their defense, has been up the middle. With Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams on the interior, linebacker C.J. Mosley patrolling behind them, and Eric Weddle making the Chargers’ decision to let him walk look sillier every day, Baltimore is stout in the center of the field. Dumervil — who had the game-sealing strip-sack of Andy Dalton in Sunday’s 19–14 win over the Bengals — gives the Ravens more teeth on the edge. When cornerback Jimmy Smith returns from injury, this unit will have fewer weaknesses than any other unit in the league.
6. New Orleans is built around Drew Brees and the passing game, but a healthy Saints offensive line is a significant strength. After missing left tackle Terron Armstead for the previous two games, New Orleans finally had its ideal starting five of Armstead, left guard Andrus Peat, center Max Unger, right guard Jahri Evans, and right tackle Zach Strief on the field together in a 49–21 win over the Rams. Brees moved the ball at will, throwing for 310 yards with four touchdowns, but just as notable was that the Saints were able to hammer Los Angeles on the ground. They rushed for 209 yards, averaging 6.5 per carry.
Head coach Sean Payton seemed to delight in saying that his team was the more physical group after the game, and as safety Kenny Vaccaro noted, “We all know why.” Week 12 brought Payton’s first matchup against former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose role in New Orleans’s bounty scandal earned him a season-long suspension. Judging by Payton’s reaction on the sideline, he took plenty of joy in embarrassing Williams’s group.
7. Marcus Mariota continues to show ridiculous touch on his intermediate throws. The Titans love to exploit the area of the field about 30 yards past the line of scrimmage on the left that opens up as a result of their play-action passes, and it’d be tough for any quarterback to look better than Mariota does on those throws.
Mariota has been on a tear over his past eight games. Since Tennessee’s 27–20 loss to Houston in Week 4, he’s completing 67.4 percent of his passes and has thrown for 2,073 yards with 21 touchdowns on 8.6 yards per attempt. A schedule that’s featured the Colts (twice), the Browns, the newly hapless Packers defense, and most recently the Bears (in a 27–21 win) has helped those numbers. No matter the opponent, though, there’s no denying that the Titans (6–6) have found a rhythm in the passing game.
8. Justin Houston and Von Miller playing HORSE with sacks on Sunday night was a sight to behold. The NFL is simply better with Houston back from his knee injury and ruining offenses again. He was an absolute force in a 30–27 overtime win against the Broncos, racking up three sacks in his second game since being activated from the injured reserve. Not to be outdone, Miller added three sacks of his own, solidifying that along with being the best division in football, the AFC West — with Houston, Miller, and the Raiders’ Mack — may have the three best pass rushers in football.
9. Brock Osweiler has been worse than you think this season.
Osweiler threw three interceptions in the Texans’ 21–13 loss to the Chargers, and it’s time to start wondering how much longer this situation will be tenable for Houston. The Texans ranked dead last in passing DVOA before Osweiler’s outing Sunday. Since 2000, among quarterbacks who have made at least eight starts, only 25 have a worse yards-per-attempt average than Osweiler’s 5.77. The 10 spots ahead of him include the likes of Cade McNown, Ryan Leaf, David Carr, and Brady Quinn. With a $25 million cap hit locked in for next season, Osweiler will be on Houston’s roster come 2017. With no sign that he’s anywhere close to turning things around, though, the Texans may have to get creative at his position.
10. After accidentally watching a quarter of the Grey Cup, I can say there are a few elements of Canadian football that the league does (and doesn’t) deserve praise for. Somehow, I managed to end up in the only bar in Arizona that was populated mostly by Canadians on Sunday afternoon. That meant catching a portion of the Grey Cup on a massive projection screen (with sound) while monitoring the end of Patriots-Jets and Panthers-Raiders. First of all, congrats to the CFL for using the ref with the thickest possible Canadian accent for its version of the Super Bowl. That’s a league that knows how to grow its product.
Hearing Andre Proulx (!) call an “objectionable conduct” penalty was among the highlights of my day. Canadian football is so polite that it doesn’t even accuse players of misconduct. It only suggests that it’s reasonable to assume someone might take issue with a player’s actions.
Ottawa’s head coach also challenged a play that he thought should have included a roughing the passer penalty. As the broadcast showed replay after replay of the hit, it provided good insight into the issue with certain penalties being subject to review. While I’m still on the fence as to whether game-changing calls (such as pass interference) could benefit from an extra look, deciding whether a tackler’s hands slid a few inches too high is best left to an initial ruling.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: DeVante Parker is making borderline-impossible grabs a weekly occurrence.
Even as the 49ers slowed Jay Ajayi on Sunday (18 carries for just 45 yards), quarterback Ryan Tannehill and his receivers were able to pile up a ton of huge plays in Miami’s 31–24 win. At 7–4, the Dolphins are in the thick of the AFC wild-card race, and they’re starting to show that everybody underestimated the number of weapons they boast on offense.