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Exit Interview: Arizona Cardinals

Now that it’s been eliminated from playoff contention, Arizona needs to focus on improving the worst offense in football

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Arizona Cardinals, who mathematically can no longer make the postseason after a 17-3 loss to the Lions.

What Went Right

Last week, the Cardinals got a win in Green Bay, the first time the franchise has won in Lambeau. So that’s kinda fun, I guess.

What Went Wrong

This has been a dumpster fire of a season for the Cardinals. The year has been so bad that in early December, there were rumblings that first-year head coach Steve Wilks could already be on the hot seat.

Wilks, who was Carolina’s defensive coordinator in 2017, was hired to bring a defense-first approach to Arizona. That side of the ball has been decent, ranking 12th in DVOA. But even “decent” is a sign of slippage for the Cardinals defense: last season they ranked fourth.

And the defense looks amazing compared to the offense. This year, Arizona ranks last in points, yards, yards per play, first downs, drives that end in a score, and offensive DVOA. They lead the league in punts. It’s one of the worst offenses ever:

The team fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy in October, and while interim OC Byron Leftwich has used star running back David Johnson more effectively, he hasn’t been able to turn around this moribund unit. An offense this bad would be a problem for any NFL team, but it’s a DEFCON 1–level emergency for a team trying to develop a rookie quarterback.

Josh Rosen, who the team selected with the no. 10 overall pick in the 2018 draft, has struggled, completing 55.4 percent of his passes for 173.6 yards per game, 10 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. He’s currently second-to-last in the league in adjusted net yards per attempt and passer rating (Bills QB Josh Allen is last in both). Rosen doesn’t have even a single full game fans can point to as a flash of promise. It’s nearly impossible to pick out Rosen’s best game of the season, so I’ll just list some options. Here are his three best stat lines … I guess:

  • 15-of-27 for 180 yards, one touchdown, and zero interceptions in a 20-17 Week 4 loss to the Seahawks
  • 23-of-40 for 252 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception in a 18-15 Week 8 win over the 49ers
  • 21-of-31 for 240 yards, zero touchdowns, and an interception in a 27-17 Week 6 loss to the Vikings

If there is a silver lining to this, it’s that in the current Arizona offense, it’s impossible to tell whether Rosen is truly bad or if he’s just been stunted by everything around him. We’re only a couple of years removed from Jared Goff putting in one of the worst rookie seasons ever, so there is no reason to think Rosen is a bust just yet, but getting Rosen’s performance turned around should be priority no. 1 for the coaching staff next season—whether that staff is led by Wilks or someone else.

Free Agency

The Cardinals are projected to enter 2019 with around $67 million in effective cap space, per Over the Cap. That’s the seventh-highest figure in the league, so the team should have plenty of room to chase whoever it wants.

The team will have a decision to make with safety Tre Boston, who came to town on a cheap one-year deal over the offseason. Boston has played well for the team, starting in 11 games, picking off three passes, and recovering a fumble. He’s a big, physical presence, but the safeties on the market found only tepid interest last season—Boston himself took until July to find a home with the Cardinals. He’s played well, but it’s hard to say how teams, including the Cardinals, will value his position this offseason.

But the biggest decision looming in free agency isn’t one for the Cardinals franchise to make. Larry Fitzgerald will be a free agent after this season, and could retire. The 35-year-old receiver has given little indication as to whether he wants to continue playing or not, though he said in July that he won’t play anywhere but Arizona. The Cardinals should be happy to use some of their cap space to keep the best player in the history of the franchise on the roster. Fitz has regressed some this year with the rest of the offense, but he’s still a reliable, veteran target that will only help Rosen’s development.

The Draft

At 3-10, the Cardinals share the worst record in the NFL with the 49ers and the Raiders, which puts them in the mix for the no. 1 overall pick with three games to go. They’ve played an easier schedule than Oakland but not as easy as the 49ers, and the team with the easiest schedule gets the better draft pick. No matter how it all shakes out, Arizona owns all of its draft picks in 2019 and will have some high picks that can be used to start rebuilding the roster.

Defensive stars like Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Houston’s Ed Oliver are the current sexiest names in the draft, but the Cardinals have such a need on the other side of the ball that they may be pushed to consider offensive options. To that end, while this draft is light on offensive skill position talent, it does feature a number of highly-regarded offensive linemen, including Alabama’s Jonah Williams and Ole Miss’s Greg Little. The Cardinals have arguably the worst offensive line in the league, so finding the right anchor in the trenches could be the first step in getting the offense—and Rosen’s young career—back on track.