Geez, imagine if the Arizona Cardinals had played well on Sunday.
A 40-7 rout of the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be enough to give pause to even the stodgiest of Cardinals critics, one would think. But ironically, team skipper Bruce Arians seemed to be more put off by his team’s performance in the win than he was in the postmortem of Week 1’s letdown against the wounded New England Patriots.
“The score doesn’t indicate, I don’t think, how poorly we played offensively,” Arians said. “We can get a hell of a lot better. Communication was not very good in the beginning of the game — way too many mental errors, especially by a couple young players.”
Such commentary seems odd given that Arizona gained 416 yards and converted 6-of-14 third downs en route to four touchdowns and a pair of field goals. Perhaps they had an assignment error or two, but nothing catastrophic. After all, they were on the right side of not just the scoreboard but also the turnover column, in which they took the ball away five times while not surrendering it once.
Weirder still, Arians reserved his harshest criticism for David Johnson, his burgeoning star running back, a dual-threat who finished with 143 yards running and receiving, saying: “He played poorly, other than he made a couple big plays,” and estimating that Johnson’s miscues cost his side “100, 120 yards and two touchdowns.”
“We should have had 50 [points], you know?” Arians lamented, though no doubt he was cheered up afterward by the thoughtful bouquet of flowers Buccaneers counterpart Dirk Koetter had delivered to his offense along with an eloquent note of encouragement.
For his part, Johnson took responsibility for running a few poor pass routes early in the game, calling them “my bonehead plays” and saying that Arians calling him out publicly would serve as motivation.
It may well be true that Arizona’s defense had more to do with the win than Carson Palmer and Co. The Cardinals took full advantage of a young Buccaneers squad that was a bit caught up in their positive press after an opening week road win at Atlanta and they intercepted Jameis Winston four times, with Marcus Cooper snatching two and returning one of them to the house. Arizona’s defenders sacked Winston three times — that’s two in two games for Chandler Jones now — and turned him over five times in all.
Overall, they’ve played seven consecutive solid quarters after struggling mightily in the first 15 minutes of their season against Jimmy Garoppolo and the Patriots.
That the Cardinals so thoroughly dominated a Buccaneers squad that may well be the most talented all-around attack they’ll see all season portends well for them, especially considering there were questions coming into the year about the sustainability of their pass rush and of their secondary, with rookie Brandon Williams manning a corner spot opposite Patrick Peterson. If Arizona can play defense like that all year, it won’t matter a whit how much Johnson screws up, but I get the feeling that Arians went of his way to rip him because the score was lopsided rather than in spite of it.
Complacency and over-confidence is the bane of every coach and the last thing Arians wants is for a young talent like Johnson to rest on his laurels because he knows 40-7 is the anomalous in this league. Sunday in Week 1 that saw just about every game come down to the wire is more the norm. All he needed as a cautionary example of being caught up in your own success was playing out before him on the field with the slipshod Buccaneers, who surely contributed more to their own demise in Arians’ view than anything his guys did.
All this matters because the Cardinals are headed toward the perfect storm for a letdown game next Sunday at New Era Stadium in Orchard Park, NY.
They’re going to fly across country for a 10 a.m. Pacific Time start against the 0-2 Buffalo Bills, who’ll have been off for 10 days since losing last Thursday to the Jets and who’ve recently fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman. There is debate around the Bills organization whether he was voted off the island in a players-only meeting or whether the decision was Rex Ryan’s alone, but regardless of how it happened the dysfunctional Bills will be a cornered, wounded animal trying to stave off irrelevance before October. They’ll still have Tyrod Taylor running around and throwing bombs, LeSean McCoy as their own two-way threat and fleet-footed receivers in Marquise Goodwin and Sammy Watkins, though the latter has a bum wheel.
By all conceivable logic the Cardinals should absolutely bury the Bills, especially if the hosts can’t mount a more effective pass rush on Palmer than the one that let Ryan Fitzpatrick sit back and pick them apart. But overconfidence and turnovers are terrific equalizers and Johnson’s mistakes against the Bucs could easily have led to a pair of undeserved Palmer interceptions.
When we take all the evidence into account, we have no choice but to surmise that Arians started coaching for Week 3 the second the final whistle sounded against Tampa Bay. We’ll have to wait and see if his efforts prove fruitful, but the coach’s edge will likely remain for a while longer, win or lose, since the Cardinals don’t play anyone worthwhile again until the Jets in Week 5 and then the Seahawks after that.