Update: The Cardinals fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy on Friday morning. That might help some of the issues covered here, but it goes beyond the play calling.
Seven games into the 2018 season, the Arizona Cardinals offense still hasn’t had a single good game.
The only time the Cardinals put more than 17 points on the scoreboard was in a 28-18 win against the 49ers that saw San Francisco turn the ball over five times — including a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. Apparently, that’s the level of self-destruction Arizona needs from an opponent to have a chance at scoring even an average amount of points for an NFL offense.
With 223 yards of total offense in a 45-10 blowout loss to the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football, the Cardinals became the first team in 13 years to get seven games into a season without topping 270 yards. The last was the 2005 Houston Texans, a team that finished 2-14 and allowed David Carr to be sacked 68 times on the year. That’s the level of incompetence the Cardinals are on par with.
More amazing is that the Cardinals are doing it in 2018 — a year when NFL defenses can no longer keep up with offenses. The average team is racking up 366 yards per game — well over the 334.1-yard average of 2017 — while the Cardinals are barely cracking 200.
There’s a lot of reasons why the Cardinals are arguably the NFL’s worst dumpster fire in 2018, but it all starts with a coaching staff, led by Steve Wilks, that isn’t doing anything right.
David Johnson has been relegated into a useless plodder
Two years ago, Johnson had 1,239 rushing yards, 879 receiving yards, and 20 total touchdowns during a season that earned him All-Pro accolades. To put that in perspective, Rams running back Todd Gurley earned NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors last year with 19 touchdowns and 2,093 yards from scrimmage — numbers that led the league but were shy of Johnson’s in 2016.
Somehow, Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has managed to take a premier talent and get absolutely nothing out of him. Johnson has gone from one of the NFL’s most dangerous offensive weapons into a running back who bashes his head against a wall 15 to 20 times per game with little to show for it.
Johnson is averaging 3.17 yards per carry and it’s because the only way the Cardinals can think to get him involved is to run straight up the middle over and over and over.
the arizona cardinals are 28th in total rush attempts yet rank first in rush att right up the middle pic.twitter.com/rLj6t5Ch2Z— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) October 15, 2018
I blended all of David Johnson's #NextGenStats run charts together. The VAST majority of his runs are between the tackles. Absolutely baffling play calling for a RB with speed. For comparison, I added Melvin Gordon's carry chart from WK6 #Cardinals pic.twitter.com/SwYtw4dZnc— James Koh (@JamesDKoh) October 18, 2018
This is a crime against football and probably a death sentence for many fantasy teams.
Johnson began his NFL career returning kicks in addition to a few offensive snaps because his blend of size, speed, and explosiveness make him a nightmare to bring down in the open field. The Cardinals have managed to make sure he never sees space at all.
When it’s time for Johnson to run absolutely everyone in the stadium knows it’s coming:
Meanwhile Arizona opens the game with a run into an 8 man box for no gain pic.twitter.com/jtqWSe78yx— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) October 19, 2018
Running into a NINE MAN BOX down 21-3 this is incredible pic.twitter.com/NIYyDQ3tM5— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) October 19, 2018
The staggering lack of creativity includes never lining up Johnson at receiver, because — again — the Cardinals coaches seem to determined not to give their star playmaker space to work with.
David Johnson's usage as a receiver has somehow gotten worse. Per @NextGenStats, Arizona has split DJ out as a receiver (or in the slot) on just 3.5% of his routes this season. Pitiful. Was 20% in 2016.— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) October 15, 2018
Against the Broncos, Johnson had 14 carries for 39 yards and three receptions for 31 yards. Unfortunately, that’s now a normal game for a player who used to average 132.4 yards per game.
The defense is a coaching disaster too
Earlier this year, our own Alex Rubenstein pointed out that the Cardinals never break out of nickel defense. Never ever.
In a 34-0 loss to the Rams in Week 2, the Cardinals had five defensive backs — Patrick Peterson, Jamar Taylor, Budda Baker, Antoine Bethea, and Tre Boston — on the field for all 72 defensive snaps. Not even on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line did the Cardinals think ‘Hmm ... an extra defensive lineman instead of another 200-pound DB would probably be a good idea here.’
While it hasn’t quite been five defensive backs playing 100 percent of the snaps in every game since that Week 2 blowout, the problem hasn’t gone away. The Cardinals still stubbornly refuse to have any more than six defensive lineman and linebackers on the field.
The only way around it is if you consider Budda Baker — a safety who spends most of his time close to the line of scrimmage — more linebacker than safety. The Cardinals have been believers in the “moneybacker” position, but there’s an obvious drawback that comes with having a 5’11, 195-pound linebacker.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that no team has allowed more rushing yards or rushing touchdowns than the Cardinals. While no other team in the NFL has given up 10 touchdowns on the ground, Arizona is now up to 12 after the Broncos’ Philip Lindsay and Royce Freeman each got in the end zone Thursday.
Nickel defense is the new norm in the NFL, but the Cardinals continue to stubbornly show on a weekly basis why it can’t be a team’s only defense.
Are the Cardinals trying to ruin Josh Rosen?
Rosen’s NFL career began with less than five minutes to go in a game against the Bears with the Cardinals trailing 16-14. Despite having Rosen watch the first 55 minutes of the game from the sideline, Steve Wilks decided it was up to the rookie to save the day.
On Rosen’s eight dropbacks that night, he completed four passes for 37 yards, he was intercepted to kill one drive, and he was sacked to end the game. With Khalil Mack on the opposing defense, Wilks thought that was the perfect time to give his rookie his first action.
Rosen’s most recent NFL play ended with him limping off the field after he was sacked for a sixth time by the Broncos. That happened when the Cardinals had the rookie drop back to pass on a fourth-and-16 play with less than two minutes left in a 45-10 game. WHY?!
Behind an offensive line that struggled all night, the Cardinals saw fit to get Rosen hit just one more time for no good reason before calling it a night.
“Hindsight, when we sit and look back at it, should he have been out? Probably so, but you say that now when a situation happens,” Wilks said after the game.
No, coach, that’s the problem. The possibility of the situation happening is why he should’ve been out. Punt the ball. Run the ball. Send in Mike Glennon. Do anything other than drop back Rosen into pressure yet again.
Luckily for the Cardinals, Rosen said it was just a minor toe problem that isn’t going to be an issue.
But a few games into his NFL career, Rosen is playing behind an offensive line that’s doing him no favors, and throwing passes to receivers who aren’t helping much either. It was a bad night for Rosen who put the ball in the hands of the defense way too often, but the biggest problem for Cardinals is a coaching staff that’s giving the team no chance to win.