TEMPE, Ariz. — Contender or pretender?
So far in this NFL season, the Cardinals have teased and disappointed, as well as tormented and frustrated their faithful and pundits.
Reeling off four consecutive wins at the start of the season, the Cardinals have now dropped to mediocrity at best and abject failure at the worst. While teams strive to improve, get better and gain a competitive edge, Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt tends to roll all of these factors into a manufactured company line.
After five consecutive weeks of losses and a tailspin which currently has the team in a free fall, Whisenhunt told the Arizona media after the latest loss to the Packers that his team is “inconsistent.”
Plagued over the past month by uneven performances from a patchwork offensive line, dropped passes from usually reliable receivers, missed tackles from usually reliable tacklers, and the collective inability of the offense to mount drives and score points, results of the past weeks have been essentially predicable.
When asked what he meant by “inconsistent” play, Whisenhunt outlined a myriad of concerns.
“We’ve seen missed tackles, dropped passes, had breakdowns in technique and missed assignments,” he said. “Right now, I’m looking at those players who are making these mistakes, and if we have to make changes, we’ll make changes.”
One change that Whisenhunt contemplated for some time was to find the opportunity to pull OLT D’Anthony Batiste, a seven-year veteran of five NFL teams. Batiste appeared in just three games for Arizona last season, but was thrown into a starting role at the important blind-side tackle position when Levi Brown went down in the preseason with torn triceps.
Batiste’s poor play (five holding penalties, 11 sacks allowed) remains one factor why the Cardinals' pass protection has been brutal at times, leading to 41 sacks of Arizona quarterbacks thus far.
Whisenhunt waited until the second quarter against the Packers to say “aloha” to Batiste and “hello” to Nate Potter, a 2012 seventh-round draft pick out of Boise State. One can safely argue that unless Potter gets injured, Batiste’s future as a Cardinal will be spent on the bench.
After the Packers game, Whisenhunt said Potter, thrust immediately into a struggling offense and in the specter of historic Lambeau Field, acquitted himself admirably.
“At this point, (Potter) merits moving forward,” Whisenhunt said. “That means an evaluation for him and everyone else. No one is exempt, and like I said, changes could be made.”
Which brings us to the Cardinals' “point of no return.”
After this week's bye, as Whisenhunt says “to get healthy and further evaluate,” the Cardinals pick up their schedule Nov. 18 at Atlanta. The losing streak could be extended, and whatever optimism was generated by the strong start could quickly dissolve like an ice cream cone melting in the searing desert heat.
For an offense that has scored 20 points in its last two games, and 53 total during the losing streak (a meager 10.6 per game), the prospects of improving appear slight.
For starters, Whisenhunt tends to be a conservative play-caller. Also, the Cardinals continue to limp through their season with barely a running game (3.4 yards per carry, four TDs) and Whisenhunt’s penchant for the offense to be measured not dynamic.
Perhaps the fast start was a false pretense to the reality that followed. The defense, in recent weeks, has been vulnerable to the run and has been riddled by poor tackling. Meanwhile, Patrick Peterson, once a terror on punt returns, has proved to be human.
Compare the numbers: A year ago, Peterson led the NFL for most yards returned on punts, and gained 15.9 yards per return. His four touchdowns on punt returns tied an NFL single-season record. This season, he’s gaining just 7.7 yards per punt return and has yet to score a touchdown.
In addition, QB John Skelton headed into the bye week with a lowly 65.8 passer rating, including just two TD passes. Though Whisenhunt praised Skelton for a strong second half against Green Bay, he still came away with a 69.7 passer rating in the 31-17 loss.
All of which adds up to serious soul searching by Whisenhunt, his coaches and players.
Some argue that the season is not lost, not yet. Still, the play in recent weeks and the upcoming schedule — with road games at Atlanta, the Jets, Seattle and San Francisco looming, plus the 7-1 Bears at home in Week 16 — make the coming weeks all that more critical.
Critical, that is if the Cardinals hope to salvage respect and dignity from what once appeared to be such a promising season.