The 2017 NFL run will be a sunset season. Star quarterbacks are aging. Longtime New Orleans signal-caller Drew Brees is 38. Pittsburgh’s Big Ben Roethlisberger is 35, with an injury history that makes him virtually 40. Tom Brady is 40, but, thanks to a supermodel spouse and a plant-based diet so insane he has never eaten a strawberry in his life, he is playing more like 32. And Carson Palmer, who on Sunday will enter his fifth season as quarterback of the Cardinals, is 37.
Palmer is rapidly nearing the end of his career. So is legendary receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who turned 34 in August. If you don’t think 34 is old, consider this: Fitz’s heroic postseason run to the Super Bowl in 2009 — a blur of roasted cornerbacks, butter-smooth catches, and touchdown celebrations — ended 12 days after the first inauguration of President Obama.
This is not to make a case that these players have no gas left.
Fitzgerald, one of the greatest receivers ever, caught passes for a total of more than 1,000 yards in each of his past two seasons.
Critics thought Palmer was down and out a decade ago, and he has answered by throwing 96 TDs since joining the Cardinals in 2013.
Father Time, however, is undefeated. We have reached the sunset. This season is the last (or second-to-last) day at the end of the vacation, the end of a run that has been riveting but for a few hiccups (like the 2016 season).
What Cardinals fans should be doing this year is, yes, aiming high, but more so enjoying what could be the twilight season of these two stars.
Fitz is a model for how an athlete should manage a career.
When Palmer hangs up his spikes, uncertainty will be the only certainty, even with talent on offense and defense. A quarterback is the difference between the glory days of Kurt Warner (the sprint to the 2009 Super Bowl) and the Dark Ages of John Skelton and Kevin Kolb (whose tenures are best forgotten, whose throws couldn’t hit the ocean). You never know what’s going to happen after a talented QB has tossed his last pass.
At the end of minicamp, reporters asked Palmer about the trend of older QBs winning Super Bowls. “You could go back to John Elway,” he replied. “Elway won two at the end. It is a league of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, and if you can still produce, it doesn’t matter what age you are.”
This Cardinals team has the potential to produce, the players to make a deep postseason run.
That was also true last season.
Last season, when, with time ticking low, Chandler Catanzaro shanked a 47-yard kick in week one against the Patriots, sealing a two-point loss to the eventual Super Bowl champs, setting a low tone.
Last season, when, following a 13-win campaign, the Cardinals finished sub-.500.
This fall should be different. Mistakes have been made. Lessons have been learned. At least, fans hope so.
This season, the offense could put on a show in the Sonoran.
David Johnson is the best running back in the NFL. Last season, he amassed 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 TDs. He will be the first pick in many fantasy drafts.
Fitz will most likely be the Fitz of last year and the year before. Speedy receiver J.J. Nelson should stretch the field and give Palmer a deep threat. Fellow receiver John Brown, the offense’s X-factor, will look to rebound from a year hammered by sickle-cell complications. (Brown is in a contract year; the man has incentive to play out of his mind so he can cash in on a big deal.)
Also keep an eye on new face Chad Williams, third-round pick out of Grambling. Fitz has compared the young wide receiver to one of the biggest names of the Super Bowl run, Anquan Boldin — some truly eye-opening praise.
The tight end position remains weak. The offensive line looked rough last year and will have to improve. Still, with playmakers in skilled positions, the offense should be able to create mismatches, string together some electric plays, and stockpile points.
David Johnson should put up gaudy numbers again if he can stay healthy. But health could be a concern: He had 373 touches last season, the most in the NFL, and most of those ended with an enormous man slamming him to the ground.
But with all the high hopes for the offense, the team remains one freak sack away from backup quarterbacks Drew Stanton or Blaine Gabbert taking snaps, and Palmer has the evasive maneuvers of a mastodon. It still stings that the team didn’t draft a star young QB to sponge up Palmer’s wisdom in his twilight.
On defense, the Cardinals lost five starters to free agency, meaning 2017’s squad will have a fresh look. Given the minor exodus, Coach Bruce Arians has to be smiling over how promising his squad looks on D.
The Cardinals’ secondary has the chance to be among the league’s elite. Patrick Peterson is a rare talent at cornerback and will continue to shut down the receiver he squares up against. The other cornerback position was a concern until Justin Bethel closed last year in promising fashion, and he seems to have kept up the pace in the preseason.
Because of arcane strictures at his alma mater, the University of Washington, second-round draft pick Budda Baker was forced to start his offseason with the team late. The safety had an electric camp nevertheless, making athletic plays that had coaches jazzed on the sidelines. More importantly, former All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu is back to his old swaggering ways after dealing with knee and shoulder issues in 2016. Back in June, Mathieu claimed that, when healthy, he’s “the best player in the world.”
Ladies and gents of the Valley, the ferocious “Honey Badger” is indeed healthy, as he showed with two interceptions in the preseason.
The defensive line will see to the impossible task of replacing stalwart tackle Calais Campbell. With Campbell in Jacksonville, there won’t be as many fireworks from the unit up front. Josh Mauro and Rodney Gunter will have to step up and lead the charge to the opposing quarterback. Word from camp was that last year’s first-round pick, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, is primed to rebound from a rookie season that fell painfully short of expectations. Nkemdiche will be a player to watch, a intriguing project whose ceiling might still be the sky.
Speaking of high expectations, first-round pick Haason Reddick (linebacker) has been flying around the field almost like quarterback-crusher and former Super Bowl MVP linebacker Vonn Miller of the Denver Broncos (according to no less a source than Bruce Arians). The Temple product can play outside, inside, and can get to the backfield. Markus Golden and Chandler Jones will anchor the solid linebacking corps.
Jones, fresh off a season with 11 sacks and four forced fumbles, will be eager to justify a new five-year contract extension that will pay him a modest $83 million.
Then, there are the special teams.
No amount of game-day margaritas, mojitos, or IPA can purge memories of last year’s special-teams fiascos. In 2016, the Cardinals had the worst special teams in the league. Things got ugly. There were missed fields goals. There were blocked or otherwise botched extra points. And there were times that these miscues all transpired in a single game. (See: week 14 at Miami.)
The field-goal misses in OT and return touchdowns to lose games became the kind of common, half-expected occurrences that wracked fans with tremors of dread whenever special teams took the field. Arians is a good enough coach to right the ship.
Sure enough, he beat the special teams drum hard in the offseason. Still, concerns linger over returning kicks and punts. A player like wide receiver John Brown could be tapped for the role depending on how the return game progresses (or regresses).
Special teams torpedoed the 2016 season. We’ll take Arians at his word that this year will be different.
For those of you living under a palo verde tree, the season begins on Sunday at 10 a.m. in Detroit. Week three, the Cardinals play their first home game, hosting Dallas for a nationally televised Monday night game. Other games worth a calendar highlight include a Thursday night duel against Seattle at home and an October 22 match against the Rams in London (set that alarm clock!).
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In a top-heavy NFC West, the season may come down to the final game. Knowing this, the NFL has slated that final game as you may expect: an epic battle in Seattle against the rival Seahawks on New Year’s Eve.
All said, the Cardinals have the pieces to make a Super Bowl run this year, especially with extra fuel squirted onto the fire as a result of last year’s disappointments. But the road to Minneapolis in February is a long one. Stellar teams top the NFC: Atlanta, Seattle, Green Bay, and Arizona. And whoever emerges from the January playoff wreckage may have to face a Warriors-like Patriots team coached by Darth Vader, a team that has just rained a mint in free agency, a team facing a similar sunset.
Fans, enjoy the twilight of this Cardinals run. And enjoy the emergence of talented young players working like hell to prolong that run. If you can stomach or ignore the horrifying CTE studies, it’s going to be an epic fall to be a football fan.