For the Arizona Cardinals, it started with linebacker Karlos Dansby chasing the money to Cleveland during free agency in March.
Then Daryl Washington, the other half of Arizona’s formidable inside linebacker duo, was suspended for at least a year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
And on Monday, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was lost for the season with a torn right ACL, the team confirmed.
With each loss, the foundation built by Cardinals coach Bruce Arians cracked a little more. Arizona will rely on an unlikely source, however, to fill in the gaps.
Arizona still has most of the tools it needs to play the type of smash-mouth, press-coverage defense it won 10 games with last season. It just might not start playing that way in Week 1 without Dockett and with John Abraham and Tyrann Mathieu slowly getting back into form. That means the offense, which grew into itself during the offseason by adding speed at receiver, bulk at tackle and brawn at tight end, will have to pick up the slack.
Led by quarterback Carson Palmer, the Cardinals’ offense will have to put up numbers that’ll make Arians giddy with delight. It’ll have to outscore everyone. It’ll have to look like a high-scoring college offense trying to impress the pollsters. It’ll have to start winning games for Arizona.
That shouldn’t be a problem for the Cardinals, who are coached by one of the game’s best offensive minds. Then there’s Palmer, who threw for a career-high 4,274 yards last season while truly grasping the offense for only half a season, which led to 22 interceptions. As an offense, the Cardinals looked like an entirely different team from the first eight weeks to the final nine of the 2013 season.
Palmer’s QBR went from 25th in the NFL to sixth. In total yards per game, Arizona improved from 26th to seventh; in passing yards per game the Cards jumped from 18th to fourth, Palmer’s yards per attempt average skyrocketed from 23rd to third, and the offense went from 24th in points per game to seventh.
And Larry Fitzgerald needs to prove he’s worthy of being a Cardinal for another season after almost cracking 1,000 yards for the first time since 2011, because of the financials behind his contract. Michael Floyd finished with 1,041 yards in his second season. Andre Ellington takes over a running game that’s deep, powerful and speedy after leading the NFL in yards per carry. And the tight ends, all 6-foot-5 or taller, are cut from the mold Arians has won with throughout his career.
They say defenses win championships, but defenses can’t win if the other team scores more.
This was supposed to be a team that was primed to clear the next hurdle by overtaking either San Francisco or Seattle for second place in the NFC West, or possibly more, because of its defense. The idea of Arizona winning the division was scoffed at along the West Coast, but the Cardinals believed they had the pieces on both offense and defense, even without Dansby and Washington, to surprise everybody. And on paper they did. As of Monday, they did.
But that all changed when Dockett went down about an hour into Monday’s practice and started grabbing his right knee. With each step he gingerly took toward the cart that whisked him away to the bowels of University of Phoenix Stadium, the playoffs, the ones that Arizona could practically touch in December, started fading like a sunset on the desert horizon.
With Dockett, who was entering his 11th season, Arizona had the pieces on defense to mask its deficiencies. The defensive line, which finished last season ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run, was back in full. The secondary was improved, with cornerback Antonio Cromartie signed to play opposite Patrick Peterson.
The outer layer, for the most part, was intact.
But this wasn’t a perfect defense, regardless of how high its expectations were. Abraham didn’t report to camp until Thursday. None of the inside linebackers charged with replacing Dansby and Washington were playing comparable football — combined. Nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered late last season, leaving Dan Williams without a backup. And Mathieu was out while recovering from a torn ACL and LCL, although he’s expected to be taken off the physically unable to perform list Tuesday.
This was a defense that had its flaws, but as long as Dockett was in the lineup, it knew it stood a chance.
But now, this is a defense in trouble, and it’s up to the offense to save it.
Filling Dockett’s void will be a combination of veteran defensive end Frostee Rucker and rookies Kareem Martin and Ed Stinson, both of whom were drafted for this exact scenario. But the pressure to replace Dockett won’t fall on their shoulders.
Like it did with the losses of Dansby and Washington, the defense as a whole will be responsible for masking its deficiencies, including the glaring one on the defensive line.