Are the Arizona Cardinals Still Super Bowl Contenders Without Carson Palmer?

A few days ago, I wrote about the Cardinals dreams of being the first ever home Super Bowl team. At the time, the Cardinals were sitting at 7-1—uncontested for the best record in the NFL. After their fourth quarter massacre of the St. Louis Rams, the team are now 8-1, still holding the best record in football, but suddenly the future does not seem so bright. They will be without their starting QB, Carson Palmer, for the remainder of the season. We look at whether the Cardinals are still Super Bowl contenders after this huge blow.

When Carson Palmer went to the ground, it was like the air was sucked out of the University of Phoenix stadium. When he didn’t get up, the concern and fear among the Cardinals faithful was almost palpable. When his knee buckled as he limped towards the sideline—the same knee which was surgically repaired in 2005, when the damage was rated by his doctor a four “on a scale of one to three”—the collective hopes and dreams of the Birdgang seemed to evaporate in an instant.

Then Drew Stanton took to the field, and his 48-yard touchdown pass to John Brown kickstarted a 21 point avalanche, which not only won the Cardinals the game, but also gave fans hope for the season.

Head coach Bruce Arians is a believer in Stanton saying the Cardinals “can win the Super Bowl with Drew Stanton. There is no doubt in my mind.” But is that just head coach speak—bluster to rally his troops in a tough situation—or does Arians really believe it, and more importantly, do the players believe him?

Most teams preach a next-man-up philosophy, but few teams embody it like the Cardinals have this season. During the offseason, they lost pillars of the team, like Daryl Washington, Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby, and in spite of this, have barely missed a beat—they are third in rushing yards allowed per game, and fourth in points allowed per game. They have done so with veterans like Tommy Kelly and Larry Foote, cast-offs from their previous teams, who are making a huge splash, in spite of their advancing years, and rookies like Deone Bucannon and Ed Stinson, who many teams would have called “projects” not year one starters.

When Arians joined the Cardinals, the first thing he did was reach out to Stanton, a career backup who nonetheless knew Arians and his system better than almost anyone in the league. At the time, the Arians boldly proclaimed that they were happy to go with Stanton as starter.

And while they ultimately signed Palmer, a more proven veteran, to lead the team over these past seasons, Stanton proved why the Cardinals organisation had faith in him during his three-game stint as starter earlier in the season, when Palmer was out with a shoulder injury.

During that time, the Cardinals went 2-1, including wins over the Giants and 49ers, and a loss to the Denver Broncos. However even in the loss, it’s tough to put too much of that on Stanton—he was injured during the game, and had kept the Cardinals within touching distance of the Broncos up to that point, in spite of his defense being lit up on several plays.

In his three games as starter, and his one game coming off the bench, Stanton has 3 touchdown passes, no interceptions, a near 50% completion percentage, and 6.6 yards per completion. While none of these stats are earth shattering, they are solid enough for the Cardinals to remain confident in their backup QB.

For some other teams, being forced to rely on their backup QB could be seen as a major loss, but for the Cardinals, efficient QB play, and an ability to deliver the deep ball—both of which are skills Stanton appears to possess—is all their offense relies on. Arians offense has been called “touchdown or check-down” by the QBs who have run it, and Stanton appears more than able to deliver that for the team.

Cardinals running game will need to improve to support Stanton, of course, and after a season low 42 total yards from scrimmage, and just 23 rushing yards on 18 carries for starting running back Andre Ellington against St. Louis, improvement in the running game is an absolute necessity if the Cardinals are to keep winning.

One player that is improving dramatically, however, is Patrick Peterson. Early in the season, Peterson looked decidedly average, and was regularly exploited. This resulted in Peterson falling back on old bad habits—putting his hands on opposing receivers—which made him the most penalised corner in the NFL, and giving up a lot of pass interference yards to opponents—teams began throwing his way, knowing that there was a good chance they would get a PI call, even if their receiver didn’t make the catch.

Through the past two weeks, however, something finally seems to have clicked for the NFL’s highest paid cornerback. He has shaken off lingering injuries, and mental errors, and is playing some of the best football of his life. He looked every bit the shutdown corner against Dallas, not allowing Dez Bryant to make a single catch until garbage time, when the game was already out of reach, and his two interceptions against the Rams, including the first pick-6 of his career, really sealed the game.

The team have a +12 turnover margin, tied with the New England Patriots for the best in the league, which is a testimony to the big play ability of the defence, and smart play of the offence. This is a huge part of why this team is 8-1, and a change of quarterback is unlikely to significantly impact this particular statistic—Stanton has actually looked after the ball slightly better than Palmer this season.

This, coupled with the emergence of Deone Bucannon, and continuing resurgence of Antonio Cromartie and Tyrann Mathieu should make everything easier on the Cardinals offense too—getting Stanton the ball back in good field position more frequently, and putting up points without the offence needing to take the field—as well as limit the passing yards per game allowed by opponents, which is currently among the worst in the NFL.

What’s more, Larry Fitzgerald is looking to be back to his old self, and seems to be growing in confidence week on week. Fitzgerald needs to average around 54 yards per game to reach the 1000 yard mark for the first time since 2011. And while, of course, winning is always the goal over padding a players personal stats, having a player like Fitzgerald playing to prove that he is still worth the $16.25 million salary he will be paid next season, is exactly the sort of thing a backup QB wants.

In addition to this, John Brown is electric, and has some of the most spectacular big plays of the season to his name, and Michael Floyd, who has struggled in a number of games this season, had his best statistical performance while Stanton was starter, and appears to have a good rapport with the Cardinals new starting QB.

The loss of Carson Palmer has seen the Cardinals tumble in a number of power rankings lists, but we’re not ready to write this team off yet.

The Cardinals remain one of the best coached teams in the league. And if anyone can turn Drew Stanton into the 10th backup NFL quarterback to win a Super Bowl, it is Bruce Arians, Tom Moore and the Cardinals coaching staff.

This will, of course, not be easy—their upcoming schedule includes the number two team in the NFC, the Detroit Lions, two games against the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, and a visit from the Kansas City Chiefs, in addition to tough grudge matches against a surging San Francisco 49ers and a trip to face a Rams team with a lot to prove.

But the home stretch of this season would also have been tough even with Palmer under centre.

Arians knows how to get the best out of his players. He knows how to win without his biggest name stars, he trusts his strategy, his coaching and his decision-making process, and most of all, he knows not to underestimate whichever players happen to be lining up on any given Sunday. He doesn’t dumb down his playcalling for them, but trusts them to step up to the plate, while acknowledging their particular strenghs.

When Arians says there is “There is no doubt in my mind” that the Cardinals can win with Drew Stanton, there is no hint of bluster or false bravado in his comment. When he says he thinks the Cardinals “can win the Super Bowl with Drew Stanton” he absolutely believes this is true.

And while he knows all to well that the difference between what a team can do, and what they will do can be huge, I see no reason not to consider that the Cardinals still have the best chance, of any team in recent memory, to play in a home Super Bowl.

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