I hope …

That fans will make the effort to honestly examine the personnel problems with the Cardinals. Of course, that might be asking too much.

During Sunday and into Monday, there was some odd give-and-take with those that surprisingly pushed back at my take that much of the offensive problems with the Cardinals has more to do with personnel than coaching.

Well, maybe the word surprise shouldn’t be used because if there’s one thing apparent during the many years I’ve covered pro football and especially with the dawn of social media, there is a non-stop fire-the-coach/play-caller mentality when a team struggles on offense or makes mistakes.

Player is called for a false start? It’s not the player’s fault, it’s because of an undisciplined coach, as if pre-snap penalties aren’t drummed into guys’ heads on a daily basis. That’s only one example.

I’ll always remember the words of Hall-of-Fame coach Dick Vermeil, who famously said during the Rams’ 1999 Super Bowl season, “I became a lot better coach when I had better players.”

By the way, that was a team that missed a total of four games by two starters during the entire season, which again proves the reality that injuries or lack thereof contribute greatly to a team’s fortunes and that the oft-repeated phrase “all teams have injuries” is blindly said without actually analyzing how injuries can wreck a team. Next man up? Sounds good, but most of the time, there’s a reason players are backups.

Overall, there is one basic tenet of football gleaned from numerous conversations with coaches and especially offensive line coaches over the year, including the late, great Jim Hanifan, who had a history with the Cardinals when they were in St. Louis.

It was simply that most of the time when a team struggles on offense, look at the line to see where the problems originate. In one back-and-forth on Twitter when I made the claim that the talent level of the Cardinals in recent weeks wasn’t as good as some believe and noted how the line struggled mightily, a commenter acknowledged how poorly the line played against Seattle, yet still clung to the belief that somehow the issue was all about play-calling.

As if Kliff Kingsbury can wave a magic wand at the NFL level and make up for the deficiency with a great play-call. It should be apparent that the greatest play in history can be called, but if even one player fails to execute it properly, or a defender makes a great play, the play is doomed to fail.

When asked Monday for his evaluation of the line Sunday, Kingsbury said, “Collectively, I think when you lose a couple of those interior pieces like we did with Rodney (Hudson) not playing and then (Justin) Pugh going down; that’s not ideal. Just when we had some opportunities to make plays in crucial situations, I don’t feel like we did and it’s just kind of been the theme of the season for all of us; the coaches and players. We have to find a way in those moments to make the plays and score points.”

However, those moments, those “crucial situations,” especially in the red zone and on third down, are the toughest ones to achieve consistency when too many key pieces are missing.

It was intriguing to hear what Packers coach Matt LaFleur said Monday after his team scored 10 points at home against the Jets, while gaining only 278 yards, and Aaron Rodgers talked about the offense needing to be simplified.

Asked about his quarterback’s comment, LaFleur said, “I don’t know what that means” and noted he had talked about it with Rodgers and discussed “a lack of execution.” He then said, “It always starts with us as coaches, trying to do a better job of getting guys to understand all the intricacies, because I think that’s really what separates a lot of plays in this league.

“And it really doesn’t matter what we do schematically. If we don’t block better, it’s hard to do anything. And I think that was the No. 1 issue yesterday.”

Bingo. Those words “if we don’t block better, it’s hard to do anything,” says it all.

Having exceptional “skill” players is great, but they won’t look very skilled if the line doesn’t do its job.

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph acknowledged that Tuesday after noting the job the Saints have done building their line in the draft and spending money on those positions.

Echoing LaFleur’s words, Joseph said, “That’s always your starting point on offense. If you can run the football and protect the passer, that allows you to dictate the game. If you can’t block people up front, you can’t play offense in this league. Offensive line, defensive line is always critical. That’s where it starts. It’s a big man’s game and to control the game it starts up there.”

I wonder …

If fans understand that the return of DeAndre Hopkins might not have the instant impact that many expect.

That doesn’t mean he won’t provide a lift, but there have to be realistic expectations for a guy that hasn’t played a game in 10 months.

Of course, in what I refer to as collective amnesia, many will acknowledge that prior to the game, but if he doesn’t have a great outing, it will somehow be Kingsbury’s fault (see above).

When asked Monday about how much the absence of Hopkins has affected the offense, the coach said, “I think you can watch how we’re playing offensively and see there’s more to it than that, but he definitely brings a dynamic that any team would want to have. When you have a true No. 1 like that, a playmaker that defenses have to be aware of each and every snap, it makes a difference in scheme and play-calling.

“We have more issues than that we’ve got to correct and we can’t just expect him to be the savior. We’re all excited to have him, what he brings, the competitor he is and all those things, but we’ve got a lot we’ve got to get better at.”

Of course, Kingsbury also said last week, “He won’t have any true practices next week because of the schedule setup, but he’s a guy you can throw out there and expect to make plays, there’s no doubt.”

Most important is that, from the jump, Hopkins can hopefully make plays to move the chains on third down or in the red zone. Last Sunday, when the Cardinals failed on 11 consecutive third downs, who knows what the result might have been had Hopkins helped convert a few of those third downs. That moves the chains, leads to more plays. As for inside the 20, of his 14 touchdown receptions in two seasons with the Cardinals six have been in the red zone, including four of the eight he scored last season. All six have also been from inside the 10-yard line.

And, as quarterback Kyler Murray said Tuesday when asked if he expects there to be some rust, “No, I’m not going into it thinking that at all. I know the first game we ever played together, we didn’t really have that many reps together in camp, and we came out the first game ever and it seemed like we played together for years.”

In that 2020 season opener in San Francisco, Hopkins was targeted 16 times, catching 14 for 151 yard with a long of 33.

Who knows; maybe he will be turn out to be Superman.

I know …

It drives people crazy when rookies don’t play much, especially in their first year, but there is a method to the madness of coaches figuring out when it’s time for significant snaps.

We’ve seen it with linebacker Zaven Collins and how far he’s come from last season to where he is now.

So it was that Kingsbury was asked last week about the decisions coaches have to make while figuring out if there would be enough positive plays to outweigh the errors that would happen.

He said, “That’s always the battle between coaches and personnel. Because coaches want guys that know what they’re doing and aren’t going to bust and give things up that are wide open and personnel wants to play the guys they brought in for a reason. So there’s a fine line you do walk sometimes.

“Teams are in different phases of building and things of that nature, but it’s cool to see when the young guys develop and whether it’s Week 4 or 5 or 6, we’re going to have some younger guys playing this week that have earned it and I think that’s important.”

Joseph agreed. He said Tuesday, “That’s tough for a coach. It’s where you are in the season, it’s who is playing in front of those young guys. But obviously they’ve got to play to get better. The question for a coach is, is it worth those four or five plays that might lose the game. It’s tough. There’s no good answer for it. It’s week to week, it’s player to player.

“Some guys get it quicker than others. It takes some guys longer but once they get it, they get it and they play well. But I think with Cam (Thomas) and Zaven and Isaiah (Simmons) and (Myjai) Sanders, it’s been a good timeline. It’s been on their terms, I should say. That’s what you want as a coach. Some guys play too early and they have failure and never come back to you. Some guys, it takes them a while and they play good and always play good for you. So it’s a balancing act for a coach.”

Linebacker Jesse Luketa was active for his first game Sunday, while Sanders has now been active for the last two games. That led to the release last Saturday of Devon Kennard, who was signed to Baltimore’s practice squad Tuesday.

Asked the reason for Kennard’s release, Kingsbury said, “Just the young guys. We felt like it was time. DK has been awesome. Another guy (that’s a) tremendous leader, person; all those things. A great player for us and he had some opportunities too that I think was better for him as we developed these young guys. It was a deal that it was just time, but we couldn’t be more appreciative of that guy and what he brought to us.”

I hope …

That guard Cody Ford is ready to play sooner than later. The Cardinals need him as the replacement for Justin Pugh on the left side.

He was an important addition on Aug. 22 for the present and potentially the future, moreso now with it seeming unlikely that the 32-year-old Pugh will play again after suffering a torn ACL against Seattle.

Pugh contemplated retirement this past offseason and while it’s always difficult to have a career end because of injury, it’s hard to imagine him coming back from this injury to play again.

Ford would have been playing when Pugh had injury issues early in the season, but he suffered an ankle injury on the Thursday prior to the season opener and was placed on reserve/injured.

He was designated for return Tuesday and while it might be a stretch for him to be available Thursday night, the “mini-bye” after the game will hopefully help him be ready for the Week 8 game in Minnesota.

I wonder …

If anyone realizes how good the Cardinals defense is playing starting with the second half against the Raiders. In the first six quarters of the season, against the Chiefs and Las Vegas, the defense allowed 746 yards, stopped those teams only four times on 14 third downs and gave up eight touchdowns in nine red-zone trips.

In the last 18 quarters, the numbers have shown a shocking reversal. On third down, there have been only 16 third-down conversions on 50 attempts and five red-zone touchdowns in 14 trips. Overall, opponents have averaged only 71.0 yards and 4.3 points per quarter.

One part of the good fortune has been good health, especially compared to the offense.

In the first six games, there have been seven injured offensive players inactive for 10 games, four players on reserve/injured miss 18 games and, of course, the six missed games for Hopkins. Of the 12 players that missed 34 games, 10 have been starters or key backups.

On defense, there have been four injured players inactive for nine games and three on reserve/injured for 12. That’s a total of 21 missed games and three starters missed only seven games.

Joseph agreed that “absolutely” the group has been mostly healthy, and added, “Having our guys intact for four years, this defense is playing food football because it’s our guys. It’s the fourth year of the scheme. We have a great staff, we have good young players, they’re getting better each week and it’s a mindset: Being your best every single day and working that way, practicing that way and playing that way on Sundays.

“Again, it’s the entire process, it’s not just playing on Sundays. Our young guys are embracing that. Practicing, studying resting, just being good pros and our staff pushes it every single day about the process of winning. And that’s important for young guys to understand.”

Surely key to it is that players have been on the field most days for practice and games.

On offense, prior to this week, there have been 53 no-practice days with 21 of those for rest. Of those 53 days, 21 have been for offensive linemen, eight of which were for rest. Defensively, there have been 33 no-practice days with only one for rest.

Kingsbury credited the success to the defense’s “effort and attention to detail. They’re doing things right for most of the game. Playing clean really, too, not a bunch of penalties. So really impressed with the level they’re playing at.”

And a large part of that is surely traced to being healthy.

I know …

That in the minds of many, hope has been lost for this season. That’s a tad premature, especially with 11 games to play and the mediocrity that exists on several levels in the NFL.

One narrative is that the team’s offense is broken, and while there are certainly numerous issues, if this one’s broken, there are a lot of other broken ones in the league.

As bad as it’s been, there are numerous teams worse. We just don’t see them on a weekly basis.

Currently, there are only 10 teams in the NFL with winning records and only four are in the NFC. Two of the AFC teams are the Colts at 3-2-1 and Titans at 3-2 because they had their bye last week. Seven teams will be in the playoffs in each conference.

There is time to right the ship, although it certainly is listing.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com


Howard Balzer is in his 47th year covering professional football as a writer, editor and broadcaster and has covered 41 Super Bowls. His connection with pro football began in 1976 with College and Pro Football Newsweekly, and since then he has been a featured columnist for The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, USA Today Sports Weekly and The Sports Xchange. Balzer moved to St. Louis in 1978 to work for The Sporting News, where he became Pro Football Editor in 1979. He was an analyst on ESPN's initial broadcast of the NFL Draft in 1980 and continued in that role through 1988. He has won seven writing awards in the Professional Football Writers of America competition, won an Emmy for commentaries on KPLR-TV in St. Louis in 1986 and was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 and 1990. He was named the 2016 winner of the Bob Broeg Media Award presented by the St. Louis/Tom Lombardo Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. The award is for enthusiasm, integrity, professionalism and devotion to the game of football and is reserved for individuals whose contributions to football in the St. Louis area have made a significant difference. Balzer was an officer (secretary and secretary/treasurer) for the Professional Football Writers of America for 33 years and was inducted into the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. Balzer relocated to the Phoenix area in 2020 as the publisher of the FanNation AllCardinals site and is now the Cardinals reporter for PHNX. He is entering his 19th year as one of 49 voting members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is also on the Hall's Seniors Committee. He is the co-host of the weekly Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show on SiriusXM NFL Radio and is a part-time host at ArizonaSports 98.7 FM.