But as great as Johnson was last season, the offense overall took a significant step back. The reality is the Cardinals are driven through the air, a natural by-product of a coach who lives by the mantra “No risk it, no biscuit.”
Reaching the magical heights the passing game was at two years ago, when quarterback Carson Palmer was a legitimate MVP candidate and the Cardinals sported a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, would be difficult. But significant improvement is necessary to climb back into contention status.
“I believe we can put up a lot of numbers,” said John Brown, one of those 1,000-yard wide receivers. “We have the weapons, and I think we have more weapons than we did in 2015.”
Since Arians arrived, Palmer’s play and the overall arc of the passing offense has virtually mirrored the success of the
team.* In 2013, when Palmer and the receivers were trying to learn Arians’ complicated system, the Cards started 3-4 with Palmer throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. The team finished 7-2 as Palmer found a groove, throwing 16 TD passes to just nine interceptions down the stretch (and that was including a 1-TD, 4-INT win in Seattle.)
* In 2014, Palmer, who was now confident in the offense, played just six games. The Cards won all six, and Palmer threw 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. But the team, after starting 9-1, went 11-5 and was whacked in the wild-card game with both Palmer and backup Drew Stanton hurt.
* In 2015, Palmer had 35 TD passes and just 11 interceptions as the Cardinals bombed their way to 13 wins.
* In 2016, with protection breaking down constantly and the receivers outside of Larry Fitzgerald inconsistent, there was no rhythm. Sacked 30 times in the first nine games, Palmer had just 13 TD passes and 10 interceptions. In the last six games, with the Cardinals working harder to use a quicker passing game, sacks dropped to 10 and Palmer still had 13 TD passes (with just four interceptions.)
“With or without John Brown’s health, I’m extremely confident,” Arians said. “Especially with where Carson is (but) more because I feel good about our protection and the rest of the guys.”
Brown’s health – he isn’t completely recovered from his quad injury, but he will play Sunday – helped mangle last
year’s passing game. The man they call Smoke fell off by more than 600 yards, and his ability to stretch the field as well as play multiple positions may make him the key to the whole passing offense.Both Arians and Palmer hedged on Brown’s importance Wednesday – “We don’t change the offense (if he’s out), we don’t put in different plays,” Palmer said – but getting him back to 2015 levels is crucial.
Johnson, who is as dangerous as a receiver as a runner, does have a much larger role now. Michael Floyd isn’t around, but Jaron Brown could be primed to echo a Floyd-type year. Fitzgerald is in a position to have another 100-catch season. J.J. Nelson is finally experienced. Palmer has high praise for tight ends Jermaine Gresham and a finally healthy Troy Niklas.
“I really like where we are with the receivers, obviously, but with the tight ends too,” Palmer said.
Arians also has tinkered with the focus of the throws, not shunning the deep pass but throwing quicker more often and avoiding back-to-the-line play-action throws to help Palmer’s protection.
Johnson will get his run, but where the Cardinals want to go, they’ll pass.
“We’re not going into the season thinking timid anything,” left tackle D.J. Humphries said. “B.A. doesn’t coach like that, we don’t play like that. Whatever it is, run or pass, we’ll be downhill with it. Full-go.”