The Arizona Cardinals (4-0) are off to their best start in 38 years following their 24-21 come-from-behind win in overtime against the Miami Dolphins (1-3). The Cardinals struggled in every phase of the game at various times, and the Dolphins impressive passing game appeared to have assured them of a win for most of the game. However, Cardinals resilience saw them battle back and take the game into overtime—familiar territory for the both teams—where the Dolphins once again suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss, and the Cardinals secured the teams longest home winning streak in 87 years. In the end, a few big defensive plays and a few competent Cardinals offensive drives were enough to sugar coat the team's other deficiencies, and white-wash the Dolphins' otherwise spectacular offensive performance.
The Cardinals have a short week to prepare for their division rival St. Louis Rams (2-2) this Thursday night, while the Dolphins travel to Cincinnati to face 3-1 Bengals on Sunday. Both teams clearly have a lot to learn from the game, but who were the real winners and losers?
Winner—Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins. In spite of his team's loss, without a doubt, Ryan Tannehill should be viewed as the biggest winner of this game. Tannehill threw for 431 yards and one TD, completing 26 of 41 passes for a 63.4 completion percentage. Tannehill set a Dolphins rookie record, surpassing Dan Marino's 322 yards by nearly 100 yards. He was also just a single yard shy of tying the NFL's all time rookie record, set by Cam Newton last season. The Cardinals secondary had been relatively solid through the first three weeks, but was picked apart by Tannehill and receiver Brian Hartline (another winner, read on).
Tannehill was particularly impressive under pressure. Though he was eventually sacked 4 times, for a loss of 37 yards, against the Cardinals ferocious pass rush this alone, could be considered a win. Those numbers could easily have been doubled if not for Tannehill's pocket presence, awareness and strength shrugging off multiple attempts to knock down the rookie QB in his own backfield. Tannehill's game was not, unfortunately, perfect. The Cardinals forced the QB to fumble the ball once late in the game, setting up Kevin Kolb's game tying touchdown drive, and he was also picked off twice, though neither interception was really the fault of the quarterback.
It's tough to pass for more than 430 yards on the road, and still leave with a loss. But against a Cardinals defense considered by most to be one of the top units in the league, Tannehill should nonetheless be very encouraged by his performance. The rookie is improving week-on-week, and quickly looking like the future franchise quarterback the Dolphins hoped he would be. As the teams schedule softens around their bye week, with games against St. Louis, the New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans wins will almost certainly follow, and Tannehill appears set to finally end the post-Marino QB doldrums which have plagued this team.
Losers—The Arizona Cardinals Offensive Line. The Cardinals O-line has been much maligned for many years. In 2012, Cardinals fans were expecting it to be, if anything, worse than ever before, with injuries thrusting 2012 third round pick Bobby Massie and and journeyman backup D'Anthony Batiste into the lineup at right and left tackle respectively. Neither man had ever started an NFL game at those positions, and the prospect left the Cardinals fans in the unfamiliar position of wishing Levi Brown and Jeremy Bridges were back in the lineup. However, through 3 games, the line looked relatively solid, giving Kevin Kolb the time he needed to step up and make some plays.
In Week 4, however, for the first time this season the Cardinals patchwork offensive line looked every bit as bad as most had feared. Kolb was hit 10 times throughout the game, 8 of which were recorded as sacks. Kolb can legitimately feel grieved about one of those sacks, where a very early whistle robbed him of the opportunity to escape pressure and make a play, however none of that changes the fact that altogether too much pressure was allowed to reach the Cardinals quarterback.
Play calling didn't help. The Cardinals rarely used their tight ends or running backs as extra blockers, in spite of the obvious success on those occasions where they did. They also abandoned the running game too early, in spite of the fact that Kolb was perfect on play-action passes. However, all of those are moot points really. Unlike previous years, the Cardinals TE's are pass catchers, not blockers. Ryan Williams is a quick and elusive back with the ability to catch passes, not a blocker either. Put simply, the Cardinals need more from their O-line. Both tackles struggled against even the most vanilla of pass rushes by the Dolphins and were regularly torched.
Limiting Kolb to short drops and screen passes is no recipe for sustained success in the NFL. In Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts the Cardinals have the skills to stretch the field, but the O-line need to give their QB more time to do so.
Winner—Kevin Kolb, QB, Arizona Cardinals. In spite of leading the team to their best start in a generation, it's important to remember that Kolb was still not—officially at least—considered the starter in Arizona coming into this game. Kolb lost the position in preseason, and only regained it after an injury to John Skelton in Week 1 gifted him a chance at redemption. It is rare for a quarterback to lose his job permanently due to injury—though this did happen to Kolb himself in Philadelphia—and with Skelton's return from injury immanent, Kolb knew that only the best would be good enough. In 2011, the Cardinals refused to name Skelton permanent starter once Kolb returned from injury, in spite of the replacement QB's winning form, and Skelton only won the job full time after a second injury effectively ended Kolb's season.
This fact must certainly be playing on Kolb's mind. In Week 4, however, Kolb may just have done enough to usurp the starters position permanently, even once Skelton returns from injury. Kolb completed 29-of-48 attempts for a season high 324 yards and three touchdowns. As previously mentioned, Kolb was perfect on play action passes, something the Cardinals must utilise more. Sacks certainly hurt the Cardinals field position, severely affecting Kolb's third down completion percentage, but he also completed two surgical strikes on fourth down late in the game to keep the Cardinals in contention. Kolb spread the ball out well, completing passes to eight different players, and, when given even average protection looked competent standing in the pocket. Even his eight sacks have something of a silver lining.
Kolb has been often criticised for taking off running, and throwing to the sidelines at even the slightest whiff of pressure. Many accused him of looking like a man scared for his life. While few would consider sacks a good thing, it does at least demonstrate that this no longer appears to be the case. Kolb is willing to take licks, and as a result of standing tall has completed some truly spectacular plays when it really mattered. While still far from elite numbers, the Cardinals passing game under Kolb is proving to be efficient and perfectly serviceable, and this may be just enough to see Kolb retain his job going forward.
Loser—Kevin Kolb, QB, Arizona Cardinals. Yes, Kolb is also a loser in this scenario too. If nothing short of a perfection would guarantee Kolb's continued starting position as the Cardinals QB, then unfortunately, he in many ways also failed to deliver. Kolb threw two picks against the Dolphins, both of which could be placed squarely on his shoulders. His second interception, late in the fourth quarter, nearly ended the Cardinals day, and was totally inexcusable. After a Patrick Peterson fumble return gave the Cardinals possession on the Miami 3 yard line, Kolb proceeded to stare down Larry Fitzgerald, then simply under threw the pass, which was picked off by Sean Smith in the end zone, who clearly had Fitzgerald covered the whole way. The very next Dolphins play was an 80 yard touchdown pass to Brian Hartline. Kolb looked inconsistent throughout the game.
At times, he was as good as any QB in the NFL, leading near-perfect drives, full of great reads and inch perfect passes, but at other times Kolb looked exactly like the sub-par passer who causes Cardinals fans to wince every time he drops back to pass. He made more than his fair share of the under thrown passes, poorly positioned balls and questionable reads which dogged his 2011 season. And while I have previously praised his eight sacks as positive sign of his confidence standing tall in the pocket—which they are—one has to wonder if quicker reads and better decision making could have allowed at least some of those 55 yards to be registered as, at least, incomplete passes, and even short gains. Kolb once again committed some of those knucklehead plays which have throughout his career prevented him from moving into the upper echelons of NFL passers.
In the end, a win is likely enough to overcome those negatives and allow him to keep his starters job. But he will have to know that it wasn't enough for Skelton in 2011, and that those poor plays may have left the door open just wide enough for Skelton to muscle his way back into contention when he returns from injury.
Winner—Brian Hartline, WR, Miami Dolphins. While Ryan Tannehill was setting rookie records passing, Brian Hartline was the biggest beneficiary of that, setting Dolphins records of his own. Hartline ended the game with 12 receptions for 253 yards and an 80 yard touchdown reception. This is the very definition of a career game for Hartline who is quickly becoming a legitimate receiving threat for the Dolphins. In Week 2, Hartline caught 9 passes for 111 yards, and his Week 4 performance against the Cardinals may just cement his position as the go-to receiver in Miami. The Dolphins front office were always convinced that Tannehill would one day develop into a legitimate passer. However, many questioned the weapons he had available to him at receiver. Hartline and Davone Bess—who himself posted an impressive 7 receptions for 123 yards—may not yet be considered amongst the top receiving combo's in the game, but against the Cardinals, certainly demonstrated their potency.
That the receivers were able only to post 7 points through the air should not be considered a real negative. The Cardinals have one of the toughest pass rushes and red-zone defenses in the league. They simply do not give up that many points. That they were exploited for as many yards as they were should be the measure of these receivers. Few teams would give up as many yards as the Cardinals did through the air, and not concede more points. While Hartline should not expect too many more 250+ yard passing games, he should certainly continue to find the end-zone. And as Tannehill continues to develop as a QB, and Hartline becomes his go-to receiver, then points and acclaim are sure to follow.
This sort of success, of course, is always a double-edged sword. Teams now have much more film of Hartline and Tannehill to study, and will certainly do a better job of preparing for him in future games. But with Reggie Bush an ever-present threat at running back, teams are likely to continue sell out to shut down the run, leading to many favourable match ups for the receiver. Loser—Patrick Peterson, PR, Arizona Cardinals. First, a point of distinction. I don't have too much bad to say about Patrick Peterson, the cornerback. While it would be hard to call anyone in the Cardinals secondary a winner, given the where number of yards given up through the air, Peterson did enough to keep the Cardinals in contention.
His coverage was not too regularly exploited, and his fumble recovery nearly gave the Cardinals a decisive win earlier in the game. Yes, the Cardinals pass defense was exploited horribly at times, but Peterson was in no way the worst offender. Patrick Peterson the punt returner, on the other hand, was certainly one of the Cardinals low points. In 2011, Peterson tied an NFL single season record for punt's returned for touchdowns. It would be impossible to categorise Peterson as anything other than an elite and supremely dangerous return man. Throughout 2012, however, Peterson has looked decidedly average as a punt returner.
Through one quarter of the season, Peterson has failed to even come close to a deadly return, and those which have been returned have often been questionable calls on Peterson's part. In Week 4, however, Peterson was not just average, but in fact, a liability on punt returns. Peterson struggled on practically all of his returns. He muffed not one, but two punts, and additionally fumbled the ball at the end of one short return. Perhaps Peterson had suffered some hand injury we don't know about, perhaps he was just over confident or over thinking it, but whatever the reason Peterson just struggled to keep hold of the ball.
Fortunately for Peterson, he was at least aware enough to recover his own fumbles and muffed punts—in fact, his numbers were spectacular for any fantasy football owners which uses IDP's, where he was credited for his recoveries, but not the initial fumbles themselves—but nonetheless, this hurt his perception as an elite punt returner, and his teams trust in him. Additionally, his decision to fair catch a ball destined for a touchback on the five yard line speaks of a player who's head simply wasn't in the game. And this is a big problen given the struggles that the team have had moving the ball offensively at times.
Peterson needs to return to the fundamentals of punt returning—ball security, and knowing when to call for fair catches, and when to let it go over his head—and this game will likely shake him out of whatever has been affecting him recently. Hopefully Peterson will soon be returning punts for huge gains and TD's again, but it is simply impossible to classify this game as anything other than a huge loss.
Other winners. Andre Roberts. Roberts had the best game of the season, hauling in six catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Roberts is steadily establishing himself as a talented and dependable receiver, especially on clutch plays. However, it's hard to consider this a bigger win, as Kolb seems to dial in on a different receiver each week. And with Michael Floyd being integrated more and more into the teams regular, it seems only a matter of time until Roberts returns to the slot receiver role. This is probably his best position, but will perhaps limit his opportunities to make regular plays down the line.
Sean Smith. Smith had two picks, and 31 return yards for the Dolphins. His second catch in particular showed wideout like reflexes, securing the ball and tapping both feet in bounds. However, it's easy to catch balls when they are thrown straight to you. Smith should not expect too many more picks quite as easy as that again in his career. Smith would have been a bigger winner against a tougher quarterback, but Kolb is not quite in that league yet.
Cameron Wake. Wake was credited on 4.5 of the Dolphins sacks. Most teams would be happy with four sacks total, let alone an individual player. Yet, this came against an unbelievably porous Cardinals offensive line. Without a doubt, this is a win for the player but since these are his first sacks this season, one has to wonder how many he can expect against better offensive lines.
Darnell Dockett. It may seem odd to list a player who didn't even take to the field as a winner in this game, yet only when he is not present do you realise just what he brings to the Cardinals. Their unusual 2-4-5 system works precisely because Dockett and Campbell are so unbelievably disruptive up front. Their pass rush and secondary are as effective as they are because these two men are able to do a job which would take four men on many other teams. Nick Eason is a serviceable backup, but nowhere in Dockett's league. He neccesitates a more standard 3-4 look, and the rest of the Cardinals defense felt out of sync because of it. It's not that the Cardinals pass rush was a lame duck without Dockett, they still managed multiple sacks and QB hurries, but it certainly did not seem quite so ferocious as it often is. And, as we've mentioned, their secondary was thoroughly exploited at times. Dockett was certainly missed, and if the Cardinals have to play without him for much longer, may contunue to struggle to adjust.
Jay Feely. Feely's 46 yard field goal in overtime won the game for the Cardinals. Adding his three extra points, Feely has made all 17 kicks attempted this season. But let's be honest, who expected any different? He may not have the biggest leg, but when the Cardinals send in their Kicker, they are confident he'll put points on the board.
Other Losers. The Arizona Cardinals Secondary. The Cardinals secondary struggled to contain a rookie QB and two mid-tier receivers all day. Fortunately their big-play ability, and more than a little bit of good luck prevented the game from turning into a bloodbath. However, the Cardinals secondary cannot expect to give up 500+ total yards and walk away with a win too often. The Cardinals have always been willing to allow more yardage than other elite defenses, knowing that they have an uncanny ability to stop teams in the red zone. Yet one has to wonder what a more experienced quarterback would have done in Tannehill's situation. Big stops and good turnover differential are no substitute for good fundamentals, which sadly seemed lacking on the Cardinals secondary at times. Nonetheless, expect them to rebound quickly.
The Miami Dolphins Fans. A quick glance around the stadium showed some solid fan representation for the Dolphins, considering that they were on the road on the opposite side of the country. However, for the second time in as many weeks, the Dolphins have lost games which they could legitimately claim they could, and perhaps should, have won, in overtime. OT losses are particularly heartbreaking, especially on those cases, like against the Cardinals, when your team lead for such large portions of the game. Losing your fan base often ends in losing more than just games, so the Dolphins will need to do everything in their power to win their fans back around quickly. But after back-to-back overtime losses, this may be a tough ask on the road against a tough Bengals team. It's hard to imagine quite so many Dolphins fans travelling to Cincinnati as did to Arizona and a loss to the Bengals could signal the end of the teams playoff dreams. Tough times indeed for the Miami faithful.