It took two pick-sixes, and another interception returned to the three yard line, a muffed punt recovered at the 5-yard line and an inspired 31-yard touchdown run by Beanie Wells, but the Arizona Cardinals finally snapped their nine-game losing streak against a Detroit Lions team in the middle of their own nightmare season.
Just a week after being demolished against Seattle, in a game where it seemed the Cardinals couldn't get a single lucky bounce, the Cardinals managed to turn around their fortunes, and caught no end of lucky breaks themselves.
After falling behind 7-0 early in the second quarter, the Cardinals defense and special teams turned up the pressure, and didn't allow Detroit back into it. In previous games, the Cardinals defense had forced more than their fair share of turnovers, only to watch their excellent field position squandered by their team's offensive ineptitude. Against the Lions, they would not take any chances, returning interceptions 53 and 102 yards for touchdowns, and another 31 yards to within a few yards of the goal line, making it straightforward for a fully recovered Beanie Wells to punch the ball into the end zone.
The Cardinals special teams also played their part, with Michael Adams forcing a muffed punt, and recovering the ensuing live ball again within touching distance of the end zone. Indeed punter Dave Zastudil and the coverage team remained in fine form all day, dropping six punts inside the 20, and not allowing a single return for positive yardage.
The win will do little to change the teams overall fortunes of course, the team would need to win out the season, and for the St. Louis Rams to loose out in order to get even a third place NFC West finish. However, it did offer a poignant reminder of what could have been.
The Cardinals much maligned offensive line once again looked to be solid, in spite of still more changes to the starters. Nate Potter and Boobie Massie continue to improve at the tackle positions, effectively containing pressure against the Lions. Guard Adam Snyder looked better in the center position than he had ever had at guard, and even journeyman Pat McQuistan did a fine job stopping the ferocious pass rush of Ndamukong Suh.
One is forced to wonder what could have been if injuries had not decimated the offensive line, if Potter had been allowed to start the season in place of D’Anthony Batiste, or if Snyder could have discovered his calling as a center sooner.
The offense was once again largely ineffectual, especially on third down--converting just 2 of 12 attempts--but the continued improvements to the route running, positioning and catching of players like Michael Floyd and Rob Housler leave fans to wonder what might have been had the Cardinals managed to keep Kevin Kolb healthy, drafted a quarterback like Nick Foles or Kirk Cousins or--dare they even speculate--secured Peyton Manning.
Two of Beanie Wells three touchdowns would be considered by many to be gimmie's and his 68 yards rushing far from elite numbers, but the fact remains, he ran hard, at the heart of the Lions defense, and achieved success. While perhaps his 3 and 5 yard touchdown runs would be givens for many teams, for a struggling Cardinals offense, they are far from it, yet Wells found the end zone first time, both times.
And his later 31 yard touchdown was some of the better running Cardinals fans have seen all season. Great vision by Wells, coupled with great blocking by Daryn Colledge and the Cardinals offensive line combined to produce running the likes of which has been rarely seen in Arizona recently. Again, fans have to consider what might have been if Wells had remained healthy all season, and the Cardinals had committed to the run as consistently as they did against Detroit.
Play calling on offense remained patchy, and decisions on third down remain head-scratching. Short passes may be effective at times, but completing passes short of the first down marker, to well covered smaller players like Andre Roberts, and asking them to make up yards after contact is never going to be consistently successful. Players like Floyd and Fitzgerald can easily stretch any field, and their size and skills allow them to make plays on all but the worst-placed balls.
The improved offensive line was generally giving quarterback Ryan Lindlay the time he needed to allow plays to develop, designed short passes were not the only option he had, and players would have easily had the option to get at least to the first down marker before making the pass in most circumstances. Yet offensive coordinator Mike Miller rarely called those plays.
Fitzgerald was regularly one-on-one down the field later in the game, but those match ups were never exploited because of play calling. Instead, Lindlay was regularly asked to complete short screen passes or checkdown passes even when receivers were well open.
Miller is sure to be relieved of his duties in the off season, even if Wisenhunt remains--an eventuality which still seems somewhat unlikely to most--but in the offseason, the Cardinals had the chance to reunite Whisenhunt with the offensive coordinator which lead the Cardinals to a Super Bowl appearance, Todd Haley.
Haley was reportedly ready to join the Cardinals as offensive coordinator after being fired from Kansas City, but the Cardinals were not willing to release or demote Miller, offering Haley only a position coaches job. Haley would go on to join the Pittsburgh Steelers as offensive coordinator, where he has lead their offense to a 7-7 record, to remain very much in the hunt for a playoff berth, in spite of their own injury problems at quarterback.
Haley knew the Cardinals scheme well, had an eye for spotting and developing young offensive players--something that the Cardinals have no shortage of.
He was known to work well with Wisenhunt, and again, fans must question what could have been had the team entered 2012 with Haley, not Miller calling the offensive shots. While many players had their fair share of blame in the Cardinals nine game slump, the fact remains, conservative and predictable offensive play calling likely cost them more games than anything else. The Cardinals defensive success largely stems not from elite players--though the team clearly have some--but from the creative, unpredictable and at times, downright risky calling and scheming.
Haley would have brought exactly that sort of ideology back to the Cardinals offense, but instead, Miller made preparing to face the Cardinals offense altogether too easy with his vanilla play calling, and predictable, largely unsuccessful choices.
And again, one can only wonder just what may have been had he done so.