History hasn't been kind to the Arizona Cardinals. But this is now, and the Cardinals are near the top of NFL. They are in a prime spot to stay atop the mountain with their dominant stats.
Handicappers Don’t Look at Polls
The best thing they do is confuse the public to soften up the numbers. Nonetheless, a handicapper watches the same media other sports fans do, so it’s impossible to avoid them entirely. I saw the ESPN NFL team rankings this morning. I was a bit taken aback when I saw they had the Cardinals rated the sixth best team. Curiosity got the best of me, so I checked some other sites. Fox Sports placed them 5th, Bleacher Report 6th CBS 7th and The Washington Post 8th. I had to wonder if they have been watching the same NFL season I have. Like all human polls, you can’t get past performance bias out of your rankings.
Somewhere in people’s brains is that incept Cardinal team that has been that way since…well, my whole life. But I’m only 59 years old, so it’s not like it’s forever. I have the Cardinals third in the subjective power ratings I use at Against The Number, behind the Patriots and Packers. As a side note, when I say ‘subjective’ it’s true, however there are a few purely statistical measurements that go into evaluating a teams ranking. One of the metrics I use is something I came up with years ago I call Game Power Score, or GPS. GPS measures outcomes versus the competition. It is results based with strength of schedule in the final GPS rating. Those GPS ratings have the Patriots on top, the Cardinals second and Packers third. I don’t proclaim those GPS numbers to be perfect, but they are a strong indicator of team’s relative strength and contain as little bias as I can put into a formula. If we delve a little deeper into the numbers, we can see it’s not just the GPS that stands out.
Almost Everything the Cardinals Do Stands Out
Some of the key numbers I look at are the differentials in possession scoring, yards per play, yards per pass attempt, passer rating and yards per point. I’m not going to run a chart of those differentials but the Cardinals are at or near the top of the league in virtually every one of them. One metric I particularly like is yards per play ratio. An efficient offense will require fewer yards to score a point than will an inefficient offense. Flip that for the defenses. For years the Patriots have been at or near the top of those rankings. Virtually every year. They tend to even out over time, but Bill Belichick’s team rarely varies. It made me awfully suspicious about the deflated footballs, but I don’t want to get into that here. With all due respect to Coach Belichick’s balls, it is a sign of good coaching when a team is consistently so efficient. Right now the Cardinals have the best yards per point ratio in the NFL. Since Bruce Arians arrived in Arizona, it is no secret this has been one of the best coached teams in the league. Last season was derailed because of injury to Carson Palmer. It is impossible to say how far they could have gone with their quarterback healthy.
Palmer has Remained Healthy
This season, so far so good concerning Palmer’s health. He obviously is the key, just like any NFL quarterback is to his team. This season the Cards have other talented players to rely on. Chris Johnson has had a resurgence at running back. Behind him are Andre Ellington and rookie David Johnson to ease his workload down the stretch of the long season. Together they average 5.0 yards per rush, best in the league. That is the sign of a strong offensive line. Larry Fitzgerald might have lost a step at wide receiver, but he is still dangerous. He gives Palmer the threat he needs as a go-to receiver. Defensively they have been among the league’s best as well. They stop the run, pressure the quarterback and defend the pass.
They are Tied for Second in Turnover Differential
Partly because of their league leading 11 interceptions. Combined they have the best scoring differential in the NFL. This is no fluke. This team is legit. I also read today a report from harvardsportsanalysis.org that said Bruce Arians is 26-11 against the spread as a head coach. That’s no fluke either. The man can coach. Coaches that cover numbers have a special place in my heart, if not in Gambler’s Heaven.
Arians has a very good team under him, too. They aren’t going away anytime soon. Overlook them with NFL picks at your peril.