Complex offense behind Cards' struggles

October, 5, 2013
10/05/13
5:00
PM ET
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona coach Bruce Arians knows how to present a joke.

He looks like a seasoned comic in front of the media, knowing what will draw laughs and what won’t. So when he approached one of his punch lines Monday afternoon, he was in perfect form. He teed it up. Nailed it. Then waited for a reaction.

But there wasn’t anything except for a bit of stunned silence.

“Offensively,” Arians set it up, “it was putrid.”

Pause.

Silence.

This wasn’t a joke, however. This was an apt description of not just the Cardinals’ inability to move the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4 but their offensive struggles as a whole this season.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCoach Bruce Arians is optimistic that WR Larry Fitzgerald and his teammates will soon fully grasp Arizona's offensive scheme.
“That’s a good defense,” Arians said, referring to the Bucs, “but we continually harmed ourselves with mental errors, which sounds very repetitive but it is getting repetitive for me too.”

The Cardinals rank 26th in total yards per game, 27th in rushing yards per game and 17th in passing yards per game. But there’s more. They’re 30th in third-down percentage and 31st in red zone percentage.

It sounds like a broken record, but Arizona continues to struggle on third down, converting just 29 percent this season. The two teams worse than the Cardinals, the St. Louis Rams and the New York Giants, are 1-3 and 0-4, respectively. Despite struggling to move the ball, Arizona has been able to manage a .500 record.

While a lot of that has to do with the defense, the offense, when executed properly, has shown to be an effective force. It moves the ball quickly while eating up chunks of yards with a balance of running and passing.

But it’s not just poor decisions and third downs that have derailed more drives this season than Arians can count. The Cardinals don’t yet have a complete understanding of the offense after six months of learning it.

“I haven’t seen it take this long ever,” Arians said. “We’ve looked at it long and hard as a coaching staff, if we’re asking too much, and everyone decided obviously not. We just have to do a better job as coaches and players.”

Backup quarterback Drew Stanton watched Arians install the same offense last season in Indianapolis as the offensive coordinator then interim head coach. There are small changes this season, mainly because of personnel and opponents, but the Colts didn't take as long to pick it up.

Arians wants to create mismatches as often as possible, and that philosophy has changed how players like wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald approach the offense. Fitzgerald has been moved around the field for the first time in his career, lining up out wide, in the slot, off the line and everywhere in between.

He struggled to pick up the added positions during organized team activities and minicamp, but after an entire offseason, he figured out where he needed to be. Yet Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd can still be seen changing positions at the last second before a snap or figuring out where to go coming out of a huddle.

“At times there are moments where there’s a little bit of confusion,” Fitzgerald said. “I think guys, overall, are getting better at digesting things that are going on. This week, hopefully, it’ll be a lot sharper.

“We’re going to do some things to make things a little bit easier for guys to go out there and play fast.”

Last week, there were 180 plays on the quarterbacks’ wristbands, a high number around the league.

“I don’t think it’s any more complicated than it has been in the past from my limited knowledge of last year’s experience,” Stanton said.

But complicated it still is.

Even for Fitzgerald, who’s known for being among the most studious players in the NFL, the variances in Arians’ offense are a lot to comprehend.

“Just a lot of nuances. Just a lot of just specific things,” Fitzgerald said. “A route could be run one way in this coverage, and it could be run a different way in [that coverage] based on coverage. There’s a lot of different things you have to pick up pre-snap and also while you’re running the route.

“Once you get it, it’s pretty indefensible because they can’t guess right. They can’t play coverages that’s gonna take it away if you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re on the same page as your quarterback. We’re just trying to get to that point where it’s just second nature. It’s like just playing ball with your buddies in the backyard, and that’s how we want to get to.”

It will take practice, Arians said.

One thing Arians has stressed since he arrived was the importance of all 11 players being on the same page. If 10 are and one isn’t, quarterback Carson Palmer said, the play will be a dud.

So far, the Cardinals have had more plays with 10 men on the same page instead of 11, Palmer added.

For weeks, the general feeling has been the Cardinals are one play away from their offense churning out points and eating up yards on every drive. Whether it’s converting a third down or finishing in the red zone, it always comes down to one play. In practice, those plays are being finished and mistakes aren’t being made, just in games.

Palmer can’t figure out why. Neither can Arians. Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin sees it too. Some Cards are picking up the offense faster than others, but the offensive flashes during the past two weeks have proved to Goodwin what can happen once all 11 players are on the same page.

“Trust me,” Goodwin said, “the play would work.”

Josh Weinfuss

ESPN Arizona Cardinals reporter

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