Cardinals did well to finish 8-8

Jan 4, 2018 - 1:41 AM TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was not what they wanted, but when the Arizona Cardinals look back at the 2017 season, they will not consider their 8-8 finish a failure.

Considering they were forced to place 15 players on injured reserve, including seven Week-1 starters, and saw 30 players miss a grand total of 180 games, finishing with a .500 record was quite an accomplishment.

The Cardinals got there despite losing their best player, running back David Johnson, to a fractured left wrist in the season opener. Starting quarterback Carson Palmer missed the final nine games after suffering a broken left arm. Outside linebacker Markus Golden, who led the team with 12.5 sacks a year ago, missed the final 12 games after suffering a torn ACL.

Ten other starters would also end up on season-ending injured reserve, including four of their five offensive linemen and their leading tackler and interception leader, safeties Tyvon Branch and Antoine Bethea, respectively. Not only that, but Arizona was down to its third-string quarterback for five straight games in Blaine Gabbert.

The Cardinals would end up losing two key people immediately after the season, as head coach Brue Arians and Palmer announced their retirements on back-to-back days. They each joined the team for the start of the 2013 season.

"I could not be more proud of our group," Arians said after beating the Seahawks in Week 17, making him the all-time winningest coach in franchise history with 50 wins. "To take this group to 8-8 has probably been the best coaching job our staff has ever done. There were 25 guys who were not in training camp on our roster today."

WHAT WENT RIGHT: The Cardinals proved they have the defense, at least, to remain a playoff contender. After being ranked 24th overall following a 33-0 loss to the Rams in London in Week 7, Arizona's defense finished the year ranked sixth overall (310.9 yards per game). It marked the first time in franchise history the Cardinals' defense finished in the top 10 in three consecutive seasons, following a No. 2 ranking last year and a No. 5 ranking in 2015. The cornerstone players are still on the roster: pass rusher Chandler Jones, shut-down cornerback Patrick Peterson, ball-hawk safety Tyrann Mathieu. The unit should continue to be formidable.

WHAT WENT WRONG: The Cardinals had some shining moments, but the lack of a consistent running game is ultimately what hurt the offense and this team the most. The Cardinals finished 30th in rushing, averaging just 86.6 yards per game. It didn't help that they lost David Johnson to a season-ending wrist injury in the opener at Detroit. The trade for Adrian Peterson looked like a steal after he ran for 134 and 159 yards in two of his first three games for the Cardinals, but he would end up missing the last five games with a neck injury. The diminutive Kerwynn Williams played his tail off down the stretch, averaging 71 yards in the final five games despite dealing with quadriceps, ribs and back issues, but it wasn't enough.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: The Cardinals were willing to let veteran Calais Campbell leave via free agency primarily because they thought they had found his replacement in 2016 first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche. Instead, the big defensive tackle failed to live up to expectations for a second straight year. He finished 2017 with just 12 total tackles and still has yet to register his first NFL sack. Nkemdiche shows flashes of brilliance, but still relies too much on sheer physical traits and not nearly enough on technique, which could become his downfall.

MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Although he didn't join the starting lineup until Week 10 -- and then only because of a season-ending knee injury to veteran Tyvon Branch -- rookie Budda Baker soared with increased playing time. The second-round pick out of Washington took over at strong safety and finished sixth on the team in tackles (61), forced two fumbles and had a sack. He also was named to the Pro Bowl as the NFC's special teams ace after ranking among NFL leaders with 16 tackles on special teams.

ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: Third-year defensive coordinator James Bettcher inherited some great players from former coordinator Todd Bowles, but he didn't regress and instead, kept the Cardinals' defense among the league's very best for a third consecutive year. Arizona's defense ranks as the league's fourth-best overall during that span, allowing 312.6 yards per game, and it was enough to get him a formal interview for the team's vacant head coaching position following the retirement of Bruce Arians.

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