Everybody loves an underdog or maybe it is a case of everybody cheering against the perennial favorite. Teams and players often seem to thrive with the proverbial chip on their shoulder – a perceived slight, the notion that they are disrespected or underappreciated, or any other number of reasons players and coaches seem to come up with to motivate themselves.
Perhaps the biggest test in the NFL is to succeed when everyone expects it and you have a target on your back. That is the situation the Arizona Cardinals find themselves in for the first time in a very long time (perhaps ever). The Cardinals are considered one of the favorites for the 2016 season. That is a role they have not played over most of their long franchise history.
When they went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2008 season they started the year picked to finish 20th in the NFL. They went on to a 9-7 record then proceeded to ride the arm of Kurt Warner into the Super Bowl, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 2013, they were picked to finish 24th in the league and after starting 4-0 went through 4 quarterbacks before finishing 5-11. Out went Ken Whisenhunt. In came Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer. Even with those changes they got no respect.
They were picked to finish third in their division behind Seattle and San Francisco in 2014. They won the division but had to hang on after Carson Palmer went down with a season ending knee injury. Then back-up QB Drew Stanton was injured in his first game and the Cards limped into the playoffs and lost in the first round to the Carolina Panthers.
Did they get any respect in 2015? Not really. Again the Seahawks were picked not only to win the division but the Super Bowl by most pundits. With a healthy Carson Palmer, the Cards finished 13-3 and lost in the Conference Finals to the Carolina Panthers. They manhandled their conference and other than a truly horrible game against the Panthers and a meaningless final regular season game against the Seahawks, they impressed throughout on both sides of the ball. They seemed to thrive in the underdog role over the past two seasons.
Fast forward to 2016. The Cards are favorites to repeat as Division Champs. Many see them making the Conference Finals again and several media outlets have placed them as a Super Bowl participant. So how will they do as front-runners? What makes the best franchises stay on top year after year?
In the case of the Cardinals it is simple – they haven’t won anything yet. Two banners for division champions won’t satisfy anyone in this organization. This is a team, and a coaching staff, with a tremendous desire to prove critics wrong. Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Calais Campbell will not rest on last year’s success. For the older veterans, like Palmer and Fitz they know their time is running out.
Until Peterson and Mathieu, along with the rest of the defense, get Super Bowl rings they will continue to hear the same trash talk from the Seattle defense that they listened to all last year. This in spite of the fact that they won the division by three games.
The organization from top to bottom has shown it isn’t going to rest on its laurels. They traded for Chandler Jones to fill the most glaring need – an edge rusher. They took a chance on Robert Nkemdiche as their first round pick, hoping the character issues that made other teams pass on him in the draft will be a thing of the past. If he has the same turnaround that Mathieu displayed, he is certainly the most gifted defensive lineman in the draft. They bolstered their offensive line with Evan Mathis. Everyone seems to be working harder, saying the right things and pushing to be even better than their 13-3 record from last year.
Maybe this is the year that the historic underdog flourishes under the pressure of being on top! Cardinals fans can certainly hope so.