NFL 2016: Palmer mindset pivotal in another all or nothing year for Cardinals


Bruce Arians was in no mood to take the positives after last season's humbling loss to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game.

"Unless you put a ring on your finger, the season is not a success," Arians said. "If that confetti's not falling on your head, it's a bad year. We're about winning the championship."

That quote is typical of the mindset of the Arizona Cardinals' charismatic head coach, it is all or nothing, which just so happened to be the title of a documentary series that followed the rollercoaster that was their 2015 season. 

The Panthers' emphatic 49-15 win over Arizona ensured that series ended on a flat note, but the Cardinals displayed an Arians-like aggression in the offseason in a bid to make sure the 2016 campaign ends in a more celebratory manner.

Arizona's league-leading offense was supported by a top-five defense in 2015, but the Cardinals still had a weakness, finishing 20th in the league in sacks with 36, and they made moves to address that, the headliner being a trade with the New England Patriots for Chandler Jones. 

Two of Jones' four seasons with the Patriots ended with him posting double-digit sacks. He had 12.5 in 2015 and will be supported by an exciting young cast of pass rushers after the Cardinals took what many believe to be a big gamble in the draft.

The Cardinals spent their first-round pick on Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, a character risk whose indiscretions included him being charged for marijuana possession after falling out of a hotel window in December, but a player whose freakish athleticism belies a man of his 300lb size and should allow him to be a force on the interior of the defensive line.

Arizona will hope the gamble on Nkemdiche will pay off in the same way as the risk they took on Tyrann Mathieu did. Mathieu is the star of the secondary and arguably the best all-round defensive player in the league, having come into the NFL after being kicked off the LSU program in 2012.

Outside linebacker Markus Golden should also be a factor after four sacks and two forced fumbles in his rookie year and, while there are depth concerns in the secondary, the Cardinals' biggest question mark surrounds the offense and quarterback Carson Palmer.

Palmer was an MVP candidate in 2015, but lost out to the man who eventually ended his season, Cam Newton, and concerns over the 36-year-old linger after two extremely poor playoff performances against the Green Bay Packers and the Panthers, throwing six interceptions across those two games as he battled a finger injury.

In a stacked NFC and with Russell Wilson and a once-again well-fancied Seattle Seahawks team in their division, the Cardinals cannot afford Palmer to have a hangover from the meltdown he suffered on that rainy night in Charlotte.

And he remains in an excellent position to succeed, the Cardinals already boasted two of the league's better offensive linemen in guard Mike Iupati and tackle Jared Veldheer and have added further quality in the trenches with the acquisition of guard Evan Mathis.

He also has the support of a ground game led by a running back coming off a 12-touchdown rookie season in David Johnson and speedy receivers John Brown and J.J. Nelson, who provide an excellent complement to likely future Hall of Fame inductee Larry Fitzgerald.

Palmer has all the weapons he needs to lead Arizona to another excellent year and the Cardinals have made a concerted effort to try to keep him upright more often by bringing in Mathis.

The Cardinals are perfectly positioned to be NFC powerhouses again and replicate last season's 13-3 record, but it is Palmer and his ability to put last season's nightmare finish behind him that will ultimately determine whether the confetti is falling on them at Super Bowl LI in Houston.