The Arizona Cardinals opened the season with a 23-21 loss to the New England Patriots. That, on the surface, doesn’t seem like a big deal.
A two-point loss to the great Bill Belichick? That’s practically a victory in itself, right?
Not for these Arizona Cardinals, though. Not when you have championship aspirations. Not when you’re on your home field. And not when the Patriots took the field without key players, including suspended quarterback Tom Brady (Deflate-gate) and defensive end Rob Ninkovich (PEDs).
The loss has Cardinals observers wondering what went wrong, with some pointing the finger at head coach Bruce Arians and questioning whether he prepared his players properly in the preseason.
Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic makes a case that perhaps Arians didn’t, wondering if he didn’t give his players enough game action in the exhibition games. As evidence, he points to multiple times where quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Michael Floyd crossed wires, as well as numerous missed tackles on defense.
Somers also points out that Belichick played his players much more in preseason games than Arians did, offering that up as evidence for Sunday’s result.
Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones, for instance, played 35 preseason snaps, while his replacement in New England, Chris Long, played 116. Palmer played only 40 preseason snaps, while Jimmy Garoppolo played 113 and even Brady played 55.
The whole case is backed by a rather strong quote from Belichick, who said: “You can’t take out insurance on players. I don’t know how you get better playing football without playing football.”
That’s a good point, but doesn’t answer the core question here: How does a coach balance the need to get his players up to game speed vs the desire to keep them healthy? Is there a tried and true way to do it?
While it’s hard to argue against much of anything that Belichick does, there is no evidence that his way is perfect. Would the Cardinals have beaten the Patriots if Arians have given Palmer 15-20 more preseason snaps? It’s impossible to prove that one way or another. Basically it comes down to a coach knowing his players and knowing what he is comfortable with.
Every situation is different. Perhaps if Arians had six Super Bowl appearances and four championships under his belt – like Belichick does – he would run his team differently. Perhaps if he had the top-to-bottom control over his personnel like Belichick does, he would be more confident in throwing guys out there and just turning to the next man up if someone gets hurt.
That’s the kind of confidence that comes with having a great deal of success and sustaining it over a long period of time. Belichick has a system and he’s supremely confident in it. He’s willing to risk injuries in preseason games because he knows he has a roster he can work with. He also knows that he can adjust on the fly if something bad happens.
Arians’ situation is different. He hasn’t had that kind of success and doesn’t have the track record to know he can survive a big injury. He also desperately wants a championship, so he’s taking the long view to the season. He’s doing what he thinks will best help him accomplish that, and it’s hard to fault him for that.