Cardinals and rookie David Johnson's fast start are not to be overlooked
In the NFC, while we’ve focused intently on the Cowboys’ killer injuries, the bewildering Eagles offense, the Giants’ fourth-quarter collapses, the Seahawks’ Super Bowl hangover, the Saints’ continued unraveling and the Packers’ smooth and efficient start, we might be guilty of all but ignoring the record-setting early work being turned in by the Cardinals through two weeks of the regular season.
But there’s no way Bruce Arians’s first-place, undefeated team can keep its profile this low if its production stays this high. With rookie running back David Johnson setting the tone for a dynamic and diverse offense, the Cardinals have reeled off an impressive list of accomplishments already in beating New Orleans at home and Chicago on the road. To wit:
• Arizona’s 79 points lead the NFL and are the most in the franchise’s long history through two games. The Cardinals broke another club mark by scoring a league-best 11 touchdowns (by seven different players) in the first two weeks, and their plus-37 point differential is also tops in the NFL. Take that, New England.
• Arizona trounced Chicago 48–23 at Soldier Field on Sunday, scoring more points against the Bears than anyone ever had in Chicago’s previous 684 home games. Let that nugget sink in for a bit.
• Johnson has emerged as the unlikely poster child for the Cardinals’ early-season explosion on offense. The third-round pick out of obscure Northern Iowa scored touchdowns three different ways on three of the first five touches of his career: a 55-yard reception in Arizona’s 31–19 win over the Saints in Week 1, a 108-yard opening kickoff return touchdown against the Bears and a 13-yard rushing score in the third quarter. He’s the first player in the NFL’s 96-season history to pull off that trifecta in his first two games, and the No. 31 jersey and cleats he wore against the Bears are now on the way to be displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Yeah, scoring three touchdowns on your first five touches, it’s unbelievable to even think of that,” Johnson said in a Monday afternoon phone interview. “No one ever imagines that happening to them.”
Johnson is up to a whopping nine combined touches now, but he’s still averaging a touchdown every third time he has the ball, and with his 251 total yards, almost 28 yards per touch. That puts him on pace for the ridiculous.
“Being realistic, that’s just something that happened to fall together for me, and it’s not going to continue that way,” said Johnson, 23. “I won’t keep that up. But hopefully I can be effective nonetheless.”
Dismiss the Cardinals’ fast start as a byproduct of “only” having beaten the winless Saints and Bears (both 0–2) if you will, but you can go a long way in the NFL by winning the games you’re supposed to win. Given Seattle’s 0–2 beginning, the powerhouse NFC West looks wide open for the taking. All four teams in the division played road games in Week 2, and only Arizona won. So after two weeks, the Cardinals hold a two-game lead over Seattle and are one up on both San Francisco and St. Louis (at 1–1). And with the 49ers and Rams headed for Glendale in the coming two weeks as the Cardinals’ NFC West schedule cranks to life, Arians’s club could be 4–0 as it begins a two-game road trip to Detroit and Pittsburgh in Week 5. Arians is now 18–4 outside the division in his 34-game Arizona tenure.
“Being 2–0 is a good spot to be in, and we feel we have a really special team,” said Johnson, whose three touchdowns are tied for the team lead with veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald. “But we can’t really look too far ahead, because we don’t want the same thing that happened last year to happen again. We had a great season, but we didn’t end up getting the ring. So we’re not really focused on the down the line stuff. We just want to improve and hopefully get wins each time we play.”
Johnson wasn’t in Arizona last year, of course, but he’s apparently a quick study when it comes to team history. The Cardinals at 9–1 last year owned the NFC’s best record and No. 1 playoff seed, and looked ready to build on the 10–6 record they posted in 2013, Arians’s first season on the job. Then came the knee injury to quarterback Carson Palmer, the knee injury to his backup, Drew Stanton, and eventually Arizona’s offense devolved into the Ryan Lindley show, one-and-done playoff run and all. The Cardinals went 11–5 last season and returned to the playoffs for the first time since the Kurt Warner era ended in 2009, but the way the season ended felt empty and like an opportunity missed.
But that disappointment has been fuel for the Cardinals’ fire thus far in 2015. Palmer is back with a vengeance, throwing a league-high seven touchdown passes in his first two games (tied with Tom Brady) and logging at least three scoring passes in back-to-back games for the first time in his career since 2006, when he was with the Bengals. Palmer’s current streak of eight consecutive wins as a starter is his career high, makes him the NFL’s current leader in that department and represents the longest such streak for a Cardinals quarterback since Ray Mallouf won 10 in a row in 1948. (Trust me on this one.) Dating back to Week 8 of 2013, Palmer has won 15 of his past 17 starts, with a gaudy .882 winning percentage in that span, and he has yet to take a sack this season.
And just when you thought Fitzgerald had entered the declining No. 1 receiver role in Arizona, experiencing the same sort of late-career reduced significance as Hines Ward, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and so many others before them, the 12th-year superstar announced otherwise. Fitzgerald's three-touchdown performance against Chicago marked the first time he had ever done that in the regular season, and after two weeks, his 14 receptions for 199 yards are team-highs and his second-best showing in each category so early in the season. He last started this hot in 2005, a decade ago.
Fitzgerald also on Sunday became just the 10th player in league history with 90-plus receiving touchdowns and 12,000-plus receiving yards in their career, and the NFL’s only active member of that club. And he doesn’t look anywhere near finished climbing those lists.
But while proven talents like Palmer, Fitzgerald and new Cardinals running back Chris Johnson (109 yards rushing on 30 carries, for a 3.6-yard average) have stepped up early, no one could have foreseen David Johnson’s instant impact, especially since he missed a good bit of the preseason nursing a hamstring injury. But I didn’t see any signs of a sore leg when the 6'1", 224-pound rookie gathered in Robbie Gould’s opening kickoff in Chicago, eight yards deep in the end zone, and shocked his own head coach when he opted to take it out. At 108 yards, it was tied for the second-longest play in NFL history and broke the franchise record for the longest touchdown. And Johnson largely glided to the end zone without breaking stride.
“I just saw great blocking and took off,” Johnson said. “The kick return team was giving me good holes to read and that’s all I had to do, read where I had to run. With my running back instincts, that definitely helped out. Even though it was eight yards back in the end zone, I saw my blockers had good leverage and were giving me holes to run through. I knew I was going to be able to catch out of the backfield and be an effective runner for this team, but at the beginning of the season I didn’t know if I’d be on the kick return team. With the hamstring pull, they didn’t know if I was ready to take on that role, and be able to run 100, or 108 yards in one play. But I’m definitely glad they gave me the opportunity to do that.”
Arians isn’t one to engage in hyperbole, but on Monday he lauded Johnson’s early-season feats.
“Anytime you mention the words ‘history of the game’ is pretty impressive,” Arians said. “With David being the first in the history of the game with his three touchdowns and Larry [Fitzgerald] with his place in the history of the game is very special. You always want to take time when something like that happens and acknowledge it because ‘history of the game’ is a damn long time and a lot of guys, so it’s very special.”
Arizona’s Johnson & Johnson backfield (Did I just coin that?) should continue to get opportunities with injury-prone lead back Andre Ellington missing the Bears game, and perhaps a couple more, with a knee problem. With Chris Johnson gaining 72 yards, and David Johnson picking up 42 on five carries (8.4), the Cardinals ran for 115 yards in Chicago, topping the 100-yard mark for the second game in a row and marking the first time they’ve started a season with two straight 100-yard rushing games since 2007.
The good work on the ground has helped make Arizona unstoppable in the red zone. The Cardinals scored touchdowns on all four red-zone trips against the Bears and are 7 for 7 in red-zone touchdown opportunities this season, tying New England and Pittsburgh for the league lead. In 2014, the Cardinals didn’t post their seventh red-zone touchdown until their sixth game, and they needed 17 possessions to do it. No wonder the Cardinals’ win in Chicago was their first showing of at least 48 points on the road since September 1965, and their largest winning margin on the road (25 points) since a 33-point blowout victory at New Orleans in October 1980, against the infamous 1–15 “Aints” team.
There’s a lot to keep track of in the early going in the NFC. But don’t sleep on these Cardinals, because they’ve got a lot of weapons and ways to beat you. They’re getting very used to winning in Arizona, and if that keeps up, their days of being overlooked will soon be over.