The Arizona Republic - - Azcentral Sports -

Here’s how:

Our NFL team starts by draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from Ari­zona State’s foot­ball pro­gram. The Sun Devils used their bye week to mag­i­cally trans­form a laugh­ing­stock de­fense. The same thing must hap­pen with the Car­di­nals, a team that should be field­ing a Top 10 de­fense.

In­stead, they rank 31st in points al­lowed. Pa­trick Peter­son is clearly frus­trated, so much that Deion San­ders im­plored the Car­di­nals to trade him to a con­tender. This is the defin­ing mo­ment for James Bettcher, whose appointment as a first-time de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor might go down as one of Bruce Ari­ans’ big­gest mis­takes.

Bettcher’s unit has been ham­strung by the loss of Calais Camp­bell (free agency) and Markus Golden (in­jury). But the scheme isn’t work­ing. They fail to pro­duce turnovers. Only Chan­dler Jones gen­er­ates con­sis­tent pres­sure on the quar­ter­back. And they can’t get off the field, al­low­ing the Rams to con­vert 13-of-19 third-down at­tempts in a 33-0 loss last week.

Ari­ans once apol­o­gized for in­ter­fer­ing with Bettcher’s game plan in a 2016 loss to the Pa­tri­ots, but the head coach did it again in a lop­sided loss to Philadel­phia, or­der­ing a blitz on 3rd-and-19. That didn’t work, ei­ther.

It’s fairly ob­vi­ous that the de­fense doesn’t rally around Bettcher the way they did with for­mer de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Todd Bowles, a sure sign that the sys­tem is not in align­ment with the avail­able tal­ent.

The de­fense must as­cend to keep any hope alive, which means Bettcher must con­coct some­thing to lift morale. With Drew Stan­ton at quar­ter­back, the Car­di­nals will strug­gle to score points. They will be­come more con­ser­va­tive, lim­it­ing risky throws and re­fo­cus­ing on the run­ning game.

They must feed Adrian Peter­son in hopes that he’ll be the player that tore apart Tampa’s de­fense in his Ari­zona de­but.

They will likely need to win six of their fi­nal nine games to earn a wild­card berth. Along the way, the team can ac­ti­vate two of three play­ers on in­jured re­serve. Rookie T.J. Lo­gan would be a big ad­di­tion to spe­cial teams but is prob­a­bly the odd man out. David John­son would be an ob­vi­ous boon to the of­fense, but he isn’t sure of his timetable. And if Stan­ton can fi­nally val­i­date Ari­ans’ loy­alty and string to­gether a few wins, he could hand the reins back to Palmer, who could re­turn for the fi­nal two games of the reg­u­lar sea­son.

But if Stan­ton strug­gles and the losses mount, the Car­di­nals need to turn the page quickly. Ari­ans must change his nar­row-minded vow and play Blaine Gab­bert, if only to gauge his progress and po­ten­tial.

The Car­di­nals could be fac­ing an in­glo­ri­ous end to a great run of suc­cess. Ari­ans, Palmer and Larry Fitzger­ald could all re­tire af­ter the sea­son, thrust­ing the Car­di­nals into a mas­sive re­build. With no fran­chise quar­ter­back in sight, there is little rea­son for op­ti­mism.

Alex Smith might be avail­able in a trade, de­pend­ing on how the Chiefs fin­ish their sea­son. They could at­tempt to pry backup Jimmy Garop­polo out of New Eng­land, pos­si­bly lur­ing Josh McDaniels in the process, should they need to re­place Ari­ans.

And if the Jets fade and even­tu­ally fire Bowles, the Car­di­nals need to hire him im­me­di­ately, as de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor or head coach.

Nothing is worse than see­ing a tran­scen­dent team di­min­ish be­fore our eyes. We wist­fully wit­nessed the ring­less run of Steve Nash’s Suns and how it ended in angst and tur­moil. These Car­di­nals have meant just as much to the Val­ley, a fran­chise that once ranked among the most en­ter­tain­ing and charis­matic teams in the NFL. And it all reached a crescendo dur­ing the first minute of “All or Nothing,” when a de­fi­ant Ari­ans told his team their goal wasn’t a Su­per Bowl ap­per­ance, but a Su­per Bowl ring.

The team hasn’t been the same since win­ning an Emmy. Ari­ans’ swag­ger has turned to stub­born­ness, a man too loyal to cer­tain play­ers and his friendly crew of hand­picked coaches. Gen­eral Man­ager Steve Keim can’t find the right blend of of­fen­sive line­men, con­tin­u­ally draft­ing play­ers who don’t live for a fist­fight or thrive on the taste of blood. They were gifted five ex­hi­bi­tion games and a marathon train­ing camp to get things right and were outscored 27-7 in the fourth quar­ter of their only im­pres­sive vic­tory of the sea­son.

They have gone soft. Their fire no longer crack­les. Their reign over the Val­ley is in jeop­ardy. The bye week rep­re­sents a new be­gin­ning, but this feels like the be­gin­ning of the end. And if these Car­di­nals never find their cham­pi­onship ring, it’s about time they show a cham­pion’s heart.

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