The day after the Arizona Cardinals' regular season concluded, head coach Bruce Arians was left to wonder what could have been, as he lamented five close games in which his team failed to put together a strong enough fourth quarter to earn a victory.
In reality, the Cardinals were within striking distance in six of the team's eight losses in 2016, and also could have turned a tie into a win with stronger special teams play.
How does a team that finishes second in the NFL in total defense, ninth in total offense and sixth in points scored finish outside the playoff hunt? In short, Arians said the Cardinals weren't good enough in close games, but in reality, the team's injury situation held Arizona back for much of 2016.
In total, 32 different players missed games due to injuries in 2016 for Arizona, as the team was forced to place 17 different players on injured reserve. Safety Tyvon Branch? He was the one Cardinals' player the team elected to activate from the injured reserve list, but after a short stint with the team late in the season, Branch was once again forced onto injured reserve as a result of a groin injury that ruined his first season in red and white.
The 32 players for Arizona who missed at least one game due to injury combined to miss a total of 159 games this season, which forced the Cardinals to use 70 different players during the regular season, 14 more players than the team used during a largely healthy, largely successful 13-3 campaign in 2015.
Arizona started the season touting its depth across the board, but its two thinnest position groups --the secondary and the offensive line-- suffered the most injuries. Four different Cardinals players, Branch, safety Tyrann Mathieu, safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Mike Jenkins wound up on injured reserve this season, with Mathieu hitting the list for the second time in as many seasons and Jenkins being placed on injured reserve prior to the start of the regular season.
Additionally, four offensive linemen --including two of the team's starters-- found themselves on injured reserve. Both left tackle Jared Veldheer and right guard Evan Mathis, two of the three highest-paid linemen on the roster, were placed on injured reserve before the team even began the second half of the season, while mid-season free agent acquisitions Ulrick John and Taylor Boggs both finished the year on injured reserve.
By the end of the season, the Arizona Cardinals rolled out a starting offensive line with just one player who started all 16 games, center A.Q. Shipley, who was perceived to be the team's weakest link along the line heading into the season. At points during the season, injuries forced reserve offensive guard John Wetzel to play tackle, reserve center Evan Boehm to play guard, and reserve swingman Earl Watford to play both guard and tackle, as Arizona scrambled to find any available option along its offensive front.
Since January of 2016, general manager Steve Keim has made over 225 roster moves, a high volume of which took place in the middle of the season as seven of the Cardinals' 22 opening day starters ended up on injured reserve.
While most of the Cardinals' high-profile injuries hurt the team where it was most vulnerable, an underrated aspect of their injury issues was the trouble they caused on the team's special teams units. Season-ending injuries to core special teams players --whether they lined Arizona's coverage or return units-- hurt the Cardinals' overall capabilities and led to disastrous special teams performances that plagued the team all year.
In the end, injuries are a fact of life in football, a reality every team must deal with. As Arians said after the season, often times Arizona had players who were prepared to step in, but stepping in took those players just a week too long, which ultimately hurt the Cardinals in the middle of games, and in the middle of fourth quarters that contributed to the team's ultimate downfall this year.null