Watching The Arizona Cardinals, The Last Happy NFL Team

The NFL is a dour and difficult league, in large part because that's how football is. What makes the Arizona Cardinals unique is how lightly they carry all that.

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Jan 5 2016, 3:43pm

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The modern NFL is made mostly of various kinds of shit—on-field shit, off-field shit, shitty injuries, shitty quarterbacks, shitty sponsorships, cynically shitty medical studies, and usually pretty shitty games. This means that the most advantageous attribute a team can have is a kind of collective ability to withstand said shit. Glance at the seedings entering the playoffs, and you'll see teams ranked largely in order of their capacity for shit-enduring. This is the system working.

The Denver Broncos have a defense strong enough to compensate for a season's worth of iffy quarterbacking from a dropped-off Hall of Famer and his inconsistent backup. The New England Patriots have Tom Brady, who has overcome a depleted receiving corps and offensive line and a commissioner's suspension. The Carolina Panthers have had fairly crummy receivers all along, but they also have Cam Newton, who is almost a football team unto himself. And so all three of them have byes through the first week of the postseason.

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Things go wrong in the NFL with such regularity that wrong-going is now central to any good team's narrative. A well-stocked roster does not simply fulfill its potential; it gets run through a wringer of inevitable setbacks, shakes off suspensions and injuries and infighting, and emerges having gained both blemishes and identity, the preferred catchall of television analysts nationwide. That is to say that the team has been battered into the shape of its indefatigable essence; it has suffered and learned something from the suffering, and knows what part of itself comes in handy in spectacularly disadvantageous circumstances.

If this seems dour, it is. The NFL is a dour enterprise, and built on dourness. Most every game is a symphony of trouble, and most every team is stressed beyond reason. From time to time, though, rare exceptions show up. This year, the Arizona Cardinals are one. For the Cardinals in 2015, by some miracle, things have just sort of worked out.

When you are just having fun out there. — Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals lost to the Seattle Seahawks in their regular season finale on Sunday, 36-6, but what Arizona managed over the bulk of the year rendered the loss mostly meaningless. They had already won 13 of their first 15 games, ensuring themselves a first-round bye. They had beaten the Seahawks a month and a half earlier, in Seattle, in a back-and-forth thriller; had scraped past the resilient Minnesota Vikings in mid-December; and had, during the season's penultimate weekend, put on a full exhibition at home against the struggling Green Bay Packers. The lackluster effort in a largely meaningless capper aside, the Cardinals spent their entire campaign proving they belong among the ranks of Super Bowl favorites.

The climb from perennial loser to frontrunner would be newsworthy on its own—the Cardinals have now made the playoffs five times during their 26 years in Arizona—but the way in which they've accomplished it is even more striking. Designs have come to fruition, gambles have paid off, and bad luck, when encountered, has quickly turned good. The Cardinals score 30, hold you to six, and smile. They are lucky and fun, in a game that's supposed to be too tough for either of those things.

Seemingly every spot on the Arizona roster is filled by a best-case scenario. A year removed from an ACL tear cut his 2014 season short, Carson Palmer is an MVP candidate, scattering timely short tosses and pinpoint deep throws and limiting the spells of recklessness that had, until recently, been a hallmark of his career. Larry Fitzgerald looked cooked last year, but a move to the slot has uncovered remaining aptitude, and his 109 catches this season are a career high. Chris Johnson started 2015 with a comeback story of his own but suffered a fractured tibia in late November; the injury afforded a chance to third-string back David Johnson, who since getting regular playing time has proven one of the league's most multi-functional runners. The defense features a shrimpy ex-safety torpedoing around at linebacker (Deone Bucannon), a resurgent big-name import rushing the passer (Dwight Freeney), and a secondary that, at its best, accomplishes exactly what a net spread sideline-to-sideline would.

Seen here, a NFL team's third-string running back absolutely beasting the shit out of someone. — Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

During a game, this conglomerate takes on the air of some kind of patterned kid's toy, a kaleidoscope or a mobile. Everything seems tied; each piece of success makes another one possible. Bucannon slips through the opponent's offensive line at waist-height and harangues the quarterback into a desperate heave that ends up settling in the hands of all-everything corner Patrick Patterson. John Brown, the deep-threat receiver whose short stature and zippiness bring to mind a just-launched pinball, hauls in a 40-yard pass, and the next play David Johnson shoulders his way through a freshly stretched defense for six. Fitzgerald disappears at the line of scrimmage and shows up between the hashmarks, Palmer's dart already en route.

This year's Cardinals are an ecosystem, a scene, a cult of good vibes. They are the optimist's preference, proof that success may be found via something other than grim fortitude. In plainest terms, they are the least football-ish of 2015's best football teams.

That designation itself marks some success already achieved. The only thing more difficult than winning in the NFL may be making winning in the NFL look easy, navigating a season without checking in at the usual stops of crises encountered and averted. The next month will be described by players and analysts around the league in the stock ways: a trial, a test, a battle. For Arizona, though, the terms will not quite hold up. The Cardinals will just be playing a few games, and that's something that hasn't brought them much trouble to this point.

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