A year ago, the Cardinals talked of making the playoffs for the first time since the 1998-99 season, Anquan Boldin spoke of leaving the franchise in the dust and Matt Leinart was going to be pushed by Kurt Warner to be the team’s starting quarterback. The Cardinals return to Flagstaff for training camp this week as defending NFC champions.
A year ago, the Cardinals talked of making the playoffs for the first time since the 1998-99 season, Anquan Boldin spoke of leaving the franchise in the dust and Matt Leinart was going to be pushed by Kurt Warner to be the team’s starting quarterback.
The Cardinals return to Flagstaff for training camp this week as defending NFC champions. Boldin and linebacker Karlos Dansby still could leave the franchise in the dust, but Adrian Wilson and Warner — whose 2008 turnaround season led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl and him to the Pro Bowl — won’t be leaving for the foreseeable future.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt’s third season begins with significantly fewer pressing questions on the field than his first two training camps. A Super Bowl appearance and returning core group are the reason, and though the Cardinals are considered slight favorites in what should be an improved NFC West, there still are 10 of at least a dozen stones waiting to be unearthed.
1. How will the Cardinals handle expectations?
Among players, only Kurt Warner, special-teams ace Sean Morey and linebackers Clark Hagans (injured) and Matt Ware had Super Bowl experience before Feb. 1 in Tampa. The Cardinals seemed to thrive as underdogs during their magical postseason run, but beware the Super Bowl hangover: Since 2000, Super Bowl participants were a combined 207-63 (.767) during that year’s regular season and playoffs. The next season, those same teams went a combined 141-115 (.551). Even worse: Seattle in 2006-07 is the only team this decade to reach the playoffs a year after losing the Super Bowl.
2. Will anyone raise another contract stink?
Unlikely. Anquan Boldin popped off last year at the start of training camp, but — true to his word — it never became a locker room issue the rest of the season. Boldin will be grilled about his contract status again (he has two seasons left on his deal), but in theory, there’s not much left for him or the team to say, nor would it help his cause. The same could be said for Karlos Dansby — who will be a free agent after this season but could still negotiate an extension with the team and sign after the regular season — or Darnell Dockett. Given his vociferous nature and honesty, Dockett seems to be the most likely to cause a stir, but his deal runs through 2011, and after missing a couple minicamps and OTA’s, his Twitter page said he’s ready to play.
3. How will they adjust to new defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ 3-4 defense?
It’ll take awhile. Whisenhunt wanted to replicate his Pittsburgh days by switching to a 3-4 scheme, and the Cardinals struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, so they hope four linebackers alternating rushes and coverages can create mismatches and surprises.
The Cardinals had injury problems and have a couple returning linebackers who are in their 30s (Chike Okeafor and Hagans). Drafting Cody Brown — who is still unsigned — in the second round and Will Davis in the sixth could help down the road, but expecting much from these two rookies while also learning new positions is unfair.
4. Can the O-line stay together again?
It wasn’t always pretty (especially the running game), but the quintet of Mike Gandy, Reggie Wells, Lyle Sendlein, Deuce Lutui and Levi Brown quietly started every game last season. All five are back, and their starting spots are relatively secure heading into camp, with Elton Brown, Brandon Keith, Oliver Ross and rookie Herman Johnson vying for spots. The Cardinals love continuity up front, but the nature of football suggests that an injury (or two) is coming sometime this season.
5. Can Kurt Warner stay healthy again?
As was the case last season, this season largely depends on the 38-year-old’s health. Until 2008, Warner hadn’t started all 16 games since 2001, and after he broke nearly every significant single-season team passing record, he signed on for two more seasons with the Cardinals. He’s worked diligently on his mobility and ball security the past two years, and a quick-release system is partly designed for Warner to not have to hold onto the ball. His fortunes are directly tied into the previous question, along with the premise that this year’s Cardinals must become a better rushing team.
6. Will rookie Beanie Wells unseat Tim Hightower as the starting running back?
Probably not right away. First, he has to sign a contract and report to camp. Second, while Wells has more explosiveness than Hightower, he has to be healthy (which was a problem at Ohio State) and show he can hold his own as a blocker, blitz protector and pass catcher next to Warner. He’ll have every chance to win the starting job, but more than likely he’ll split time with Hightower in the early going. A long contract holdout isn’t expected, but he’ll have to show a lot before supplanting Hightower.
7. Is Calais Campbell ready to be a starter?
The second-year defensive lineman is a trendy pick given Antonio Smith’s departure to Houston. He saw more snaps as last season went on, and he also played special teams. Campbell figures to see most of his snaps on the end. He’s still chasing his first career sack, so it’s not like a 10-sack or Pro Bowl season can be expected, but if he can come close to Smith’s steady play last season, it’ll have been a success.
8. How does Bryant McFadden fit?
Pretty well — if healthy. McFadden was on the winning side of Super Bowl XLIII but signed a two-year, $10 million free-agent deal with the Cardinals in March. He played in 10 games with eight starts last season while dealing with hamstring and knee injuries the past two years. He figures to become a starter opposite Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and will see plenty of action on his side of the field.
9. Can Alan Branch and/or Gabe Watson stay on the field?
The Cardinals have been waiting for at least one of these two Michigan alums to be a presence, but a knee injury on a treadmill last spring to Watson and inconsistency from Branch have allowed Bryan Robinson to be the team’s starting nose tackle. Robinson enters camp as the projected starter, but Watson will be a free agent after the season and the team traded up to get Branch in the second round a few years ago. Robinson was solid but is on the other side of 30, and the Cardinals need answers about who can be the starting tackle.
10. Who will be this year’s DRC?
In terms of an unheralded player quickly working his way up and excelling in the starting lineup, probably nobody. Wells has a chance, but a first-round pick becoming a significant contributor isn’t that surprising. Rookies such as Davis, Brown, safety Rashad Johnson and free-agent running back Jason Wright should make an impact on special teams, but only a couple starting spots appear readily available.