Over the past eight years, Arizona
has finished last or second to last in its division eight times. The Cards routinely flounder to five or six wins, and are a perpetual playoff afterthought.
It's reasonable to believe things will be better in 2007, if only because there's nowhere to go but up.
But don't expect miracles just yet. These are, after all, still the Cardinals
It was really only a matter of time before Arizona finally managed to climb out of the cellar. The team has made plenty of good moves, even convincing most experts (not me, I'm no expert) that they were postseason material last year.
And despite the Cards' languid finish in 2006, there were enough good signs to assume that the desolation in the desert won't last forever.
Hope rests on the golden left arm of Matt Leinart, who many think is the man to save the franchise. Leinart, to his credit, does have everything a great quarterback needs: leadership skills, smarts, moxie, and accuracy.
His rookie year was nothing to write home about, featuring such duds as a 13-for-32 day against Oakland
. But Leinart did set a rookie record for pass yards in a game with 405 against Minnesota
—and, more importantly, gained the respect of his teammates by season's end.
Sacking head coach Dennis Green may also prove to be a wise move, as Green failed to turn the Cards around in his three years at the helm. Ken Whisenhunt replaces Green, and should bring a healthy dose of excitement and efficiency to the Arizona offense.
An even more important coaching addition might be line coach Russ Grimm, whom Whisenhunt brought with him from Pittsburgh
. Grimm's blue-collar attitude is sorely needed in Arizona, where the Cards will go nowhere (and have gone nowhere) without solid play up front.
The Cards have succeeded in assembling a wealth of talent at the skill positions (Leinart, running back Edgerrin James, wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald), but the offense won't click until the line is better.
Does Grimm have what it takes to bring the big uglies up to snuff in 2007?
Drafting tackle Levi Brown was a first step; letting go of underachieving Leonard Davis was a second. The line also has solid pieces in guards Deuce Lutui and Reggie Wells...but don't be surprised if it takes at least a year in Grimm and Whisenhunt's system for everyone to figure things out.
Of course, none of the offensive excitement will mean much if the Arizona defense can't stop anyone. Last season, the unit ranked 29th in the NFL
, allowing teams like the Vikings
(the Vikings!) to score 31 points.
In 2007, the key to the Cards D—like the key to the Cards O—will be the line.
Darnell Dockett, the group's best, may see time at defensive end, setting up a less-than-thrilling battle at defensive tackle between Kendrick Clancy, Gabe Watson, and rookie Alan Branch.
Dockett's skills will be well served wherever he plays, but it may not matter if his linemates don't show better.
The Arizona secondary was pretty awful last year, so the team brought in Terrence Holt, Roderick Hood, and Ralph Brown to compete for starting spots. Antrel Rolle and Eric Green are the incumbents at cornerback, and Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson remains at safety.
Rolle is coming off a poor season, but should bounce back under a new secondary coach. The competition across the board in the defensive backfield should at least make the unit better than it was a year ago...which would be a start.
As training camp approaches, things are looking up in Arizona for the first time in a long time. The Cards went a division-best 4-2 within the NFC West in 2006. They're free of unrealistic expectations this year, and a new head coach, a budding franchise quarterback, and good players along the line have the potential to make this team very good.
Then again, a franchise that's grown so used to the cellar can only improve in baby steps—and seven wins in 2007 seems like a good place to start.
Wouldn't want to over do it, after all.
Projected finish: 7-9, 3rd NFC West
Keep your eyes on: LB Karlos Dansby—Finished second on team in tackles and sacks.
Take your eyes off: RB J.J. Arrington—Hope and pray Edgerrin James doesn t get hurt.