Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals have been to the Super Bowl but can they get back?
Four years ago the Arizona Cardinals were playing in Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since then, the team has had just one playoff berth, a weak offensive line and a carousel of quarterbacks.
The Cardinals are coming off of a 5-11 season that started off with a lot of promise but fell flat once October started. Despite everything that's happened in the last few seasons, it's still possible that Arizona could be playing in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Yes, that's right. There's a blueprint that the Cardinals can follow to get to the Super Bowl that will be played outdoors in New York City. Thankfully, the 2008 Super Bowl run was just a few years ago so we can find a path to future success in what got them to the big game four seasons back.
Start the slideshow below and see just how the Cardinals can get back to the Super Bowl...and hopefully have a better final minute of the game.
Kolb (center) took a ride on the quarterback carousel this season.
The Cardinals' quarterback situation has been a mess since Kurt Warner left after the 2009 season. Arizona has turned to Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer in an effort to find a starter for the team.
None of them have started more than nine games in a season and none of them appear to be the solution Arizona needs at the quarterback position.
All through training camp, former head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff waffled back and forth between Kolb and Skelton, only deciding after all five preseason games were made. Teams have their identities tied into their starting quarterback and the Cardinals don't have that identity.
Regardless of who the Cardinals choose to play quarterback, they need to have a starter who will actually start all 16 games in a season. They haven't had that since 2008.
Hoyer gets sacked in the season finale.
Arizona needs to get a vastly improved offensive line. It doesn't matter it's through free agency, the draft or some combination therein.
Consider that during the Cardinals' playoff seasons of 2008 and 2009 Warner was sacked about 27 times a season. Sacks are an inevitable part of football and they will happen.
Fast forward to the three seasons since and Arizona has given up at least 50 sacks per season and a total of 163 over those three seasons.
There has to be a focal point on rebuilding the line to get the running game going again. When the Cardinals made Super Bowl XLIII they were dead last in rushing yards per game. They were able to overcome that through their passing game. Even championship teams can have a poor running game. For example, last season's New York Giants who were last in the league with 1,427 rushing yards.
When your quarterback is picking clumps of turf out of his face mask, it's hard to get a passing game going. The run opens up the pass and vice versa. In this case, Arizona needs to piece together a line that can be effective in both parts of the offense if they want to play in the Super Bowl in New York.
Beanie Wells (right) and Michael Floyd celebrate a rare offensive touchdown.
It sounds simple enough. Score more points and win more games. In 2008, the Cardinals scored 427 points which tied them with the New York Giants for the second-most points scored in the league. Only the San Diego Chargers scored more than the Cardinals that season with 439 points.
Think about that for a second. That season the Arizona offense scored 45 touchdowns and the defense had six. Three Cardinals had at least 10 touchdowns that season. Larry Fitzgerald pulled in 12, Anquan Boldin caught 11 and running back Tim Hightower had 10 touchdown runs.
Perhaps 400 is a magic number for getting into the playoffs. Every team that scored at least 400 points this season made the playoffs except two. New Orleans (461 points) who started slowly and the Giants (429 points) who missed out by a game on both the NFC East title and a wild card spot.
This past season Arizona put up a paltry 250 points. That offensive output was on par with Jacksonville and just ahead of Kansas City. Both of those teams ended up at 2-14 in 2012 so Arizona could have been even worse if not for its early success.
But how does a team increase its offensive output by 150 points in a season? The answer is simple: convert your third downs. Arizona made a league-worst 58 third down conversions on 230 chances in 2012. That leads to a 25.2 percent success rate which just won't cut it in the NFL. The top three teams all converted more than 45 percent of their third downs and all made the playoffs (Denver, Atlanta, New England).
Steve Breaston was the third Cardinal with more than 1,000 receiving yards in 2008.
Larry Fitzgerald is an incredibly talented wide receiver. He can catch nearly anything thrown his way and has been the Cardinals' leading receiver for several years. There is, however, one thing he can't do.
Arizona's success in 2008 came through its passing game which was wildly effective. The Cardinals were able to boast three 1,000-yard receivers and kept defenses guessing as to who would get the ball. It also opened up room in the rushing game as defensive backs had to stay out of the box at the line of scrimmage.
Fitzgerald had 1431 yards on 96 catches. Boldin came up with 1038 yards on 89 receptions and Steve Breaston rolled up 1006 yards on 77 catches. Breaston only found the end zone three times but was still a key contributor as defenses had to account for him as well as figure out where Fitzgerald and Boldin were going.
Look back at this past year and Arizona didn't have a single receiver pile up 800 yards. Fitzgerald found multiple defenders covering him in most plays and poor quarterback play didn't help.
The point is Arizona can't rely on Fitzgerald to do it all in the passing game. Perhaps Michael Floyd (last year's first-round pick) is the answer but time will tell. Either way, the passing game needs some additional talent and balance for the Cardinals to make a run at a Super Bowl berth.
The Cardinals need more wins during the middle of the season.
This was the one thing both playoff seasons had in common. The Cardinals were able to build momentum through a mid-season winning streak that gave them a better outlook on the season and increased their chances of being a playoff team.
Both years they were 4-3 after seven games and that's when they kicked into the next gear. In 2008, they swept their NFC West foes to get to 7-3 and be in a much better position to make the playoffs.
Those three-game runs were the real turning point of those seasons. Imagine if Arizona had been just 5-5 after 10 games. Would they have made the playoffs as wild card? Probably not. Would they have won the NFC West? Doubtful, but still possible.
Cardinals fans have seen where winning streaks in the beginning of the season don't equal a playoff spot (2012) and where late-season runs can leave the team on the outside looking in (2011). It seems that a run over the middle of the season makes the difference and if Arizona can get one, they could be on their way to the playoffs.
Colin Kapernick and the 49ers are in the Super Bowl this weekend.
When the Cardinals make it to the playoffs they've usually done so by winning their division instead of being a wild card team. The playoff teams of 2008 and 2009 both won the NFC West and the last time Arizona made it as a wild card was 1998.
Winning the NFC West is the easiest way to get into the playoffs. The Cardinals know who they are up against and have the most knowledge about these opponents they go head-to-head with twice a year. In 2008, Arizona swept the NFC West 6-0 while 2009 saw them go 4-2 against the division.
Since that two-year, ten-win run against the division, they've put up a total of six divisional wins in the following seasons. It's obvious the NFC West has changed drastically over those years.
The days of the division providing the league's weakest playoff team are over and the other teams have gotten stronger. San Francisco (11-4-1) is in the Super Bowl this week while Seattle (11-5) snagged a wild-card spot. The Rams were a hair under .500 at 7-8-1 while Arizona lagged behind.
It's a much more difficult task to win the NFC West than it was a few years ago but it's the safest way to get into the playoffs and start down the road towards a Super Bowl.
Michael Floyd was taken in the first round last year.
The Cardinals need to take advantage of the NFL Draft and build their team with players who can contribute right away. This happened in the 2008 and 2009 drafts with several key pieces coming from the selection meetings.
In 2008, Arizona got Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the first round, Calais Campbell in the second and Early Doucet in the third round. The pick with the most impact may have been fifth-round choice Tim Hightower out of the University of Richmond. Hightower went on to score 18 touchdowns in his first two seasons with the team and give it a credible running threat.
The next season saw Arizona pick up Beanie Wells at the tail end of the first round and he contributed seven rushing touchdowns in his rookie season.
Whether it's skill players or linemen, Arizona has to have one of the best draft classes to fill the holes in their team and have a chance of getting back to the Super Bowl. There aren't a lot of knock-your-socks-off skill players in the early rounds of this year's draft so Arizona should be able to upgrade its offensive line and solve needs there.
Arians will need to get the Cardinals on board with his coaching philosophy to have success.
Arizona chose Bruce Arians as its head coach to replace Ken Whisenhunt, the man who led the team to the Super Bowl. Both the offensive and defensive coordinators have changed and so has the general manager. It's a new look at the top and that will likely bring a new way of doing things.
The Cardinals must adapt and be open to trying new things on both sides of the ball to build rapport and trust as a team.
There will be growing pains involved on both sides of the equation in 2013. The faster Arizona gets on board with the new schemes and plays, the quicker they will find success.
John Skelton gets carted off in the season opener.
The Cardinals have been hit by the injury bug over the last few seasons and it's been part of the reason why the team hasn't made the playoffs in the last three seasons.
Football is a contact sport and players get hurt. Some are able to play through their injuries. Others suffer injuries so severe that they have to miss games. Still others lose the remainder of the season right when they get hurt.
The Cardinals lost key players in Levi Brown, Ryan Williams, O'Brien Schofield, Lyle Sendlein and Kevin Kolb to season-ending injuries. Beanie Wells spent time on the new Designated-To-Return injured reserve with turf toe. Arizona's depth players had to step up and most of them were young. This made for a difficult season, especially on the offensive line.
Arizona needs to find a way to stay as healthy as possible to make their Super Bowl dreams come one step closer to reality.
The Cardinals' defense has to remain strong.
When Arizona went to the Super Bowl, everyone remembers their offense. The defense was another story entirely. That season, the Cardinals allowed 426 points to be scored and had a net point differential of +1.
Arizona has relied on its defense for the last three seasons since the offense hasn't been able to get enough points on the board. If the Cardinals were able to get everything else in place, the defense could have some margin for error.
Arizona's defense has to deal with the extra pressure knowing that if they give up 22 or more points, they're usually sunk. Arizona is 2-14 over the last two seasons when the defense allows more points than that magic number.
There are always going to be days when you're on the receiving end of a beat down like the 47-7 drubbing the Cardinals took in New England in 2008 or the 58-0 shellacking in Seattle this past season.
The question is, can Arizona still be strong defensively even with an improved offense?