The Arizona Cardinals have been known as a franchise full of missteps, false starts and over hyped expectations. However, that will change in 2009 when Arizona will build off of its 2008 playoff success and finally become the real deal and establish consistency.
The team will finally become the franchise Arizona fans have hoped for since 1988, but it will not be without its obstacles. A potentially rough mid-season schedule, coaching changes and team chemistry issues could make this season a repeat of the 1999 season for Cardinals fans.
If one believes in curses, it could be argued that the Super Bowl loss will be Arizona’s biggest obstacle this season. With the exception of the 2006 Seattle Seahawks, no team this decade that lost the Super Bowl made it to the playoffs the next season. Only two teams finished with a winning record (the 2006 Seahawks and the 2008 New England Patriots). Luckily for the Cardinals, they play in the same weak division as the Seahawks and should join them as the second team this decade to lose the Super Bowl but still make the playoffs the following season.
Arizona’s schedule has a rough middle patch, but it's set up to where the Cardinals should win at least 10 games and be crowned NFC West champions for the second year in a row.
The first real test comes in Week Three with a home game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The two high powered offenses should be a joy to watch, but it’ll also be a good indicator if the Arizona offense is at its 2008 level.
That aforementioned rough middle patch begins three weeks later with a road game against Seattle. That game is the beginning of a seven-game stretch that features five games on the road (at Seattle, at New York Giants, at Chicago, at St. Louis and at Tennessee).
Arizona’s road struggles have been well documented and they will need to prove that the team that showed up on the road against Carolina in the divisional playoffs is the real Cardinals road team. If the team that went 3-5 away from home in 2008 shows up, the season can go south in a hurry.
The two home games they do have in that stretch won’t afford the Cardinals an opportunity to breathe. The Week Eight matchup brings a revenge hungry Carolina team to Glendale and week 10 brings another date with division rival Seattle.
The Cardinals need to go at least 4-3 in this stretch in order to put themselves in position for a strong finish and a high playoff seed. If the team goes 3-4 or 2-5 then fans and players may start to believe that 2008 really was just a dream season.
Of course, scheduling isn’t the only obstacle facing the Cardinals. It seemed as if the team jet hadn’t even touched down at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport before the coaching changes and trade demands began.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley left for Kansas City and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast soon followed after being dismissed. While a big departure, the loss of Haley shouldn’t hurt too much as coach Ken Whisenhunt will resume play calling duties as he did in 2007.
However, it will be interesting to see how the defense reacts to the dismissal of Pendergast. There is no question that the defense got the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. The offense was its usual self, but the defense stepped it up to a level not seen before. Did that new level come from Pendergast’s coaching or the defense wanting to prove its critics wrong?
There is no doubt that Pendergast would eventually have been dismissed. He was a holdover from Dennis Green’s staff and his penchant to fall into a prevent defense (see: Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl winning drive) were two big strikes against him. But given how they responded in the playoffs, how will the defensive unit respond to Pendergast no longer calling the plays? How they perform under new defensive coordinator Bill Davis will play a big part in the Cardinals success or failure.
Finally, will the issues of contract and trade demands still be on the minds of players come kickoff of week one? The team is trying to work out new contracts with linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Adrian Wilson. How will those players react if those deals aren’t done by training camp or even week one?
How will they let their attitudes affect their play and the play of their teammates?
Those contracts may also play an important part in finally ending the saga of wide receiver Anquan Boldin. If the Cardinals do get Dansby and Wilson signed to new deals, how does that affect Boldin’s demand for a new contract? More importantly, does Boldin even want to stay in Arizona?
Boldin’s firing of agent Drew Rosenhaus suggests that he does want to continue to wear a Cardinals uniform, but it can also suggest that he was frustrated with Rosenhaus’ inability to get a trade done.
Boldin’s deal may be the biggest factor in how the Cardinals finish 2009. If they keep the Pro Bowl receiver happy, they are in shape to repeat 2008.
Anger Boldin again and he just may decide to drag the whole team down with him.