Can The Cardinals Repeat In '09?

Justin JavanCorrespondent IJuly 3, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Anquan Boldin #81 of the Arizona Cardinals runs for yards after the catch as Larry Fitzgerald #11 and Edgerrin James #32 get in position to block against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Steelers won 27-23. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Predicting how the Arizona Cardinals will do in 2009 is a difficult task. They are in one of the worst divisions in football though you could debate all day long whether the AFC West or the NFC West is the worst division in football.
Right now, with the self-induced implosion of the Denver Broncos, I have to give the AFC West the advantage (or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it). At least you can say there are some teams in the NFC West who are headed in the right direction.
It’s not a joke to say that the Chargers could win the AFC West with a 7-9 record. Sorry Chiefs fans—I know Scott Pioli is your GM, Todd Haley is your head coach, and Matt Cassell is your quarterback, but I need to see it on the field before I can say you improved during the off-season.
This is Pioli’s first time calling the shots by himself, and Haley’s first time as a head coach. Plus, Cassell isn’t going to be throwing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

Anyway, back to the Cardinals. I am going to break my analysis of their chances to return to the Super Bowl into five sections: 1) Offseason Moves and News 2) Draft Analysis 3) Divisional Opponents 4) Schedule 5) Conclusion

Off-season Moves and News
I have to start this section off by addressing the ineptitude with which Cardinals management has handled Anquan Boldin, and his request for a new contract. This guy is a stud.
There is no way you can tell me that the Cardinals are a better team without him, or that they will go far into the playoffs this year if they trade him.
After Anquan suffered a broken jaw in the Jets game last year, he came back after two games, and a bye week, to help take the team to their first Super Bowl appearance.
Larry Fitzgerald dictates coverage, and can catch the ball even when doubled; however, Boldin is an outstanding No. 2 receiver that gives defensive coordinators fits when coming up with game plans.
Between Fitzgerald, Boldin, and up-and-comer Steve Breston, you have one of the best receiving corps in the league. Make no mistake about it—without Boldin the offense is not as lethal.
As much as Breston has made strides, I don’t think he scares opposing defenses like the combo of Fitzgerald and Boldin do. In my opinion, management should have kept their promise to Anquan a year ago and re-worked his deal.
Now, unless a long term deal can be worked out with Karlos Dansby, which could free up some cap space if structured properly, I don’t know if the Cardinals even have enough money to pay Boldin the money he deserves.
The good news for the Cardinals is that they got a deal worked out with Kurt Warner. The bad news for the Cardinals is that they got a deal worked out with Kurt Warner.
Warner had a tremendous season last year. In fact, he was in the running for MVP for most of the year. On the flip side, Warner is recovering from offseason hip surgery. That’s not great news given that Warner is 37 years old.
So which Warner are we going to see this year? The Kurt Warner from the 2008 season or the one from 2007 who threw 17 interceptions, and fumbled the ball 12 times.
Granted, I don’t put all the blame on Kurt. The Arizona offensive line needs to get better at run blocking, because the more you ask your quarterback to throw the ball, the greater the likelihood that bad things will happen.
Nonetheless, Kurt’s fumbles have cost them games.
Another issue is, if Kurt isn’t the 2008 Kurt, or he gets injured, and Matt Leinart has to start, how confident can any of us be in Leinart? I, like a lot of other people, have no idea how talented of a quarterback he is. I hear he has matured since last year and is taking things more seriously, but who knows.
The loss of Edgerrin James in the offseason is significant. I realize that the “Edge” wanted out, but the fact remains that he was an important factor in their remarkable run in the playoffs last year. He gave them just enough balance in the Super Bowl to keep the Steelers' defense honest.
Tim Hightower and rookie running back Chris Wells really need to step up this year so that the Cardinals can improve their running attack. However, like I said above, this is also true of the offensive line, because if they don’t get better, then it doesn’t matter who is in the backfield carrying the ball.

Another loss was Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley. It helps when you have Warner, Fitzgerald, and Boldin, but given that for all intents and purposes they had no running game, Todd did a great job game planning, calling plays, and making in game adjustments.
It will be interesting to see how the splitting up of the offensive coordinator position works out. Russ Grimm (who I have great respect for) will be the run-game coordinator, and Wide Receivers Coach Mike Miller the passing game coordinator.

Another coaching change is the firing of Defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast, and the promotion of Bill Davis from within.
The Cardinals' defense ranked 19th during the regular season in ’08 and sixth in the postseason. There is no question that the defense stepped up when it came to playoff time. However, Graves and Whisenhunt obviously felt a change was necessary.
I think that the Cardinals have made some good moves defensively by getting SS Adrian Wilson re-signed, as well as putting the franchise tag on Dansby.
Hopefully, a long term deal can be worked out with Dansby because he is the leader of a solid line-backing core.
Another positive on defense is CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
I think if the new defensive coordinator can get better play out of a young defensive line, then the chances of the Cardinals going back to the Super Bowl will be greatly increased.

Draft Analysis
Overall, the Cardinals did pretty well in the draft. Picking up RB Chris Wells in the first round of the draft was a great selection. Most scouting reports had him as the top RB in this year’s draft. If Wells can stay healthy, he should be able to give the Cardinals a more balanced attack on offense, and will be an important factor if they want to make it to the Super Bowl again.
I am not so crazy about their selection of DE Cody Brown in the second round. They probably should have traded up and gotten a better player for a position of need, instead of reaching for a guy who they could have taken in the third round. They need to improve their pass rush, and I’m not sure Brown will be the answer.
As far as picks three through seven go, they were, for the most part, all solid choices and positions of need. I would liked to have seen the Cardinals do something to improve their defensive line in this draft, but it didn’t happen.
Sure, Brown is a DE, but he will be used as an OLB in their 3-4 scheme. Whether he will be a big-time pass rusher remains to be seen. Their draft was good, even if they did reach a little on some players. I would probably give them a B or a B+.

Divisional Opponents
I’m not going to spend too much time on this section because, as I stated above, I think this division is a joke. Currently, the Cardinals are the only good team in it. Unless something weird happens (like last year’s Dolphins), and one of the other teams makes a miraculous turnaround, I expect the Cardinals to easily win the division.
If I had to pick a team that might surprise people, and give Arizona a run for its money, then it would be Seattle. I think Jim Mora is a great coach, and I love the pickup of T. J. Houshmandzadeh for Matt Hasselback. When healthy, he is a very good quarterback. Also, the Seahawks have a great linebacking core. 
The 49ers might be better under Singletary but they’re at least a year away from making the playoffs (of course now that I’ve said that, watch them go 12-4 just to spite me.)
I’m not even going into the Rams. As far as I’m concerned, they’re a mess.
Like I said, as long as Warner stays healthy, and plays like he did last year, the Cardinals will run away with the division. Even if Boldin gets traded, I don’t see anyone else as a serious contender.

Okay, here is where things get tough for the Cardinals. Sure, they can win their division easily, but if they want any kind of home field advantage/bye week, they are going to have to beat some pretty good teams. Here is the schedule:

1 - Sun, Sep. 13 - San Francisco 4:15 PM
2 - Sun, Sep. 20 - at Jacksonville 1:00 PM
3 - Sun, Sep. 27 - Indianapolis 8:20 PM
4 - BYE
5 - Sun, Oct. 11 - Houston 4:15 PM
6 - Sun, Oct. 18 - at Seattle 4:05 PM
7 - Sun, Oct. 25 - at NY Giants 8:20 PM
8 - Sun, Nov. 1 - Carolina 4:15 PM
9 - Sun, Nov. 8 - at Chicago 1:00 PM
10 - Sun, Nov. 15 - Seattle 4:15 PM
11 - Sun, Nov. 22 - at St. Louis 4:05 PM
12 - Sun, Nov. 29 - at Tennessee 1:00 PM
13 - Sun, Dec. 6 - Minnesota 4:15 PM
14 - Mon, Dec. 14 - at San Francisco 8:30 PM
15 - Sun, Dec. 20 - at Detroit 1:00 PM
16 - Sun, Dec. 27 - St. Louis 4:05 PM
17 - Sun, Jan. 3 - Green Bay 4:15 PM

Over the past decade, the losers of the Super Bowl have missed the playoffs 80% of the time the following season. I expect the Cardinals to buck that trend and make it back to the postseason again this year.
However, when I look at the teams outside of their division, I think it’s going to be pretty rough for them to be a first or second seed in the playoffs. Assuming they win every game in their division, and they win at Jacksonville and Detroit (which I think they will), that still only puts them at 8-8.
The rest of the teams on their schedule are all very good teams, so I don’t know where the extra wins are going to come from. To get the first or second seed, let’s be generous and say they have to go 11-5.
It’s possible that they could beat Chicago, Minnesota, and Carolina. The good news is that only one of those three teams is an away game (Chicago). The bad news is that even those teams are going to be tough to beat.
Of the three, I think they have the best chance to beat Carolina. In a brilliant offseason move, Carolina hired Ron Meeks as their defensive coordinator. Now he can destroy their defense like he did the Colts. Don't be surprised if Warner puts up 56 points against the Panthers.
The Cardinals are good enough to make it back to the post season even with all the coaching changes. I do see them winning at least one game at home in the playoffs, but I don’t see them going to the Super Bowl again unless they can get better play out of their defensive line and establish a solid running game.

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