Entering 2008, the Arizona Cardinals were nothing more than an afterthought in the lowly NFC West. They had often been the doormat in not only the division, but the conference itself, and nothing had really been done to change that.
It appeared early on that once again this would be the case. After all, the Cardinals couldn't even decide on the quarterback they wanted to start the season - and that decision didn't get any easier when Matt Leinart appeared in photos with as many underaged teens as career touchdown passes thrown by the former Heisman winner.
Little did we all know, that Kurt Warner would have a resurgence for the ages, and the Arizona Cardinals would go on a historic run at the end of the season that nearly culminated in a Super Bowl championship.
But to get to this point, the Cardinals would face adversity all throughout the 2008 season.
The Cardinals season began with back to back victories over the 49ers and Dolphins, putting Arizona at 2-0 for the first time since 1991. Kurt Warner made the few Cardinals faithful forget about Matt Leinart as he threw for over 500 yards and 4 touchdowns to kick off the season.
The week after, the Cardinals decided to do the rare thing and literally set up shop on the east coast to save travel time and hopefully prevent the team from being sluggish with back to back lengthy trips and early kickoff times. Instead after dropping a hard fought game to the Redskins, the Cardinals would be drubbed by the Brett Favre led Jets by the score of 56-35. A game that saw Favre set a career high with six touchdown throws, and even worse for the Cardinals, it was a game that saw star wide receiver Anquan Boldin nearly get his head torn off his body.
Boldin would be okay, but not before being carted off the field with a major concussion and broken bones in his face. He would go on to miss the next three weeks and return for a game against Carolina.
The Cardinals offense would not miss a beat while Boldin healed. Larry Fitzgerald continued to assert himself as the premier wide receiver in the game, and Steve Breaston filled in almost flawlessly for his injured teammate as Arizona would win both games they were without their talented wide out.
Following their loss against Carolina, one in which Boldin would score twice, the Cardinals went on a three game winning streak with each win coming over a division opponent. The streak would effectively seal the division in Week 11 of the season, and the Cardinals sat at 7-3 on the year.
And while Arizona would wind up finishing a perfect 6-0 in the NFC West, the lack of competition in the division seemed to fuel a complacent attitude for the team.
The Cardinals would go on a losing skid that saw them drop 4 of their next 5 games by an average of nearly 23 points a game. Suddenly the high flying Cardinal attack was grounded, and the team was getting blown out with regularity.
It appeared as though the old Cardinals were rearing their heads yet again, and Ken Whisenhunt wasn't about to let the Cardinals go into the postseason on a very sour note. So with a contest against the 4-11 Seahawks, Whisenhunt decided to play all his starters and treat the game as though it meant something.
Warner would go on to throw four touchdowns, Fitzgerald would have two of those and 130 yards, and the Cardinals offense looked better than it had in six weeks.
Few people gave Arizona any shot at extended their playoff experience past their first game against the surprising Atlanta Falcons. But Warner and Fitzgerald would begin to take flight on a journey that few QB-WR tandems were able to do in the postseason. The Cardinals would defeat the Falcons 30-24 setting up a Week 8 rematch with Carolina. In that contest, the Cardinals would see a 17-3 lead vanish as the Panthers rallied to pull off the victory.
The playoff game went a little differently.
Jake Delhomme threw 5 interceptions and lost a fumble as the Cardinals destroyed the Panthers 33-13. Larry Fitzgerald once again was dominant as he caught eight passes for 166 yards and a touchdown.
After the Eagles upset the Giants, the Cardinals would have the unthinkable. Home field advantage for the NFC Championship. Larry Fitzgerald had three touchdown grabs in the first half alone, and the Cardinals held off the Eagles with a 32-25 victory to seal the franchises first ever berth in the Super Bowl.
The Cards luck finally would run out at Raymond James Stadium, as Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes would connect on a picture perfect touchdown and despite the sixth straight game that saw Fitzgerald eclipse 100 yards receiving, the Steelers would come from behind to defeat Arizona 27-23 to claim their 6th Super Bowl championship.
2009 Free Agency Additions:
CB Bryant McFadden (Pittsburgh)
RB Jason Wright (Cleveland)
S Keith Lewis (San Francisco)
TE Anthony Becht (St. Louis)
FB Dan Kreider (St. Louis)
2009 Trade Acquistions:
2009 Offseason Departures:
RB Edgerrin James (Unsigned)
DE Antonio Smith (Houston)
CB Rod Hood (Cleveland)
RB J.J. Arrington (Signed with Denver, released)
FB Terrelle Smith (Detroit)
CB Eric Green (Miami)
LB Monty Beisel (Kansas City)
2009 NFL Draft:
1-31. Chris Wells, RB, Ohio State
2-63. Cody Brown, DE/OLB, Connecticut
3-95. Rashad Johnson, FS, Alabama
4-131. Greg Toler, CB, St. Pauls
5-167. Herman Johnson, G, LSU
6-204. Will Davis, DE/OLB, Illinois
7-240. LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB, Pittsburgh
7-254. Trevor Canfield, G, Cincinnati
Following a run no one saw coming, the Cardinals will be penciled in by many as the favorites in the NFC West. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the Cardinals roster is filled with talent on both sides of the ball - especially on offense, who will now be coached by Russ Grimm and Mike Miller in wake of Todd Haley leaving to be head coach in Kansas City.
Ken Whisenhunt has developed into one of the best young coaches in the game, and will once again turn the keys to his offense over to veteran quarterback Kurt Warner. Warner had a MVP like effort in 2008, and would have been a shoe in for a second Super Bowl MVP award had Santonio Holmes not somehow beat triple coverage for the game winning touchdown.
As will be the case this year, Warner's two biggest threats will be at wide receiver with Larry Fitzgerald, perhaps the games most complete receiver, and Anquan Boldin, one of the best possession receivers and a bonafide #1 threat thats playing across from another #1 WR. The tandem of Fitzgerald and Boldin is without question the best in football, and will continue to give defenses fits as long as Warner has time to get them the ball. The Cardinals also have talented receivers playing behind Fitz and Boldin with Steve Breaston, Early Doucet and Jerheme Urban rounding out the best wide receiving corps in football.
From there though, the Cardinals offense gets a bit dicey. The Cardinals were the second best passing team in 2008, but they were also dead last in rushing the football. In an effort to repair this, the Cardinals said good bye to veteran Edgerrin James and drafted former Ohio State standout Chris Wells to split carries with last years rookie tail back Tim Hightower.
On the offensive line, the Cardinals can still use some work. Even though Kurt Warner was only sacked 26 times in 2008, a credit to his quick release and ability to read the blitz, the line features Mike Gandy and Levi Brown as its tackles, and each player is very suspect in pass protection. The interior of the Cardinals line, with starting center Lyle Sendlein and guards Reggie Wells and Deuce Lutui, struggled immensely with run blocking and will need to improve this in 2009.
Defensively, the Cardinals let go of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, in large part due to breakdowns in coverage at many points in the season, most notably the final drive of Super Bowl XLIII. Pendergast will be replaced by Billy Davis, the former linebackers coach and one time defensive coordinator under Mike Nolan in San Francisco.
Davis will have a talented secondary at his disposal, with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Adrian Wilson being the highlights. However, the rest of the Cardinals defense could be very shaky.
The linebackers will be highlighted by Karlos Dansby, a very underrated inside linebacker. Dansby will be joined by veterans Bertrand Berry and Clark Haggans as well as rookie Cody Brown, a guy that the Cardinals hope can fill the pass rushing void left by Antonio Smith's departure to Houston.
On the defensive line, Darnell Dockett will once again be the starting defensive tackle with Calais Campbell, Gabe Watson and Alan Branch also logging time on the three and four man fronts.
|Sun 9/13||San Francisco|
|Sun 9/20||at Jacksonville|
|Sun 10/18||at Seattle|
|Sun 10/25||at NY Giants|
|Sun 11/8||at Chicago|
|Sun 11/22||at St. Louis|
|Sun 11/29||at Tennessee|
|Mon 12/14||at San Francisco|
|Sun 12/20||at Detroit|
|Sun 12/27||St. Louis|
|Sun 1/3||Green Bay|
It couldn't have set up any better for the Arizona Cardinals in 2008 than it did, aside from maybe the ending of the Super Bowl. The Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals only real threat in the division, saw their season unravel at the seams due to injuries across the board and the 49ers only came on after a midseason coaching change when the division was already pretty much in the books.
And while it makes sense to carry over the Cardinals as the team to beat in the NFC West in 2009, it's hard to see Arizona getting the same output from Kurt Warner this season that they did last season. It's also hard to gauge how the loss of Todd Haley will affect the offensive playcalling, and whether or not Chris Wells will be able to jump start a rushing attack that was nothing short of abysmal in 2008.
In addition to this, how much of a Super Bowl hangover will the Cardinals have? For reasons unknown, the Super Bowl runner-up typically misses the playoffs the following year, and this was the case in 2008 when the 18-1 New England Patriots didn't qualify for postseason play after an 11-5 year.
Quietly, the Seahawks and 49ers are much better teams than they were a year ago, couple this with the fact I do not believe lightning will strike twice for Arizona, and I think the Cardinals will regress a bit in 2009 - even with their potent duo of wide receivers.
Predicted Finish: 7-9, 3rd NFC West
Hassellbeck - VSN Writer