When you make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in team history, there is no avoiding the change in climate surrounding your team in every facet. Such is the case with the reigning NFC Champions, the Arizona Cardinals.
There are expectations now, both positive and negative. There is much more media attention, and larger crowds at training camp. Some swear by the curse of the Super Bowl loser, with factual evidence showing how difficult it has been for the losing team to rebound and make the playoffs the following season.
The biggest challenges for the Cardinals however are football issues. They lost significant contributors Edgerrin James, J.J. Arrington, Terrelle Smith, Antonio Smith, Roderick Hood and Travis LaBoy, and even more importantly, Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley and Defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast. They are changing their Defensive schemes, and desperately need to improve the rushing attack. Let us take a look at what is missing, how they can replace it, and how they can improve.
1. Losing Todd Haley. Ken Whisenhunt is taking over offensive play calling for the departed Haley, who is now Head Coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Although Haley obviously did the job quite well, this in itself shouldn't be that much of an issue since Whisenhunt first gained notoriety as an OC himself with the Steelers, taking over as the Cardinals Head Coach after helping guide Pittsburgh to their first Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger under center.
The one thing the Cardinals won't be able to replace is Haley's fire, who had a direct effect on motivating Larry Fitzgerald to push his game from being a very good player to an outstanding one. He also had a special relationship with Kurt Warner, and no doubt had a lot to do with Warner's MVP-like season.
2. Firing Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast was on staff when Ken Whisenhunt arrived, so although he was not hand picked by Whisenhunt, he kept his job in the name of continuity, to make the transition to a new regime smoother. It didn't hurt that Pendergasts' schemes were known for being exotic and difficult for opposing teams to identify, or that he was able to instill the art of tenacity and turnover creation in his players.
What Whisenhunt could not stand for was how many points his Defense was allowing. In 2004, his first year as DC, Clancy's Cardinals jumped to 12th best in points allowed, but fell off the next season to 26th and never recovered, finishing last season 28th in points allowed. The postseason showed the awesome potential of Clancy's tactics, and the athleticism of the Cardinals Defense, but the game winning drive by the Steelers in the Super Bowl was the final blow to his tenure.
While new DC Bill Davis has had success as a Linebackers Coach under several notable Defensive minds like Dom Capers, Wade Phillips and Tim Lewis, he had very little success as DC under Mike Nolan and the 49ers. What Davis will bring to the table is a relative unknown.
At least Davis has a lot of tools at his disposal. Free agent acquisition Cornerback Bryant McFadden could turn out to be a steal. Teaming up with second year sensation Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson, and gifted Antrel Rolle immediately gives the Cardinals one of the best and most physical secondaries in the league.
If Davis can speak to his players and motivate them to stay the aggressive, ball hawking, turnover creating machines they were in the playoffs last season, the Cardinals have the talent to improve upon what Clancy started.
3. New Defensive scheme. The Cardinals played a hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme last season, perhaps as a transition away from Pendergast and into Whisenhunt's preferred 3-4. This year marks the beginning of an all-out 3-4, which means Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Darnell Dockett will now be a Defensive End. Defensive Ends such as Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor will now play Linebacker. How Dockett and the rest of the team handle this transition will be key.
The change is important, but not as much as the Cardinals need to get more of a pass rush, period. They drafted DEs Cody Brown and Will Davis to help fortify this effort, but sacks and pressures will have to come more frequently from Berry, Okeafor, Dansby, Dockett, and Wilson if they are to have a balanced Defense.
DE Calais Campbell has the biggest shoes to fill, but also perhaps the most new talent to offer. He is 6'8" with quick feet, a wide wingspan and a motor that never stops. Campbell showed flashes last year of being a dominant player, when he excelled on special teams and played spot duty backing up among others the departed Antonio Smith. Smith was a force all season long, had a sack and a forced fumble in the Super Bowl, but the Cardinals like what they see in Calais.
4. Improve the running game. The Cards drafted Running Back Chris "Beanie" Wells with their first pick, a move many assumed meant that second year player Tim Hightower would be taking a back seat. Hightower has made a lifestyle out of being under appreciated though, and came into camp lighter and more explosive. The team will likely need both to players to excel in order to get the Cardinals out of the rushing cellar.
Wells has all the physical tools to succeed, size, speed, vision, yet has a reputation for being injury prone and has already injured his ankle. Is he tough enough to play with pain? Can he stay on the field? He will have these questions and more to answer in his younger career.
Hightower meanwhile, had issue at times with hesitating indecisively behind the line of scimmage, but when he is decisive in his running he has shown flashes of being a dynamic force. He is a money player in crucial situations though. He made as many prime time plays for the Cardinals last year as anyone on the team, and I think with a year under his belt he may be primed for a surprise showing a la DeAngelo Williams, whether Wells gets his share of the workload or not.
The Offensive Line was a model of continuity last season, playing all 20 games together. They have added depth with veteran Center Melvin Folwer, rookie mammoth Guard/Tackle Herman Johnson and second year Tackle Brandon Keith notables on the rise.