In the NFL, nothing comes easy.
That applies to winning 10-plus games, to winning back-to-back division titles, and to winning Super Bowls. Yet all that takes on added difficulty when your team is coming off a 31-point thrashing and a disappointing ending to a defending NFC championship season. And if that isn’t enough of a reason to worry, try having your quarterback situation in limbo, a star receiver on the fritz, and 13 key players entering free agency.
So, just where do the Cardinals go from here? Well for starters, several key players must be signed, beginning with inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.
Quarterback of the defense, Dansby is a budding star who is hardly known around the league, yet he has made major contributions to the Cardinals organization with 25.5 sacks over his six-year career.
Other defensive free agents include outside linebacker Chike Okeafor, backup safety Matt Ware, and nose tackle Gabe Watson. Twelve-year veteran linebacker Bertrand Berry announced retirement Thursday (Jan. 21).
On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest free agent is third receiver Steve Breaston, who could play an even more important role should star receiver Anquan Boldin be traded during the offseason. Aside from Breaston, the offensive line faces the possibility of breaking up, as starting guard Deuce Lutui, tackle Mike Gandy, and center Lyle Sendlein are all free agents.
Finally, lead blocker for Bennie Wells and Tim Hightower, fullback Dan Kreider, becomes a free agent along with offensive weapons tight ends Ben Patrick and Anthony Becht, as well as place kicker Neil Rackers.
Now out of all these free agents, I believe that Karlos Dansby must be signed first, as I stated above.
After the issues surrounding Dansby are addressed, Steve Breaston and linemen Lutui, Sendlein, and Gandy follow, in terms of importance. Breaston has proven to be a major threat in the passing game while Lutui, Sendlein, and Gandy have helped the offensive line stay uniform and helped improve the running game with the help of Wells and Hightower.
Finally, Chike Okeafor and Matt Ware help solidify the line backing core and shore up the secondary, respectively.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
While the Cardinals do face big questions with free agents over the coming months, there are also several big names to deal with who are already under contract. Those names include starting quarterback Kurt Warner, receiver Anquan Boldin, free safety Antrel Rolle, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt.
First and foremost, you have the pending retirement of Kurt Warner, who will be 39 next season. Warner suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams in Week 11, causing him to miss the Week 12 match-up against the Tennessee Titans.
Warner suffered from blurry vision and headaches, which has prompted him to further contemplate retirement. With that said, however, I believe that after the embarrassing loss to the Saints, it is more likely now that Warner is wearing a Cardinals jersey come September.
Then you have Anquan Boldin, who’s been upset over his contract for the past few seasons after not receiving a pay raise. After saying that he would never again sign with the Cardinals last season, Boldin retracted that statement saying he was open to a new deal and has just recently announced that he will not ask for a trade.
Meanwhile, Darnell Dockett (two years left on his current contract), much like Boldin, has also requested a new deal along the line of Cowboys-star outside line backer DeMarcus Ware. A disruptive force in the middle of the line, Dockett, along with defensive end Calais Campbell, was a major reason for the improvement along the defensive line, playing the most consistently of all linemen.
Along with Dockett, there is the issue of Antrel Rolle’s rookie contract that will be worth $12 million in combined salary and bonuses but was meant to either force a new deal or trade as reported by Darren Urban of azcardinal.com .
Finally, there is head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who will enter the final year of his original four-year deal this season. Now of the four big names mentioned, I believe that Whisenhunt has the best shot of a getting a new deal. He is perhaps the greatest coach in Cardinals history, having gone 4-2 in six playoff games that included an NFC championship and a Super Bowl appearance.
In what has been a very brief offseason, Whisenhunt has focused more on keeping his current staff together, namely offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Russ Grimm who’s being looked at by various teams, as opposed to asking for himself.
With all the player talk that is sure to surround the team’s free agents this season, it is likely that none of the four men mentioned above will get new deals, with Boldin perhaps being traded away. In a perfect world, all four men would be Cardinals for the foreseeable future. Yet as the team has shown time and time again, this world is far from perfect.
Last Saturday’s 45-14 loss spelled not only a major shot to the Cardinals’ mojo but also to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s (DRC) career. Cromartie went down early in the first quarter against the Saints to what appeared to be a re-aggravated knee, which he bruised in the regular season finale again the Packers.
However, as time went on, the injury appeared to be much more serious as Cromartie was later carted off the field. Now Cromartie has come out saying that he believes that some ligaments may have been torn. Should this be true, Arizona’s best cover corner would be facing not only surgery but also several months of rehab.
While the 2010 opponents have not officially been released, through a series of rotations and NFL formulas we do know who the Cardinals will be playing next season. We just don’t know where or when.
As is the case every season, the Cardinals will face each team in their division—San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis—twice as they will look to avenge both loses to the 'Niners from the past season. The Cardinals will also face the AFC West teams of the Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, and Kansas City Chiefs.
Back in the NFC, the Cardinals will face the NFC South, giving them a fifth meeting against the Carolina Panthers in four years. Arizona will also have a chance to get revenge against the Saints who sent them home this year. The Cardinals finish out the division against the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Cardinals final two games will include a match-up against the Dallas Cowboys and the third meeting against the Minnesota Vikings in as many years.
Yes, the Cardinals will face a flurry of problems this offseason as they come off an 11-7 record (1-1 in the playoffs). However, though the next few months are sure to be tough, there is plenty to look forward to for Cardinals fans. As the 2009 season progressed, we learned that receivers Steve Breaston and Early Doucet can really light up a defense while the running game has been the most effective it’s been in years, thanks to the tag team of running backs, Bennie Wells and Tim Hightower.
Defensively, though it struggled greatly in the postseason, the secondary made major improvements from a year ago as the acquisition of Bryant McFadden last offseason really paid off. Also, the Cardinals played much better as a whole, making major strides along the defensive line, thanks to the contributions of Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, and Gabe Watson.
Finally, let us remember that rookie linebacker Cody Brown missed all of last season due to injury giving the Cardinals something new to look forward to in 2010.
In conclusion, even though the 2009 season was up and down, to say the least, we did learn four very important things about the Cardinals.
First, the defense is just one or two players away from being among the best in the league.
Second, this offensive can score in any way and with anyone.
Third, this team is resilient not losing back-to-back games all season.
And finally, the corner in Arizona has finally been turned which is why this team will be back in 2010 and perhaps even claim a Super Bowl berth? I mean hey, why not the Cardinals?