For the Arizona Cardinals, it's all over—as they say—but the crying.
As their season came to an end, the Cardinals began a new year in the worst possible way, losing 38-7 to the San Francisco 49ers.
The loss, their 11th of the season, marked the end of a tumultuous season marred by inconsistency, underachievement and disappointment.
Going into the game, both teams knew that the winning was not all good news, as the winning team would drop at least a few places in the upcoming draft; however, with pride on the line, that was little consolation for the Cardinals.
The season, while not without its high points, has also had far too many low points.
And, painful as it may be, it is important that we learn from our mistakes as well as out triumphs. So let's look back at 2011 and see what we can learn for 2011.
Losing Antrel Rolle was big for the Cardinals. The Pro Bowl safety was considered by many of the Cardinals faithful to be a pillar of the team, effectively irreplaceable.
And yet somehow, Rhodes managed to do just that, and for a fraction of the price of Rolle, one of the highest-paid safeties in the league.
Rhodes managed to more or less equal Rolle's recent performances and was, without question, one of the Cardinals' few bright spots this season.
Rhodes had four interceptions, 12 deflected passes and a sack. He was also one of the Cardinals' surest tacklers, really making a positive impact on the team in practically every way.
If losing Antrel Rolle was a big deal, Karlos Dansby was even more so.
Dansby had been part of the at the Cardinals core for some time, and twice had been tagged as their franchise player.
Unfortunately, he was not interested in negotiating a long-term contract with the Cardinals and instead signed with the Dolphins for what was, at the time, a record five-year, $43 million contract.
In his place, Arizona acquired the services of Joey Porter, who had previously played for the Pittsburgh Steelers during Coach Whisenhunt's tenure there.
Called by some a desperation move, Porter was nonetheless a former All-Pro selection, four-time Pro Bowl player, and Super Bowl champion
Fans hoped that he could replicate some of this success for the Cardinals.
Unfortunately, he did not come close to matching his best numbers, and was, on the whole, a disappointment for the Cardinals.
In a year where numerous rookies had breakout seasons, none of the Cardinals draftees would win any rookie of the year awards.
However, the Cardinals did secure some fantastic players in the draft.
All of these players have made significant and notable contributions to the Cardinals. Most notably, Daryl Washington has already made his way to the top of the depth chart at ILB.
With the expected retirement of veteran nose tackle Brian Robinson, Dan Williams looks set to become a regular starter, too, and O'Brien Schofield is well positioned to join the regular rotation at linebacker.
However, the most exciting thing about all of these players is simple. They all play beyond their years. They all look better, more prepared and ready than rookies at these positions normally do.
They are all also fantastic values, all three being considered at, or near, first-round prospects.
While none of these young men helped the Cardinals win very much in 2010, they all left fans with a hope that 2011 will be a major improvement.
In both cases, it's hard to say, conclusively, whether the Cardinals won or the opposing teams lost these games.
However, regardless of how they went down, the Cardinals opened the season 2-1, wining both their season opener against divisional rival St. Louis and their home opener in Week 3 against the Oakland Raiders.
Three missed field goals handed the Cardinals their win at home. A gutsy but inexperienced Sam Bradford was unable to put enough of a buffer between his team and the Cardinals, and a 21-yard Larry Fitzgerald TD spoiled his party, granting Arizona the win against St. Louis.
At 2-1 the Cardinals had plenty to feel good about. Unfortunately, this would not last, and the Arizona fans had already been given a taste of what was to come.
Heading into Week 2, fans were in an upbeat mood. They were certainly not the favorites against the Falcons, but Atlanta was coming off a defeat in Week 1, while the Cardinals, coming off a win, were in high spirits.
That we lost, of course, is not the surprise—how we lost is.
The Cardinals were not just beaten, they were destroyed.
In the end, the game finished 41-7. The Cardinals imploded and self-destructed.
It was not, as we all know, the only time the Cardinals would lose, but it was by far the ugliest. And to come in Week 2 was a dangerous message to send to the rest of their opponents.
If you get a bit of a buffer against the Cardinals, they will hand you the rest of the game.
By Week 5, a few things were becoming painfully obvious.
First, the Cardinals two wins were more down to luck than good judgement.
Second, Derek Anderson was not an NFL-caliber quarterback and was not going to lead the Cardinals to very many wins.
Third, the Cardinals defense was porous, and the only way they were going to get wins was by outscoring their opponents, not winning defensive battles.
Enter Max Hall, undrafted rookie free agent from BYU.
Hall had played in an NFL-style system at Brigham Young, and picked up the offensive playbook quickly. So quickly, in fact, that by Week 5 he was handed the keys to the offense.
He couldn't have asked for a better start, leading the Cardinals to a 30-20 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
Of course, the observant amongst you will notice that Hall did not throw any touchdowns, had one interception and fumbled the ball twice.
But we didn't care. He had lead us to a victory, to a 3-2 record heading into our bye.
He was the guy the Cardinals had been waiting for. It was a fairy tale unfolding in front of our eyes, and we loved it.
In reality, all the credit for this win belongs to the defence and special teams, who kept the Cardinals in the game. All three Cardinals touchdowns came from fumble recoveries or interception returns.
In the end, the Cardinals managed to intercept Drew Brees on three occasions and recovered a Landell Betts fumble to boot, which was enough for the win.
But, as with all of these things, we will forget all of these achievements, and remember only that Max Hall won his first game as starter.
The Max Hall fairy tale would end almost as abruptly as it began just a few short weeks later.
Against the Seahawks, the Cardinals—who would eventually lose the game 22-10—once again handed the rookie Hall the reigns.
After a wildly unproductive first half for Hall, which saw him complete practically no passes and get picked off, the Cardinals had seen enough.
Less than five minutes into the second half, Hall was replaced by Derek Anderson.
Although it was reported to be injury-related, due to what the Cardinals would call a "blow to the head," the young QB had been helpless, and the injury couldn't have come soon enough.
Hall ended that game 4-of-16 passing for just 36 yards and an interception.
Anderson was not much better, ending the game 8-of-17 for 96 yards, but Hall's time as an NFL starter looked to be over before he began.
Hall would be given one more chance against the Buccaneers in Week 6; however, after seeing two of his interceptions returned for touchdowns, Hall was once again benched in favor of Derek Anderson.
Hall would play only one more series for the Cardinals, in relief of Anderson in Week 13 against the Rams, where he would throw an interception before being placed on Injured Reserve.
If I told you a team who played no fewer than four quarterbacks during the regular season (five including the preseason) ended with a losing record, would you be surprised?
If I told you that of those four quarterbacks, only one had taken a snap in the NFL prior to 2010, would it surprise you to know that the team ended the season at the bottom of their division?
Didn't think so.
Throughout the season, the Cardinals started Derek Anderson, Max Hall and John Skelton, and also used Richard Bartel (pictured) in relief. The Cardinals started Matt Leinart in the preseason, who was projected to be the starter for Arizona in 2010.
At times it felt like the Cardinals had an open door policy when it came to quarterbacks. Whoever turned up first got the nod.
And just as soon as you feel one of them is starting to take ownership of the team, another joins the party.
Take John Skelton. The Cardinals fifth-round selection was finally handed the keys to the Cardinals following Week 13 injuries to Hall and Anderson, and he performed pretty well. He lead the team to two wins in his first three games, and while he was not excellent, he was good enough to earn the right to at least close out the season with the Cardinals.
Skelton appeared to be the QB project the Cardinals were hoping he would be, and all signs pointed to the fact that he would be a solid signal caller within the next few seasons.
Then, without warning, and for no clear reason, the Cardinals decided to bench him in favor of Richard Bartel, who had, until being called up by the Cardinals, been playing backup at the Sacramento Mountain Lions, of the UFL.
As the slide title says. It hurts everyone. Not only does it prevent any one player from finding his feet, it also hurts the receivers, the offensive line, even the defense.
Receivers are expected to adjust their timings, often mid-game, and, rather unsurprisingly, this affects their ability to catch passes. The O-line is forced to go from protecting pocket passers to scramblers, and back again within the space of a few weeks.
And yes, it affects the defense. An ineffective QB means they spend far more time on the field than they would like.
All in all, it's been an ugly situation, and one that the Cardinals need to sort out soon.
I like Coach Whisenhunt. I certainly do not want to see him replaced at Arizona.
Well, I mostly don't want to see him replaced.
While I certainly don't want to see Ken Whisenhunt, Head Coach, leave the Cardinals, I can't wait to see Ken Whisenhunt, Offensive Coordinator, replaced.
I think he is a fantastic head coach, and a great play-caller, but I seriously doubt his ability to complete both roles concurrently.
In the history of the NFL, many head coaches have tried to be the primary play-caller on the team. Few have succeeded.
As head coach, the buck stops with you, and you can understand why so many coaches would be hesitant to allow others to take responsibility for something as integral as the choice of plays, but it is something that Coach Whisenhunt needs to address for 2011.
In 2008, when the Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl, play selection was handled by Todd Haley. In 2009, while technically Whisenhunt's domain, more than enough of the play-calling was handled by Kurt Warner at the line.
In 2010, without an offensive coordinator or experienced QB under center, Whisenhunt has been forced to spread himself too thin, and it has shown.
2010 marked his first losing season as a head coach.
On the opposite side of the ball, things haven't been much better.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis, who has to this point done a decent job with the Cardinals defense, seems to have lost the plot.
The defensive play-calling has been all over the place, going from dominant to helpless sometimes in the period of a single drive. He regularly seems to find a scheme or format which works, only to abandon it in favor of something unsuccessful almost immediately.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, there are more than a few options available when it comes to bolstering the coaching staff, including no shortage of recently ousted head coaches.
The Cardinals defense has been, at best, a mixed bag.
On the one hand, they have given up more points than almost any other team in the league and are amongst the bottom teams when it comes to yards given up, too.
On the other, they have scored more defensive touchdowns than any other team and have more yards from interceptions than anyone else, too. In many games they have been turnover machines, in a significant number scoring more points than the offense.
They have not had a fantastic pass rush, by Cardinals standards, and have still generated more sacks than about half of the teams in the league, and have given their fans an awful lot to be positive about.
Unfortunately, inconsistency has been their biggest downfall. And while it starts with the play-calling, as previously mentioned, it filters down to all players.
You simply don't know what you're going to get from one drive to the next, and that is painful to watch.
In 2010, the Cards defense has given the fans more highs and lows than any other part of the program, but, in the end, the D has left a bitter taste in the mouths of those people who made it to the end of the game.
And that's a shame, because there is tremendous talent on that team.
It's one of those games, where if you didn't see it, and read about it later, you just wouldn't believe it.
In Week 14 the Cardinals took on the Denver Broncos at home.
The Cardinals found themselves at 3-9, having lost seven straight games.
In spite of this, the Cardinals still managed to sell out the game, and those loyal fans who attended were in for something very special.
After going down early to a Broncos field goal, and following a number of stalled drives by the Cardinals, Arizona needed someone to step up.
Enter Jay Feely.
After picking off Kyle Orton, and another stalled offensive drive, Feely took the field to attempt a 36-yard field goal. The kick was good, and the Cardinals drew level.
After making a 48-yard kick early in the second quarter, Feely was beginning to feel good about himself.
Then, after the Cardinals found themselves on 4th-and-goal, five yards away from the end zone, Coach Whisenhunt spoke the word Feely had waited his whole career to hear: "Wolverine."
A trick play, named after Feely's college team, Michigan, which saw him take off into the corner of the end zone.
Feely would go on to hit five field goals and four extra points in addition to the touchdown run, 25 of the Cardinals 43 points, and at one point was solely responsible for all of the Cardinals' 22 points on the board.
Say whatever you want about kickers, on that day, he was by far the Cardinals MVP.
Perhaps you haven't heard. Maybe you missed it. But I've got some news for you,
The Panthers sucked in 2010.
Their 2-14 record was pitiful.
Unfortunately for Arizona, one of their wins came against the Cardinals.
The game was not a blowout. It was not one of the old-fashioned beatdowns the Cardinals experienced at the hands of others throughout the season.
It was a hard-fought battle, where the Cardinals fans were forced to sit and watch while the Carolina Panthers, the worst team in the league, outplayed them in every phase of the game.
Going into the game, the Cardinals still had an outside chance of making the playoffs. It relied on a good few losses by others, and a tie by Seattle and St. Louis in their final game, but it was a chance, nonetheless.
Without a doubt, it was the hardest game for Cardinals fans to watch. Harder than being beaten by the Falcons, though the score would not indicate as much. Harder, even, than being hammered by divisional rivals.
Hard because it forced us to acknowledge how poorly our team had really performed.
No one wants to realize that their team, the team they love, is the butt of a joke, and yet, in losing to Carolina, that is what we became.
Larry Fitzgerald did not have a good season.
At least, not by his own exceptional standards.
In spite of the turmoil at the quarterback position, though, and in spite of missing preseason through injury, Fitz still managed to shine.
Throughout the course of the year, Larry Fitzgerald continued to set a standard of excellence on the Cardinals.
Fitzgerald, who ended the season with 90 receptions for 1,137 yards and six touchdowns, has now had over 90 receptions and 1,000 yards in his past four consecutive seasons, and five 1,000-yard seasons in his career.
Along the way, he also became became the Cardinals receptions leader, and he is just 292 yards and one touchdown away from surpassing Roy Green as the Cardinals all-time leading receiver.
Whatever you may say about him, one thing is for certain. Larry Fitzgerald remains one of the premiere receivers in the NFL, and has shown no sign of letting up, regardless of who is passing him the ball.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Candlestick Park, reality set in for the Cardinals staff, players and fans.
They would end the season at 5-11, having successfully lost five of their six divisional games.
They had failed even to break even against the other teams in what is universally acknowledged as the worst division in the NFL.
They had failed to achieve a winning record—for the first time in Coach Whisenhunt's tenure in Arizona—in spite of having the easiest schedule of any team in the NFL in 2010.
They somehow managed to finish bottom of a division in which not a single team had a winning record.
In a year when the Seattle Seahawks managed to make the playoffs with a 7-9 losing record, the Cardinals somehow managed to remove themselves even from contention with two weeks to spare.
Dress it up however you want to, only one word can describe these standings.
For all of the stats that will be banded around to sum up the Cardinals 2010 season, one hit home more than any other.
The Cardinals played at home eight times in 2010. On all eight occasions the stadium was full.
Regardless of their record, regardless of what went wrong along the way, even when we knew the division was out of reach, still the fans turned out in droves.
Their eight 2010 sellouts caps a 53-game streak stretching back to 2006. The Cardinals have managed to sell out every single game played at the University of Phoenix Stadium, even following their worst losing streak in recent memory.
The Cardinals faithful set aside their Christmas celebrations to join their team for a Christmas day win against the Cowboys.
The Cardinals are not known for having the most loyal fans.
They should be.
So from one fan to another, thank you.
Thank you for standing by our team through thick and thin.
Thank you for continuing to cheer even when all we have to cheer is a consolation touchdown when the game is already out of reach.
Thank you for being part of this community, in Glendale, Phoenix, across Arizona, America and the world.
Thank you for coming here week in, week out, and sharing your thoughts, feelings and frustrations.
Thank you for reading the opinion of people like myself, Jack London and all of the other contributors who have taken the time to write these articles.
Your support means everything.
Let's keep it going into 2011.