In a preview to an extended podcast that Eli and I will be doing on the Cardinals season and a look toward the off season, we now present our first annual player and coaches report card for the 2007 season. The over all season could be termed an improvement but in no way could it be called a success. 8-8 is a step up from the Denny Green/Dave McGinnis years but the fact is we absolutely should have been in the play offs this year if this team hadn’t let a couple of very winnable games slip away.
I know everyone wants to talk about the injuries, and just today Len Pascarelli over at ESPN had a list of the teams that lost the most starters over the course of the season, and the Cardinals were third on that list. However, every team has injuries and that's why drafting and shrewd free agency decisions are the difference between the average teams and those still playing at the end of the years. You have got to have quality depth in this league or your not going to make it to the end of the season being able to compete.
With all that in mind lets get started:
Front office and ownership: This was an off season where Denny Green was fired, Ken Whisenhunt was hired and Rod Graves was given a raise and a contract extension by the Bidwell family. Clearly, Denny Green had packed it in and was basically stealing money for the last 10 games of 2006 knowing he was going to get the ax so he had to go even if it meant the owners had to eat a big contract. However, the new stadium was sold out, the family is printing money compared to the years at Sun Devil and there is no longer the excuse that they don’t have the financial resources to step up and hire and pay good coaching and administrative talent. Toward that end they made a very solid hire in Ken Whisenhunt who was allowed to assemble and pay a good staff of assistants. The more questionable move in the eyes of some was extending Rod Graves after Denny was fired due to the perception that the successful drafts and personnel moves over the preceding three years were largely the work and influence of Green. However, Rod is well liked by the Bidwells and he was rewarded for, well, I’m not quite sure what as this last draft and free agency had some real head scratchers. The book is still out on his ability to find and draft quality talent and this years draft is a red letter example of how not to do it. The Cardinals whiffed on their third round pick Buster Davis, reached on their 1st and 2nd round picks of Brown and Branch, didn’t have picks in the 4th and 6th round due to questionable trades but rebounded and picked up decent prospects in the 5th and 7th round in Breaston and Patrick. Additionally, some questionable free agent signings such as Holt at FS and the $7 million deal given Al Johnson could hamstring the team next year in their bid to find cap room for other free agents. This isn’t a team that can afford to miss on ANY draft picks given the thin depth or make questionable moves in allocating bonus money to the cap, but hopefully this staff will continue to coach up the players they have, and the Bidwells won’t use the restructuring of Fitzgerald's contract as an excuse to sit out free agency and sit on their wallets. That sold out stadium is a money tree now and they need to shake it. Grade over all: B-
Coaching staff: In the first year as a staff the Cardinals made some obvious mistakes but also made some huge strides. What people don’t quite grasp is that pulling a staff together and keeping it together is crucial in the NFL so that simple things like playbooks, video clips of plays that are archived, terminology, practice schedules and depth charts are consistent. For a staff to not have the distractions of learning how to work together spills over to the field, with the obvious examples of all the delay of game penalties this year being a by product of a first year staff learning how to handle play calling and communication during the game. While you can argue with a few minor calls here and there this staff looks to be the best assembled in the desert since Vince Tobin’s group and quite possibly could be one of the best since the Don Coryell years. I like how they handled adversity, their flexibility, imagination and instilling toughness. You didn’t see the huge mistakes and break downs that plagued prior years and the team played hard for them all season, even when they were out of the play offs. However the decision to go with a rookie punter probably cost the team at least one game as did the delay of game issues with the SF game as well. Room to improve, but it’s going in the right direction. Its the first year but I’ll give this group a grade of B for 2007 with the offensive group getting a B+, the defensive group getting a B and special teams receiving a C+.
Quarterbacks: Kurt Warner proved this year that he is still an NFL starter and difference maker when he gets protection and is allowed to find his targets. His 27 touchdowns in an abbreviated season were the best of any Cardinal QB in over 20 years and almost set a franchise record. His toughness, maturity and willingness to be prepared to play salvaged a season that could have been a 3 or 4 win fiasco after Matt Leinart went down with his injury. That said he still has ball protection issues in the pocket, at times forces throws when he doesn’t have to, but by the end of the year he was playing at close to a pro-bowl level. I’d like to see the Cardinals extend Warner for at least two more years beyond 2008 as he’s in great shape, is a model teammate and is the best back up QB in the NFL bar none. As for Matt Leinart this season was one to forget on many levels. His off season was rocky on a personal level, he was criticized for not putting in the hours a championship QB does to prepare each week and his on field performance and sulking at times didn’t endear him to fans or the coaching staff. It was clear before his injury that Kurt Warner in 2007 was the best QB on the staff. That said Matt is definitely the future of this franchise, he appears to have a handle on his personal life and the specter of Warner taking his job is causing his competitive nature to kick in. Hopefully. Still it was a bad year on the field and the jury is still very much out on Matt. Tim Rattay proved to be a top quality free agent pick up and hopefully will be in the mix for 2008 and beyond. He’s a young veteran QB, he’s ideal as a second or third string guy and he played well when called upon. QB grades: Warner A-, Leinart C-, Rattay, B. Over all position grade, B+.
Wide Receivers: Once again in 2007 the Cardinals had one of their featured WR make the Pro-Bowl, with this year seeing Larry Fitzgerald picked after an outstanding season that saw him over come some nagging injuries to finish strong and make great strides in his continued development into one of the top two or three receivers in the NFL. His partner Anquan Boldin was having a monster year until he suffered a hip injury in the Baltimore game as he literally ran over the Raven’s safety on the way to a touchdown. That injury cost Boldin four games but even when he came back he lacked some explosion and was clearly not 100% for the balance of the year, but still posted huge numbers on his way to a very good 2007. The rest of the receivers unfortunately didn’t live up to their potential and a position that looked very deep in training camp actually was pretty thin after the big two. Bryant Johnson continued his frustrating practice of dropping catchable balls, despite mixing in some great catches and solid games during the season. He is a free agent this year and I don’t expect the Cardinals to resign him as a third WR as some team will take a chance on him being their number one or two guy. Steve Breaston had a few catches but ran routes like a rookie so his playing time was limited, Jerehme Urban looked the part but had worse hands then Johnson, and Sean Morey will be forever remembered as the WR that had a 10 yard lead on a linebacker to win the SF game out right, but got caught from behind, setting up the Racker’s missed field goal instead. In short, after the big two there was a big, big drop off and the Cardinals need to find some depth at this position. Grades: Fitzgerald A, Boldin B+, Johnson C+, Urban C-, Morey C-, Breaston Incomplete. Position Grade overall B+.
Tight Ends. This group needs to stay after school for extra work with the teacher i’m afraid. Despite a good year catching the ball by Leonard Pope prior to his season ending injury, this group was by far the weakest area on the entire Cardinals roster. There isn’t a good inline blocker in the bunch, they ran wrong routes or didn’t finish routes when they did get thrown too and had some costly drops at times. If the Cardinals don’t spend a first day pick on a tight end i’m going to be really disappointed as this group is incredibly thin and green. That said, Leonard Pope made real strides in the passing game and is starting to look like a real threat if he can keep his head in the game and know where he is supposed to be. A second year in the system with the same QB’s should help him immensely and he looks to be an NFL quality TE despite his weakness in run blocking. Ben Patrick, the rookie TE out of Delaware fought through a difficult off season of injury, being cut, making the practice squad to ending up as a starter in place of Pope the last few games. He has NFL quality hands and good speed but he definitely is a year away on the blocking and route running. Tim Euhus and Troy Bienneman, in the words of Denny Green, were what we thought they were. Bottom line this group desperately needs at least one veteran and a talented rookie to upgrade it and hopefully we see that as a priority in the off season. Grades, Leonard Pope B-, Ben Patrick C+, Tim Euhus C-, Troy Bienneman C. Overall grade for position, C.
Offensive Line. No area entering this season was under greater pressure to improve then the offensive line and thankfully the rebuild of the unit and addition of Russ Grimm as OL coach saw a big step forward. The QB’s got good to very good protection, the running game was improved and you didn’t see the constant tackles for loss that were the trade mark of the Denny Green era OL’s. The free agent signings of Mike Gandy and Al Johnson were significant upgrades at LT and Center, Deuce Lutiui and Reggie Wells had solid years as RG and LG and Levi Brown held his own as a rookie RT after Oliver Ross went out in preseason with a season ending injury. The addition of free agent rookie Lyle Sendlein and the reconstruction of Elton Brown brought depth to the unit but more competition is needed at tackle to continue to upgrade. This was the most improved area on the team this year by far. OL Grades. Mike Gandy B+, Levi Brown C+, Reggie Wells A-, Deuce Lutiui B, Al Johnson B, Lyle Sendlein B, Elton Brown B, Keydrick Vincent Incomplete.
Running backs: How people can continue to complain about Edgerrin James is totally beyond me. Sure he doesn’t have break away speed but that's no secret and if the team wanted a home run threat they shouldn’t have passed on Adrian Peterson this year. Now we are hit with rumors that Edge could be a cap cut this year despite the two best years rushing in over 25 years for the Cardinals. If you watch Edge play you see a tough, smart, work horse back who is a complete football player who never complains. With out Edge as a threat in the backfield this team might have been a 4 win team this year as the stacking the box allowed the WR’s to have huge years as a result. The other backs had mediocre seasons and i’m hopeful we won’t have J.J. Arrington to kick around much longer. This guy, for what ever reason, has never translated his college success to the pro game and probably needs a change of scenery at this point. Marcel Shipp did little with the few opportunities he had as a goal line specialist and even had a weak year on special teams compared to prior seasons. Fullback Terrelle Smith was a great pick up and well worth the money paid as a blocker, receiver and special teams guy. I’d suspect we will see some changes at the RB position in the off season but I hope Edge isn’t one of them. Don’t compound the mistake of not taking Peterson by throwing your most productive running back and a quality veteran under the bus! Grades. Edgerrin James A-, Marcel Shipp C+, J.J. Arrington C-, Terrelle Smith, B+. Position grade, B.
Defensive Line: This was shaping up as an area of real strength and depth but with the preseason injury to Chike Okeafor and midseason injury to Bertrand Berry this group had to rely on some untested players to hold things together over the course of the season. In addition the switch to a hybrid 3-4 unit moved some guys to spots they hadn’t played before so it was a transition year for the players as well as the staff. That said this group played tough in every game, but the losses of Okefor and Berry crippled the pass rush and exposed the secondary in the last 4 games of the season with Hasselback, Redmond and others having career days. I expect the Cardinals to make a first day pick at DE/OLB to find a serious speed rusher along the lines of a Ware or Suggs, or if the front office gets creative to actually make a run at signing Suggs as a free agent. Darnell Dockett had a pro-bowl year and thankfully got the recognition he deserved this year. Gabe Watson came to camp ready to play and completely turned around his career by reshaping his body and attitude to become a legitimate NFL nose tackle. Antonio Smith continued his steady progress to full time, top quality DE status and Calvin Pace finally found his niche taking the spot from Okefor after the injury and earning himself what is sure to be a new contract as an OLB/DE. Alan Branch was a disappointment as a 2nd round pick in that he wasn’t an impact player for any this year, but hopefully he does what Watson did, and really commit in the off season to get ready to play next year. Joe Tafoya was a solid back up but the rest of the unit struggled to hold their own when called upon. DL Grades. Darnell Dockett A, Gabe Watson B+, Antonio Smith B+, Calvin Pace B+, Bert Berry B-, Joe Tafoya C+, Alan Branch C-, Chris Cooper C-, Rodney Bailey C-. Ross Kolodzdiej and Bo Schobel Incomplete.
Linebacker: This unit was also in flux as the switch was made to the 3-4 set up requiring Dansby to move inside and to develop OLB’s that can run, cover and rush the passer. For purposes of this evaluation I moved Calvin Pace and Bert Berry to the DE evaluation, but kept guys like Brandon Johnson and Darryl Blackstock as OLB’s even though they all played elements of both positions. Expect the team to continue to look to upgrade and find true OLB/DE types in the draft and free agency to shore up this area in talent and experience as the move to a true 3-4 continues next year. As for this year the linebackers were solid with Karlos Dansby playing at a pro-bowl level if he hadn’t once again lost a few games to injury. He is the single most destructive playmaker on the defense other then Adrian Wilson and he is a must sign for the years ahead. Gerald Hayes had another solid season and this group had three players with 100+ tackles. However, the lack of depth is a huge issue and I hope the team drafts at least two linebackers this year and hits the free agency market to go get some veteran help. Linebacker grades. Karlos Dansby A-, Gerald Hayes B+, Monty Beisel B-, Darryl Blackstock C, Brandon Johnson C-, David Holloway Incomplete. Linebacker position grade B.
Cornerbacks. This is another area that entering 2007 was a big concern and that was a pleasant surprise. Rodd Hood and Eric Green won the starting corner jobs, relegating Antrelle Rolle to nickel corner with Ralph Brown coming on board to be the forth corner and provide depth. Matt Ware was a utility guy shifting between safety and CB in certain formations and rookie free agent Michael Adams saw some duty once Eric Green went down with injury and Rolle was moved into a starting position. If this season proved anything of this unit is that it still needs a true top flight shut down corner prospect so Rod Hood can move to third corner, Rolle can finally move to safety or just to upgrade the depth in the secondary. This unit was trick or treat with Rolle earning defensive player of the week for the NFL TWICE and Hood earning it once with big games and interception returns for TD’s, but also giving up big plays in the passing game due to inability to cover man to man against elite receivers and being taken apart by good quarterbacks in the last half of the year. Still, in all regards it was a big step forward and this unit is probably one or two good corner prospects away from being an elite secondary. Grades for Corner backs. Eric Green B+, Rod Hood B, Antrelle Rolle B-, Ralph Brown C+, Michael Adams and Matt Ware, incomplete. Position Grade, B-.
Safeties. What was hoped to be an area of real strength was instead weakened by lingering injuries to Aaron Francisco and a season ending injury to All Pro Adrian Wilson. The addition of Terrance Holt as FS was supposed to bring a real upgrade but I think it is pretty universally considered that the single biggest free agent bust this last year was probably Holt as far as Cardinals signings go. He just never seemed to make the right play on balls in the air, probably costing the Cardinals the Tampa Bay game, and had just a ton of blown coverages and missed tackles for touchdowns that just killed this team. If a top flight free safety is available in the draft the Cardinals really need to grab him as Holt is clearly not going to be the answer unless he bounces back in a big way. He got paid big time money but his play was more on the par with a second string guy this season. Matt Ware and Oliver Celestin were both signed to primarily play special teams, but with injuries each were called upon in certain games and they stepped up and played hard but certainly didn’t make a case for themselves to be starters. This area should return to strength next season, particularly if the team adds a top flight free safety prospect and replaces Holt. Grades for safeties. Adrian Wilson A-, Aaron Francisco B-, Oliver Celestin C, Matt Ware C, Torrance Holt D+. Over all position grade for safeties, C+.
Special teams. Thankfully this unit made some real strides under special teams guru Kevin Spencer but the lack of quality depth at safety, CB, WR, TE and LB just cripple the coverage teams for the Cardinals. However, you didn’t see the mistakes, lack of effort, mindless blocking errors and cowardly coverage that was a hallmark of special teams for the last 3 to 5 years. It is hoped that with another solid draft and some infusion of talent in those positions that typically play special teams will continue to further upgrade this unit in 2008. The emergence of Steve Breaston as a true punt and kick return threat was crucial and his ball protection and decision making for a rookie were really remarkable. If he had any kind of blocking on kick returns he was a threat to go the distance every time. However, the punting for most of the season, coupled with Neil Rackers second straight mediocre to flat out rotten season, dragged this units grade way down. The miss in the SF game, and also in Washington, were just season killers and you can’t have a “cover your eyes i’m about to kick” kicker on your team if you want to make the play offs. I know he’s a team favorite and i’ll bet he’s a hell of a guy, but I’m hopeful the staff takes a long, long look for some competition for Rackers at the kicking position as he has been a big disappointment for two years now. Mitch Berger probably isn’t the long term answer at punter but he at least got the job done when the staff finally owned up to the disaster of bringing in a rookie punter one week before the season started just because Scott Player ticked off the coaching staff. These units have a long way to go but at least made a real step forward this year from putrid to just mediocre. Grades for special teams. Steve Breaston A-, Mitch Berger B-, Neil Rackers D+. Over all grade for special teams, C.
Well, there you have it. Our report card on the season and it will lead to our next analysis which is what should the Cardinals be considering in free agency and the draft for the year ahead. The over all grade for this years addition of the Arizona Cardinals? I’ll give them a generous grade of B- with a lot of room to improve but much progress over prior editions. Now it is up to the front office and the Bidwells to get smart about their contract signings, spread out the cap hits and put the final players in place that finally move this team into the play offs where they belong.