The offseason is just as important as the regular season for most NFL teams. It is the time when teams are able to look toward the future without worrying about the present immediacy of the regular season.
Traditionally, the offseason is a time change. No team remains the same from one year to the next. Free agents move around the league. Trades occur between teams. The draft brings in fresh blood.
With the labor dispute cutting the offseason short for 2011, much of the training, planning and movement that normally occur was condensed into a shortened time frame or cancelled outright. Although football is back, it is still too early to know if the shortened offseason activity will impact the Cardinals' performance in 2011, and by how much.
This slideshow explores five potential moves the Arizona Cardinals could, and perhaps should have pursued even when taking the shortened offseason into consideration.
The analysis goes beyond the pursuit of particular free agents since it’s always easy to claim that a team should have pursued one big name or another. Instead, let us look at overlying trends that were not addressed well during the offseason and which may have serious impact in the weeks ahead.
It is clear that the Cardinals believe wholeheartedly in WR Larry Fitzgerald as their go-to passing threat. The team was willing to back this belief financially, offering Fitzgerald a handsome $120 million contract that will effectively end his career in Arizona.
The real question is: Will Larry Fitzgerald actually be able to catch any passes?
The problem with football franchises who boast one excellent receiver alongside average receivers is that the opposition always knows who to put the most effort into covering. With untried WR Andre Roberts taking the second wide receiver slot, there’s no question that Fitzgerald will be the go-to man for Kolb on most plays.
If the Cardinals really wanted to do Fitzgerald a favor, there would have been an effort to bring in some additional talent at wide receiver to help shake things up on the field.
There is no graceful way to put this: In 2010, the Cardinals’ offensive linemen failed to do their jobs. Last season, the Cardinals were 31st in the league in total offense. In individual categories, they fell far below the league average except for penalties—in that, at least, they were average.
Granted, some of the poor passing numbers can be chalked up to Arizona’s quarterback roulette. Realistically, however, a good portion of the responsibility for poor passing and rushing numbers fell on the offensive line and its inability to protect and open up holes.
Some effort was made to patch holes in the offensive line during the offseason, but this will still be the Cardinals’ single weakest link in 2011. G Daryn Colledge, acquired from the Green Bay Packers, isn’t the solution. The Packers brought back almost all of the key components of their Super Bowl championship team for 2011; they let Colledge go to free agency for a reason.
Other than Colledge and the injured Floyd Womack, the Cardinals chose to leave well enough alone with their offensive line. They didn’t draft new blood, nor did they pursue additional talent in free agency.
In fact, a quick glance at the team’s depth chart shows that the offensive line is the team’s Achilles Heel, with little or no backup at many key positions.
The quarterback may be the best-known member of any team’s offense, but without protection from his offensive line, he cannot succeed.
Kevin Kolb will spend a lot of time on the ground in 2011 if the offensive line is not able to pull itself together and find a way to succeed despite being largely ignored during the offseason.
The Cardinals' defense has been reasonably productive since Ken Whisenhunt took the helm as head coach. This year, the defense took a huge hit in losing CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for QB Kevin Kolb.
They plugged defensive holes with acquisitions such as CB Richard Marshall from the Carolina Panthers, and LB Stewart Bradley from the Philadelphia Eagles, but gaping defensive holes remain. Other teams will certainly take advantage throughout the season.
There is always room for players to step up, but the coaches didn't make that easy. The big names acquired in the offseason free agency didn't necessarily match up with the positions that are in desperate need of key players.
In particular, good depth at both linebacker and corner are in short supply. That type of mismatch means that although some parts of the defense are stabilized, others remain wide open.
There is such a thing as putting all of your eggs in one basket, and that is exactly what the Cardinals have done with their positional depth at running back.
Previously, the Cardinals had a relatively solid running game. Some might say that they had almost too much talent and not enough carries to go around. Running backs Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower are both starter-quality players. LaRod Stephens Howling added even more depth to a fairly solid ground game that withers under the Cardinals’ pass-heavy offense.
This offseason move would have been less painful for the Cardinals if Williams had been able to take over the role of backup running back as he was expected to do. During the second preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, however, Williams suffered a season-ending ruptured patella.
The Cardinals are now down to just a starting running back with a history of injury and a third-down back. There was no plan in place for a viable backup for Wells if Williams somehow didn’t work out.
Acquiring more than one running back to try out for the position during camp could have given the team a boost in this situation they’ve found themselves in, all without having the new acquisition get a late start learning the offense. With better foresight, they could have avoided their current predicament.
Of course, the Cardinals are reportedly trying to buy their way out of this mess by bringing in veteran free agent Chester Taylor, which leads to the final offseason move the Cardinals should have made…
It is possible to build a winning team through free agency if the moves are done thoughtfully with consideration for the positions of highest need and for players who will mesh well with the team.
Paying top dollar for one or two aging free agents is not a bad thing. It can be a huge boost to a young team to have a few well-known veterans come in as leaders.
The Cardinals have been down this road before, though. Kurt Warner came to Arizona at the end of his career and was supported by a cast of great talent who have mostly left for more competitive teams. They had a great run, but Warner's departure effectively gutted the team.
2010 was a year of rebuilding, a trend that continues into the 2011 season. For a team that is trying to put itself back together, however, the Cardinals have made a number of offseason acquisitions that speak more to the short-term than the long-term.
Big names like TE Todd Heap (31), DE Nick Eason (31), DE Vonnie Holliday (35) and G Floyd Womack (32) are just a few of the new faces in Arizona. Over half of the offseason acquisitions are over 30, perhaps not out of their collective primes yet, but certainly in the late half of their careers and likely more prone to injury than younger players. In fact, Womack has already landed on injured reserve.
These guys are affordable and they will probably boost the team's performance this season, but they won't be the core of the Cardinals in the future.