After last season's disappointing 5-11 record, hope for the Arizona Cardinals' 2011 season may be slim.
After all, many of the problems that plagued the 2010 team have persisted into the new season: an offensive line with depth issues, an abundance of mediocrity at wide receiver (with the notable exception of Larry Fitzgerald), and poorly-filled holes at critical defensive positions such as linebacker.
The 2-2 preseason was an inauspicious start to 2011, giving fans and critics the idea that the Cardinals will likely be a non-contender in the regular season once again.
Cardinals fans, do not give up hope before the season even begins! Everything that has happened up until now can be mostly taken with a grain of salt.
Arizona actually stands a good chance of outperforming the other three NFC West teams. Although it is easy to point out the Cardinals' faults as a team, there are many understated positives that will help the team succeed this year.
Take, for example, QB Kevin Kolb. After playing fewer games than he sat out in his debut NFL season with the Philadelphia Eagles, many are quick to write him off. Granted, his statistics weren't the greatest last season, but if you look at the all-around quality of his play during the season, it's easy to see that he's got many qualities that good quarterbacks need to success.
Much of what he lacked was polish and a healthy body. With an offseason of rest and a year in the NFL under his belt, he should be noticeably improved this season.
The running game took a hit when rookie Ryan Williams went down for the season, but that hole has recently been addressed with the signing of veteran RB Chester Taylor. Taylor may not have enough left in the tank to be a starter, but he still has plenty to offer as a backup to Beanie Wells.
Defensively, the Cardinals were never in worse shape under Ken Whisenhunt's coaching tenure than they were last year, at 28th in the league. With the departure of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (DRC), the biggest name on the team is gone. As it turns out that might be a net positive for the Cardinals.
DRC is an inconsistent player at best, as demonstrated by his third-string status on the Eagles this year. There's plenty of room for younger players to step up this season, and the Cardinals have given the defense a leadership boost by bringing in some older, more experienced free agents.
Also worthy of consideration is Coach Whisenhunt's consistent trend of churning out winning regular season records following a .500 or worse preseason. Although preseason records are not a good general indicator of regular season performance at the league level, they can be useful for making predictions about specific teams. The Cardinals happen to be a team that displays consistent trends in the regular season based on their preseason record.
Given the Cardinals' 2011 schedule and the improvements they have made at various key positions during the offseason, it is not unrealistic to expect the team to win somewhere in the area of eight to nine games this season. If the team gets hot at the right time, you could potentially add another win to that estimate. In the NFC West, that record should easily put a team into contention for first place.
Although the St. Louis Rams showed signs of greatness in 2010, QB Sam Bradford may find it difficult to replicate his performance from last year. Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks both have fundamental problems on offense that will limit their potential for success once again this year.
Although it is unlikely that the NFC West will be as soft as last year, it does remain a division that will not be as contentious as others around the league. The Cardinals have a good chance this year to take advantage of that opportunity and come away with a division title.
On the eve of the 2011 season's opening kickoff, all signs point to that possibility being a very good one.