The 2009 Arizona Cardinals face an uphill battle in their quest to build on the success of last season. Not only will they have to conquer a more competitive division, but they will also have to overcome history along the way. Seven of the last eight Super Bowl losers have failed to make the playoffs the following year.
On paper, the Cardinals look like they have an excellent shot to buck that alarming trend. All of the major pieces from last season’s NFC Championship team are still around, including the key cogs in their dynamic passing game. In addition, the team was able to address their greatest need through the draft, getting tremendous value with Ohio State running back Chris “Beanie” Wells late in the first round.
However, the Cardinals playoff return is far from set in stone. Despite their playoff success, Arizona only finished 9-7 last year, producing just the second winning season since the franchise moved to the desert in 1988.
The success of the 2009 Arizona Cardinals and their hopes for a playoff return hinge on four key variables:
Ever since the magic of a Super Bowl run wore off, contract talk has dominated Arizona Cardinals discussions. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett showed up for the recent mandatory mini-camp, but both players sat out with suspicious hamstring injuries.
Boldin and Dockett, both Drew Rosenhaus clients, are unhappy with their re-negotiated rookie contracts, and are publicly voicing their displeasure. The team, on the other hand, has placed priority on new deals for safety Adrian Wilson and linebacker Karlos Dansby, who is playing 2009 under the franchise tag for the second consecutive season. Dansby appears willing to play in Arizona for another year, and then test the free-agent market in the off-season.
These contract situations could be enough to tip the Cardinals success in either direction this season.
If management allows Boldin and Dockett to become a big enough distraction, or if either or both players hold out for part of the regular season, all of this off-the-field drama could directly impact the team’s chances on the field. However, if Boldin and Dockett go out and try to prove their worth through their play, the extra effort could provide the team with a huge lift.
Also, if Dansby does not get a new deal worked out, he will be looking to have a monster season before entering free agency.
Health is a major concern for every franchise and the Cardinals are no exception. A serious injury to Larry Fitzgerald, one of the young running backs, or to another key player could dash all hopes for a post-season return.
The biggest concern for Arizona is the health of quarterback Kurt Warner, who is coming off an off-season hip surgery. The team does have former first-round pick Matt Leinart as an insurance policy, but Leinart showed no signs of being able to run the same quality offense that Warner did when he had the opportunity to play.
Warner has a long history of injuries, but proved capable of playing at a championship level when healthy last season. The loss of Warner for any significant amount of time could be the difference between the Cardinals being contenders and them sinking to the bottom of the Division.
The Arizona Cardinals ranked 28th in points allowed in 2008, with 26.6 per game. Despite showing marked improvement throughout the playoffs, the effort was not enough to save defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s job.
After finishing 12th in that category under Pendergast in 2004, the team has failed to crack the top 25 ever since. Some of the blame has to be placed on the high-scoring games generated by one of the league’s top offenses, but at times last year the Cardinals’ defense just rolled over. Of the team’s seven regular season losses, four were by 20 points or more.
New defensive coordinator Bill Davis will be charged with improving the defensive results, as the team transitions to a 3-4 defensive front in 2009. Davis has been the team’s linebackers coach for the past two seasons, and was previously a defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers.
The NFC West
Last year the Cardinals ran the table within their own division, posting six of their nine victories against NFC West foes. This year, the division can only get stronger.
The Seattle Seahawks expected to win the division last year, like they had the previous four seasons. Things went awry in Seattle however, and the Seahawks managed just four victories. Seattle is hoping that 2008 was just an aberration, and that with a healthy Matt Hasselbeck, and the additions of T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Aaron Curry, they will be competitors again in 2009.
The other team on the Arizona Cardinals radar has to be the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers started the season 2-7 last year, but finished strong under new head coach Mike Singletary, going 5-2 to finish the year. At 7-9, San Francisco finished just a failed goal line stand short of an 8-8 first place tie with Arizona. The 49ers were delighted to find Michael Crabtree on the board for them at No. 10 in the draft, and may have added the big time receiver they needed to claim the division crown.