Expectations for the 2009 Arizona Cardinals come from two conflicting data points. The first is the Cardinals’ 9-7 regular season. The second is the 35 seconds that separated the Cardinals from victory in Super Bowl XLIII.
The former is more likely than not to be improved upon, but the latter will require more good luck, and another Herculean performance from the Arizona offense. But for the first time in recent memory, anything other than the playoffs will be a disappointment.
Any discussion of the Arizona Cardinals must start with their prolific passing attack. Kurt Warner, whose career has gone from supermarket stock boy to Super Bowl victor, then reclamation project to nearly reaching the apex of his profession once again, returns once again to man what may be, apologies to Bob Stoops, the real “Fast Break on Grass.”
Warner completed 67.1 percent of his passes for an average of 7.7 yards per attempt, and little should hold him back from accomplishing similar achievements this season. Steve Breaston jumped from kick returner to star slot receiver in just his second season and gave the Cardinals three downfield options in the passing game.
As strange as it may seem, if the Cardinals are going to exceed expectations and return next year to the promised land, they may need to throw the ball even more than last year. Warner averaged over 37 attempts per game, but his efficiency was still very high. On the other hand, to call the running game anemic would be kind.
Tim Hightower showed a nose for the endzone, but was pedestrian anywhere on the rest of the field. Chris “Beanie” Wells could be the lead back the Cardinals have been looking for, but he comes with his own durability questions. Needless to say, the Cardinals are better off with the ball in the air.
The offensive line remains intact from the unit that started all 16 games together last year, and looks to take a step forward this year into one of the league’s better units.
However, it is unlikely that the line can remain perfectly healthy the entire year, and any injuries up front could lead to breakdowns in front of Kurt Warner (a big issue given Warner’s injury history).
Defensively, the Cardinals are still a work in progress. They were an average team against the run, and a below-average team against the pass. An important indicator of the Cardinals’ season should be their pass rush.
Last year the Cardinals had 31 sacks, but Antonio Smith and Travis LaBoy have departed. Bertrand Berry led the team in sacks last year (with five), but he will be 34 by the start of the season and it remains to be seen if he can play most downs.
If the Cardinals are to play Ken Whisenhunt's favored 3-4 scheme (which he saw up close and personal all those years in Pittsburgh), they will need to rush Karlos Dansby and Chike Okeafor off the edges. Both players are excellent pass rushers, but pushing both upfield will take players out of coverage. Second-round draft pick Cody Brown will also him in this role, and showed a real talent for going at the quarterback while at the University of Connecticut.
Adding Bryant McFadden should help shore up a secondary that got beat late against the Steelers in February, but a more consistent pass rush will improve the secondary the most.
The expectations for the Cardinals this season are probably too high. Ten wins and a division title is reasonable, especially given the questions on the defensive line.
The key indicators to how far this Cardinals team can go will be the health of Kurt Warner and the ability of the defensive line to do enough to allow the rest of the defense opportunities to make plays.
If either of these go wrong, it could be back to the same old Cardinals. If both go right, they can find themselves on the biggest stage once again.