From 1985 to 2007, the Cardinals posted just one winning season and from 1948 to 2007, they didn't host a playoff game. Entering the 2008 season, the moribund franchise had barely sniffed success over the past six decades, but a funny thing happened on the way to last place last year.
The Cardinals took advantage of a weak NFC West to finish the 2008 regular season with a 9-7 record and their second playoff berth since 1982. However, their 3-7 mark against teams outside of the division led many observers to question their playoff credentials. The Cards responded with playoff victories over Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia and came within 35 seconds of an improbable Super Bowl win.
Arizona's prolific offense, which tied for third in the NFL in points per game, ranked second in passing yards and fourth in total yards, was the main driver of the team's success. Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston became only the fifth trio of teammates to exceed 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Quarterback Kurt Warner, who won a preseason playing time battle with Matt Leinart, recaptured his past glory with a virtuoso season that few people expected at age 37.
The Cardinals' main offensive weakness was their running game. Whereas second-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt came in with a smash-mouth, run-first attitude honed by his years as a Pittsburgh assistant, he quickly took note of Arizona's talent in the passing game. During the 2008 regular season, Arizona only rushed on 34 percent of its offensive snaps and averaged a league-worst 73.6 rushing yards per game. Edgerrin James, who was released in April, concluded a disappointing three-year stint in the desert that included an average of just 3.6 yards per carry. He split time with rookie Tim Hightower in 2008. Hightower was a very effective short-yardage rusher (nine of his 10 regular-season touchdowns came in goal-line situations), however, he stumbled to a 2.8 YPC average, the worst among NFL players with 100 or more carries. In 2009, Hightower will compete for playing time with highly touted rookie Chris "Beanie" Wells.
Defensively, Arizona has talented components like safety Adrian Wilson, linebacker Karlos Dansby and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but the components didn't always mesh in 2008. Only four teams allowed more points than the Cards during the regular season and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was fired in February even though the team reached the Super Bowl.
In 2009, the Cardinals won't be able to lurk beneath the radar as they've done for many years and will need to answer questions about their defense and running game in order to return to the postseason.
Bryant McFadden, CB (Steelers)
Will occupy a starting role; Arizona hopes he will bolster a shaky secondary.
Jason Wright, RB (Browns)
Projected for a third-down role and special team duties.
Keith Lewis, S (49ers)
Adds depth, but unlikely to play much (if at all).
Edgerrin James, RB (FA)
Declining skills and high salary made him expendable.
Antonio Smith, DE (Texans)
Potential late-bloomer who became too expensive.
J.J. Arrington, RB (FA)
Cards never saw him as more than a change-of-pace back and special-teamer.
WHO WILL CARRY THE ROCK?
From a fantasy perspective, the Cardinals' 2009 running back situation could be maddening. Tim Hightower and Chris "Beanie" Wells are expected to compete for Arizona's starting role, but head coach Ken Whisenhunt favors a multi-back system and both players could be in line for significant carries. Third-down back Jason Wright could muddy the waters even further. Hightower seems to have the upper hand from a fantasy perspective because he has shown that he can be an effective goal-line runner (he scored 10 touchdowns during the 2008 regular season, nine in goal-line situations) and he has a year of professional experience under his belt. But Hightower averaged a league-worst 2.8 YPC last season, so it's hard to envision him as an every-down back. There is a good chance that Hightower and Wells will engage in a 2009 platoon with support from Wright. And remember that the Cardinals only ran 34 percent of the time in 2008, so they don't have as many carries to go around as most teams.
AS THE Q TURNS
All-Pro receiver Anquan Boldin has been grousing about his current contract (a six-year, $23.5 million deal that runs through the 2010 season) for more than a year. He tried to engineer an offseason trade and the Cardinals listened to offers, only to find a lack of serious interest. That damaged Boldin's already limited leverage and probably his ego as well. He's likely to be a Cardinal in 2009 and there's not much that he can do about it. Boldin is gaining labels as injury-prone (he missed six games in 2004, two in 2005, four in 2007 and four in 2008) and diva-like (in addition to the contract flap, he got into a heated on-field argument with then-offensive coordinator Todd Haley during the 2008 NFC Championship). He also can't like that teammate Larry Fitzgerald is gaining acclaim as the league's best receiver, whereas Boldin also made the Pro Bowl in 2008 and he ranked third in the NFL in receiving touchdowns and seventh in receptions despite missing four games. He carries some risk, but Boldin is still among the NFL's best receivers.
CAN KURT DO IT AGAIN? Kurt Warner has a great situation as the Cardinals' starting quarterback. He has a pair of All-Pro receivers in Fitzgerald and Boldin and a solid third option in Steve Breaston. He also has a coaching staff that is willing to throw early and often (66 percent of the time during the 2008 regular season) and favorable weather conditions (the Cardinals will play 10 of their 2009 games in domes). He will turn 38 in June and he has had trouble staying healthy at times, but his accuracy and experience are great matches for the Cardinals' personnel and offensive philosophy. For those reasons, we project Warner as one of the NFL's top QBs again in 2009.
Rising: Tim Hightower has a nose for the end zone and he should play more than he did in 2008.
Declining: Leonard Pope had a dismal 2008 season. He's part of a crowded group of tight ends, and the Cards typically use the position for blocking.
Sleeper: Chris "Beanie" Wells will get a chance to contribute right away, although we're concerned that Hightower will cut into his goal-line chances.
Supersleeper: Even though he hasn't played much since 2006, Matt Leinart is still the Cards' future QB and he's only one Warner injury away from entering the lineup. Since 2001, Warner has only started more than 11 games once.
Karlos Dansby, LB
Four sacks, two interceptions and a career-high 118 tackles in 2008.
Adrian Wilson, S
Numbers have slipped a bit with age (30 in October), but he's still among the best at his position.