It seems patently unfair to say this is a critical season for Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. After all, Whisenhunt led the moribund Arizona franchise to the Super Bowl just three seasons ago.
But NFL fans have short memories, and Whisenhunt’s botched handling of the quarterback situation last year has some folks wondering if that Super Bowl run had more to do with quarterback Kurt Warner than the Cardinals’ coach.
Enter Kevin Kolb. Arizona’s decision to trade cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick for Kolb — and then pay Kolb $63 million over five years — will define the future for both Whisenhunt and the Cardinals. If Kolb is the quarterback Whisenhunt thinks he can be, the Cardinals are set at the most important position in football and had a powerful bargaining chip in their attempt to hold onto wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals have other issues but make no mistake: This season will be all about Kolb. And Whisenhunt.
Is Kolb the answer at quarterback? No one knows. He’s started only seven games and thrown more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (11). But he’s familiar with the West Coast offense, he has a strong arm and he’s a leader, something Whisenhunt craves in his quarterback. Plus, he has to be better than the four QBs who took snaps last year: Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton and Richard Bartel.
Critics of Kolb say he sometimes panics when under pressure, that he’ll tuck the ball and run rather than stand in the pocket and wait for a receiver to come open. But that could just be a by-product of his inexperience. Given his natural talent and Whisenhunt’s track record of developing quarterbacks — he was Ben Roethlisberger’s offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh — there’s no reason to think Kolb shouldn’t have, at the very least, a solid first season in Arizona.
But a new QB isn’t the answer to all of Arizona’s offensive problems. The offensive line will have to be better for the Cardinals to contend. Arizona does not have an above-average tackle — former first-round pick Levi Brown has been a disappointment — although the interior of the line, with the free agent signing of guard Daryn Colledge and the return of Deuce Lutui (who signed with Cincinnati but failed a physical), should be strong.
The running game is another issue. Arizona expressed its disappointment in former first-round selection Beanie Wells by taking Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams in the second round. Williams’ selection was a surprise given the Cardinals’ needs — outside linebacker, offensive line, etc. — and precipitated the trade of Tim Hightower. Now the Cardinals must go back to Wells after Williams was lost for the season with a knee injury in the team's second preseason game.
Kolb’s arrival should mean monster numbers for Fitzgerald this season. When Kurt Warner was throwing him the ball in 2009, Fitzgerald had 13 touchdowns. When Anderson, Bartel, Hall and Skelton were tossing it to him in 2010, he had only six scores.
The Cardinals don’t have a proven No. 2 receiver on the roster since losing Steve Breaston to Kansas City. An upgrade there is critical so defenses can’t key completely on Fitzgerald.
The passing game should be helped, however, by the free agent acquisition of tight end Todd Heap. If healthy, Heap fills a huge need — a tight end who can be a receiving threat down the middle of the field.
The Cardinals are two-thirds of the way to a terrific defense. Unfortunately, it’s the third ingredient — a consistent pass rush — that’s missing and so critical.
New defensive coordinator Ray Horton plans to play a more aggressive 3-4 scheme with lots of blitzing — he’s basically stealing the playbook from his former boss, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau — but the question is whether the Cardinals have the personnel to employ the scheme successfully.
Arizona should be strong up front. Defensive end Darnell Dockett had a down year in 2010, but he’ll benefit from Horton’s new scheme. Dockett and fourth-year pro Calais Campbell could comprise one of the better end tandems in the league, and second-year nose tackle Dan Williams improved dramatically as his rookie season progressed and should be the run-stuffing interior defender the 3-4 needs.
One word describes the back end of the Cardinals’ defense: Scary. And that’s in a good way.
Simply put, Arizona should have one of the best secondaries in the league. First-round pick Patrick Peterson gives the Cardinals a legitimate shut-down corner, third-year pro Greg Toler is an emerging player who could be a legitimate No. 2 corner, and free agent signee Richard Marshall will soften the loss of Rodgers-Cromartie.
Strong safety Adrian Wilson struggled in pass protection last season, and there was talk he had lost a step or two, but then it was learned he played almost the entire year with a torn stomach muscle. A healthy and motivated Wilson, coupled with free safety Kerry Rhodes, could have a monster year in Horton’s blitz-heavy attack.
The problem area — and it’s a big problem — is at linebacker. Arizona doesn’t have a single standout, a necessity in the 3-4. Even worse, the players they’re depending on to provide a pass rush — Darryl Washington, O’Brien Schofield, Sam Acho — are all young and untested. Without some push from the linebackers, the secondary, as good as it might be, will be vulnerable.
But if one of those young players thrives in Horton’s scheme, Arizona’s defense should dramatically improve on its performance in 2010, when it allowed 27.1 points per game.
Arizona’s special teams should be among the best in the league. LaRod Stephens-Howling is a dangerous kickoff returner (27.2 ypr, two touchdowns), Peterson led the SEC in punt return average, and kicker Jay Feely is coming off a season in which he made 24-of-27 field goal attempts. The only question mark is punter Ben Graham. He had an off year in 2010 — his average per kick and number of kicks downed inside the 20 both dropped dramatically.
The Cardinals should be better than they were last year if for no other reason than the fact that, with Kolb, their quarterback play will be much improved. They’re also fortunate that in the NFC West, a 9–7 record might be a ticket to the playoffs. To get there, however, Arizona needs massive improvement from its offensive line — particularly at tackle — and a consistent pass rush. Without those two things, it won’t matter who’s taking snaps.
Outside the Huddle
When former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner was spotted at an offseason workout orchestrated by wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, rumors flew that Warner might be attempting a comeback. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Warner quickly squashed the speculation.
The Cardinals thought they had their franchise running back when they selected Beanie Wells in the first round in 2009. But Wells has been bothered by an assortment of nagging injuries, and some team officials believe he lets those minor aches and pains keep him out too long. When Arizona took running back Ryan Williams in the second round this year, the message to Wells was clear: It’s a make-or-break season. And now he gets that shot even moreso with the season-ending injury to Williams.
Hall pass revoked
Undrafted free agent quarterback Max Hall was the apple of Ken Whisenhunt’s eye last year in training camp, but Hall struggled mightily when given a chance during the season — he couldn’t hang on to the ball or stay healthy — and his short tenture in Arizona ended when he was released following the lockout.
Howling about the rule
The NFL’s new rule that places kickoffs at the 35-yard line instead of the 30 could hurt the Cardinals, who possess one of the league’s better return men in LaRod Stephens-Howling. Last year, Stephens-Howling averaged 27.2 yards per return and scored two touchdowns, including one that went for 102 yards.
Heat on Whisenhunt
Whisenhunt was the most popular man in town when he guided the Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII. But his handling of the quarterback situation last year — particularly the decision to release Matt Leinart before the season — backfired, the team staggered to a 5–11 record and now the same fans who wanted to canonize him now are questioning his decision-making. Whisenhunt is in no danger of losing his job — nor should he be — but he will have a more skeptical fan base eyeing his moves this year.
The wait and weight
The Cardinals didn’t know veteran guard Alan Faneca was retiring until his announcement in mid-May. But those who saw Faneca in the days before the announcement probably had a clue his career was over. Faneca weighed 313 pounds in his last weigh-in of the 2010 season. When he retired, he was down to 255 pounds.
New defensive coordinator Ray Horton wasn’t sure how the Bidwill family — normally a conservative bunch — would react to his long, braided hair. But when he asked team president Michael Bidwill if he would need to cut his hair should he accept Whisenhunt’s job offer, Bidwill told him not to worry. So Horton and his long braided locks will be on the sideline this season.
The Cardinals opened 2010 with a 17–13 win at St. Louis but proceeded to lose their final seven games on the road. They averaged 10.7 points in their final three games away from home.
The signing of free agent tight end Todd Heap has two benefits: First, Heap is the first Cardinals’ tight end to be a downfield threat since Jay Novacek. Second, it should help ticket sales. Heap is a hometown kid, having played at Mesa Mountain View High School and Arizona State.
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