Arizonans are accustomed to certain things: Snowbirds visiting in the winter. Citrus trees blooming in the spring. Temperatures hitting triple digits in the summer. The Cardinals hiring a new coach every three years or so.
So it wasn't surprising last January when the team dumped Dennis Green after three seasons and 16 victories. Enter Ken Whisenhunt, the team's seventh full-time coach since the Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988. He comes from Pittsburgh, where the Steelers bludgeoned opponents with a punishing ground game yet weren't afraid to take shots downfield or use gadget plays.
One of the biggest challenges for the new staff will be to rebuild the offensive line. In fact, this season could hinge on whether new line coach Russ Grimm can mold a quality group.
Whisenhunt's biggest job, however, will be to change attitudes and increase the team's football IQ. Under Green, the Cardinals continually mismanaged the clock, committed stupid penalties and made mistakes at the most inopportune times.
Offense: Whisenhunt is a creative play-caller, and he'll handle that role initially for the Cardinals. Coordinator Todd Haley, formerly the Cowboys' receivers coach, will have a large say in game planning and might call the plays eventually. Whisenhunt would like to run the ball almost 60 percent of the time, but the strength of this team is its passing game. It would be foolish not to get the ball to star wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.
Defense: Clancy Pendergast, one of the few holdovers from Green's staff, is considered one of the league's most creative coordinators. He'll show even more stuff this season. Whisenhunt, who faced Dick LeBeau's blitz-oriented defense in Steelers practices every day, wants to see the Cardinals use more zone-blitz packages. Whisenhunt says the 4-3 scheme will remain a big part of the game plan, but don't be surprised if the Cardinals use a 3-4 alignment most of the time.
QB Matt Leinart: Leinart's talents helped make the Cardinals' coaching job an attractive one. Leinart was impressive as a rookie after replacing Kurt Warner as the starter, but it wasn't easy. Leinart endured an in-season change of coordinators, and it often was hard to discern what the Cardinals were trying to accomplish on offense. Leinart's fundamentals lagged, and the new staff spent this offseason trying to improve his footwork. Leinart also was a regular at offseason workouts – a good thing because he must get stronger to withstand the pounding of an NFL quarterback. A better running game would give him more time to find Boldin and Fitzgerald on play-action passes.
RB Edgerrin James: At first glance, James doesn't seem to fit this offense. He is a hunt-and-peck kind of runner whose best attributes are his vision and agility. He hasn't run behind a fullback much. Whisenhunt's offense, which will use a fullback about half the time and two tight ends the other half, seems built for one-cut runners who hit the hole hard and don't dance much. Yet Whisenhunt seems confident James can thrive in the new scheme. Whisenhunt has watched tape of James making the same kinds of cuts and decisions in one-back formations he'll be making while running behind a fullback.
DT Alan Branch: Whisenhunt knows how many problems an elite nose tackle can cause after watching Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh. That's why the club traded up to draft Branch with the first pick of the second round. Branch will compete against Kendrick Clancy and second-year man Gabe Watson for playing time. Branch is athletic and versatile enough to play end in the 3-4 at times. Clancy has played over the nose before, and Watson is a run stuffer with the size (335 pounds) and strength to force double-teams.
ILB Karlos Dansby: Can Dansby deliver on his star potential? He is big enough to take on tight ends and fast enough to cover running backs in the flat. His speed and long arms make him an effective pass rusher. He was in Green's doghouse last year after missing most of the offseason with injuries. Now healthy, Dansby will move inside in the Cardinals' 3-4 alignment. His size (6-foot-4, 243 pounds) and speed could make him an impact player at that spot.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
Although Whisenhunt will install a Steelers-like will and toughness, the oasis in the desert will remain more of a mirage until '08.
Prediction: 6-10 (fourth in the NFC West).
The Cardinals have plenty of firepower on offense and a new coach who knows how to use it. But with the uncertainty in the offensive line, the need for more playmakers on defense and concerns about depth in many spots, it could be premature to expect a breakthrough season. This team might have to settle for moderate improvement to say, 7-9, and then build for a playoff run the following year.
Kent Somers covers the Cardinals for the Arizona Republic and Sporting News.
- Ken Whisenhunt