’08 Preview: Another .500 season in Cards?
For most NFL teams, an 8-8 record produces frustration, not celebration. But in Arizona, where the franchise has produced only one winning record in 23 years, finishing .500 last year might mean a corner is about to be turned. Or, as history would suggest, maybe the club is forever destined to drive with its blinker on.
There’s no question the Cardinals were improved last year. Coach Ken Whisenhunt implemented a sense of discipline and accountability among the players, which was missing in Dennis Green’s three seasons. But to achieve something more than mediocrity in 2008, the Cardinals must rid themselves of real demons – penalties, turnovers and the startling ability to commit a big mistake at the most inopportune time.
All of that contributed to six losses by a touchdown or less last season, including two wretched performances against the San Francisco 49ers, who finished 5-11. Still, progress was made and the Cardinals could be on the brink of becoming a playoff contender.
2008 TEAM PREVIEWS
“I think we’re getting to the point where some of our young leaders are stepping up and enforcing that mentality: ‘This is how we work, this is how we’re going to do it,’ ” Whisenhunt said. “Hopefully, we’ll continue to build that team chemistry that is so important.”
Whisenhunt, a former offensive coordinator with the Steelers, believes in a physical running game, but he realized quickly last year that wasn’t going to be the team’s strength. He and offensive coordinator Todd Haley adjusted, and the Cardinals threw often and successfully.
With receivers such as Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, that won’t change much this year, but there’s no question the running game has to be more productive. It would help if the team could manage to take a lead into the fourth quarter more often, allowing them to consume time with the run.
The Cardinals called themselves a 4-3 team throughout last season, but they weren’t. The 3-4 was their base scheme, although they often morphed into a 4-3 during nickel situations.
It’s a multiple scheme with a lot of variations, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast isn’t afraid to use all of them. The unit played well last year until injuries took a toll at midseason, exposing a startling lack of depth. The Cardinals think they’ve addressed those concerns for the 2008 season.
The book on: Anquan Boldin
A rival sizes up the Cardinals’ starting wide receiver:
“He’s got the physical tools, but what sets him apart is his assertiveness and confidence. He accepts the challenge, and the tougher the challenge, the more demonstrative he becomes. He’s a guy I would want to build around. He expects a lot out of himself, and he expects the guys around him to match his intensity.
“I think his greatest physical asset, besides his ability to catch, is he’s got great lower-body strength and great quickness. He plays faster than he times. He has great hands and great ball skills. Playing quarterback (in high school and college) helped him, too. He handles the ball easily. The ball was not anything unique to him.
“When you defend him, I think he’s a guy like Michael Jordan. You say, ‘Hey, he’s going to get his; we just don’t want him to kill us.’ You look at the great ones and they were going to get theirs. You try to limit them. You are not going to extinguish him. You just try to limit how bad he hurts you.”
Whisenhunt and his staff have had a year to implement their system, adjusting their schemes to fit personnel and vice versa.
Players are clear about what the coaches want, and that familiarity should reduce the number of mistakes on Sundays.
The depth has improved a little, which should help over the second half of the season. But the schedule is more difficult, and it’s imperative the club avoid its usual slow start.
SN prediction: 5-11, third in NFC West.
Kent Somers covers the Cardinals for the Arizona Republic and Sporting News.