As the Arizona Cardinals were making their surprising Super Bowl run last season, running back Edgerrin James got into the habit of gathering reporters around his locker and telling a convenient story. One about how he knew it was coming, knew the team was close, and had faith it would all pull together.
We devoured the tale, despite knowing that if anyone cared to look, history would make a terrific lie out of the suggestion. In truth, at this time last year, the Cardinals looked like a 6-10 team waiting to happen.
Fitzgerald was the star of the postseason.
(Matt Cashore/US Presswire)
We forget that as February 2008 ended, it was a franchise strapped with the prohibitive contract of wideout Larry Fitzgerald. It was a deal so troubling that when general manager Rod Graves was asked about it in a quiet moment at the league's scouting combine, he let out a sigh, shrugged and said: "We'll swallow it the way it is if we have to," in reference to the $14.6 million Fitzgerald was initially due for the '08 season. "What else can we do?"
And the contract of Fitzgerald, who signed a four-year, $40 million extension in March last year, was hardly the team's only problem. The defense was looking worse with the free-agent defection of young linebacker Calvin Pace; James' days as a franchise running back were in free fall; the offensive line was a mistake-prone mess; and the thought of Steve Breaston becoming a 1,000-yard receiver as a No. 3 option seemed downright asinine.
Even the centerpiece, Kurt Warner, wasn't being touted outwardly by the franchise despite throwing 27 touchdown passes the previous season. Instead, it was Matt Leinart who was getting the strong public backing from the franchise, with Warner being offered little more than the pleasantries extended for a job well done.
"[Leinart] is our starting quarterback," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt insisted at the league's combine one year ago. "A lot of the speculation about Kurt and how he played, Kurt did a great job for us and I really respect what Kurt did for us, but when Matt got injured in the fifth game of the season, he was our starting quarterback. We felt like we were making progress with him. He was making significant progress and we were excited about that."
In hindsight, a closer look at what the Cardinals were able to accomplish in the past 12 months – including all the problem-solving and personnel shuffling that it encompassed – only enhances their unlikely Super Bowl run.
"I think it speaks to the amount of work that can be accomplished in an offseason," San Francisco 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said of Arizona's metamorphosis. "This is a valuable time for everyone, from the standpoint of getting to where it might only be a matter of lining up one or two things, and then the rest clicks into place."
In that vein, every offseason has a handful of teams riding that edge – one or two moves that might be the difference between going 7-9 or making a surprising Super Bowl push. With that in mind, here are five squads that have shown the potential to be next season's Cardinals – with one or two tweaks potentially separating an unlikely championship opportunity from mediocrity.
1. The Houston Texans
Offense: The Texans believe they have an offense playing close to a championship level right now, but that belief might lie more in the pieces than in the actual execution. The pass-catching threats – wideouts Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter, and tight end Owen Daniels – are top shelf. Running back Steve Slaton appears to be a Pro Bowl-caliber talent, too. Even the offensive line is stacked with young and improving talent. However, the unit has the same significant problem that Arizona had when it began last offseason: quarterback. While Matt Schaub has shown some flashes of brilliance, and was very impressive in the final month last season, he hasn't been healthy or consistent in two years. With 22 games as a starter under his belt since '07, the coaching staff believes this is the year he hits it big … if only he can stay on the field.
Smith, left, was one of the defensive sparkplugs for the Cards during the postseason.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
Defense: Another unit with some nice pieces which has been short on consistent results. Like Johnson on offense, defensive end Mario Williams is already one of the best players in the NFL. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and cornerback Dunta Robinson are nice pieces, too, but the team needs some steady veteran leadership to guide this unit – in particular, young and enigmatic defensive tackle Amobi Okoye. It got some of that with the underrated signing of Cardinals defensive end Antonio Smith, who was a great influence on teammate Darnell Dockett, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle. And though it remains to be seen what impact new defensive coordinator Frank Bush will have on his unit, he replaces a coach in Richard Smith who simply was not getting results.
Work to be done: Three areas have yet to be addressed adequately. First, the depth and quality at safety needs to be improved, even with the re-signing of Eugene Wilson. Look at the conference championship games last season. All four teams (the Cardinals, Eagles, Steelers and Ravens) had a Pro Bowl-caliber safety. That's no coincidence: Top-shelf safety play is a must to advance deep into the postseason. Second, the defense needs to add quality at linebacker in an NFL draft rich with linebackers. With the 15th overall pick, the Texans should have a shot at a quality outside linebacker. If that pick gets spent on anything other than defense, it will be a shock. Finally, the failure to sign Cedric Benson to take some of the load off Slaton leaves a void at running back. There is no other running back on the roster who can take that load while also being a quality starter in a pinch. That will have to be addressed in the draft or free agency in the coming weeks and months.
Bottom line: When it comes to breaking through in a big way, Houston is positioned as well as any of last season's "mediocre" teams. But it's going to take a big step by the quarterback and some depth and mental maturation on defense.
2. The Green Bay Packers
Offense: The key skill position pieces are in place with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, running back Ryan Grant and wideouts Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Donald Lee is a quality tight end as well. The offensive line needs work at the tackle spots, even if Mark Tauscher is re-signed. The spot could use both depth and quality and should be addressed relatively early in the draft. Even with improvement needed on the line, this is a unit ascending into its prime. As Rodgers improves, he'll take the offense with him. It should be the best unit in the NFC North by far, and one of the top five offenses in the NFC.
Defense: The switch to the 3-4 alignment under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers is going to be tricky. Capers is a quality assistant and should be an upgrade, but the personnel is a huge question mark – particularly defensive end-turned linebacker Aaron Kampman. No matter what the team says, there is no telling how Kampman will function as an outside linebacker (especially in coverage) until he gets on the field and has to do it against live competition. It might be November before we really know how well or poorly the scheme and players fit one another. The addition of safety Anthony Smith from the Steelers gives Green Bay a good veteran safety who knows the scheme, and that will help, but the Packers have been slow to add other pieces. Not being able to woo Chris Canty was a definite blow.
Work to be done: There are still some free-agent bargains out there who could add some depth in the 3-4 scheme, but the Packers don't seem to have a sense of urgency in their pursuit. That's either a really good sign of the transition of the existing roster, or utter mismanagement by the front office – only time will tell. Whatever the case, finding personnel and/or depth for the 3-4 defense still has to be a top priority for the remainder of the offseason. Drafting a young offensive tackle and cornerback would appear to be sensible moves at this point, too. Continuing Rodgers' development is important as well, but considering the strides he has made every offseason, that shouldn't be an issue.
Bottom line: Don't sweat the offense. The earlier Capers and that 3-4 defense get up and functioning, the further this team will go in 2009.
3. The Washington Redskins
Offense: The league's fifth-worst scoring unit in 2008 could stand to see some major improvement from top to bottom. About the only area that isn't of concern is the running-back spot, but even Clinton Portis could stand to see some of his carries given to a productive backup. By far, starting quarterback Jason Campbell is the lead concern. After a solid beginning, he languished as last season wore on and didn't show the leap in development expected. The 38 sacks surrendered by the offensive line and the lack of a reliable No. 2 receiver didn't help. But a lot of those woes can be solved by better – and quicker – decisions from Campbell. This will be his third year as a full-time starter and, as history has shown, should be the watershed moment in which he makes the step into maturity as a passer. Ultimately, this falls on head coach Jim Zorn. He works as closely with Campbell as anyone, and having a second offseason of tutelage has to yield more consistent and lasting results.
Hall had 2 INTs for the Redskins last season.
(James Lang/US Presswire)
Defense: A boatload of cash was invested in two players in free agency: defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Haynesworth has a lot to live up to, but if he can come even close to duplicating what he did the past two seasons in Tennessee, it will make Washington's front seven exponentially better. Hall, on the other hand, has yet to show he can play well after getting big money. He certainly didn't last season in Oakland, but Washington blessed him with a second chance anyway. If he can play like a No. 1 cornerback, the secondary should be amongst the league's best. If he can't, it will be an inconsistent unit. Losing the potential of a healthy Jason Taylor hurts, too, because there isn't a lot of pop in the pass-rushing department without him. That means seasonlong double-teaming for Haynesworth.
Work to be done: A significant pass-rushing presence is likely going to have to come from the draft, since there just isn't anyone left in free agency. And no, the talk of adding Renaldo Wynn or bringing back Phillip Daniels isn't going to scare anyone. That means likely addressing the need with the No. 13 overall pick, which could produce Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo, Penn State's Aaron Maybin or Florida State's Everette Brown. Two of those three players will likely be available when Washington is on the clock. But don't be shocked if the Redskins go for a young offensive tackle if one is still available. Bringing Pete Kendall back would help the depth on the offensive line. And finally, developing one (or better yet, both) of last season's second-round wideouts – Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly – into a reliable No. 2 would be a big step forward.
Bottom line: Zorn must get some development out of two parts of his offense. Campbell's growth is the top priority, and then getting one of the young guys to take the lead as a pass-catching complement to Santana Moss. Defensively, a pass rusher has to be found to balance out and protect the Haynesworth investment, and the coaching staff has to hope Hall stays hungry in spite of his new deal.
4. The Buffalo Bills
Offense: Quarterback Trent Edwards is entering that pivotal third year of growth, and the franchise took a tremendous chemistry gamble by bringing in wideout Terrell Owens to help maximize those strides. Make no mistake: Even with the relatively safe one-year financial commitment, Owens is now more dangerous than ever. As his skills continue to diminish, he will continue to seek that No. 1 role in an offense. And if he struggles to maintain the stature that role requires, he'll look for someone to blame. The fact is, he has dropped more passes since the start of the 2007 season than any other player in the NFL. That's nobody's fault but his. That said, putting him alongside Lee Evans undoubtedly opens up the offense more for offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, and should create more breathing room for running back Marshawn Lynch. The offense is more diverse but still in an embryonic stage that is now mortgaged on Owens. It's an unstable position to be in, especially with a quarterback who has 24 games under his belt.
Defense: An upgrade is needed at defensive end, and the coaching staff has got to find a way to get Aaron Schobel back on track. This is simply a different defense when Schobel is playing well. There are still some bargains on the free-agent market who would provide a solid veteran presence at end, but barring a trade for Julius Peppers (not going to happen) an earth-shattering move isn't likely. Despite playing 16 games last season, Marcus Stroud still wasn't 100 percent back mentally from his injuries the previous season in Jacksonville. With a little help, this is the season Stroud could approach dominance again. But there are developmental needs from some of the younger players, namely cornerback Leodis McKelvin and defensive end Chris Ellis. It's time for McKelvin to move into a starting role, and for Ellis to provide something – anything – for depth purposes.
Work to be done: Getting Edwards, Evans and Owens extensive offseason work is a must. This could very well be a one-shot deal for Owens, so that trio has to hit the ground running to maximize the team's return and minimize the risk of Owens going AWOL if they aren't on the same page early on. The team also has to wait and see where the league is going on the latest off-field gun issues with running back Marshawn Lynch. He's likely to face some manner of a suspension next season. That means expanding the role of Fred Jackson, a talented backup who has already shown he is worthy of more touches in Schonert's scheme. Finding an impact pass rusher at the No. 11 overall pick should be a top priority, too.
Bottom line: There are a lot of moving parts which need to fit together for Buffalo to piece together a dream season. Getting the pass rush figured out is absolutely vital. But really, this season is going to begin and end with the development of Edwards and the successful integration of Owens into Schonert's scheme, not to mention the locker room. That's a dicey bet at best.
5. The Kansas City Chiefs
Offense: It sounds insane to even have the Chiefs on this list, considering the franchise only won two games last season. But the utter disrepair that occurred under former coach Herm Edwards had a lot to do with two things: the quarterback and the discipline. And general manager Scott Pioli took major swings at both of those problems by replacing Edwards with Todd Haley, an offensive mind who is a strict disciplinarian, and trading for quarterback Matt Cassel, who has the potential to immediately solidify this unit. Despite the lack of success, it is not an offense that lacks talent. Running back Larry Johnson, when properly motivated, is still a top-10 talent at his position. The offensive line already has its young franchise left tackle, Branden Albert, in place. And the skill positions are good enough to offer a serviceable passing game with the likes of tight end Tony Gonzalez and wideouts Dwayne Bowe and Mark Bradley. In short, it's a unit that isn't completely starting from scratch. It should be good enough to be middle of the pack as it is, and could be exponentially better if Johnson remains on the roster and can be brought around by the motivation tactics of Haley and assistant coach Maurice Carthon.
Defense: There still isn't an official defensive coordinator, but there continues to be speculation in personnel circles that former Browns coach Romeo Crennel could eventually get the nod. If that doesn't happen, it could go to Clancy Pendergast, who is on staff but hasn't been given an official title yet. Without Jared Allen wreaking havoc on the other side, defensive end Tamba Hali was an utter disaster last season. The new coaching staff has to determine if that was an aberration and whether the former first-round pick can be salvaged by putting better pieces around him. Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey had a lukewarm first year, but like most dominant interior linemen he should see dramatic improvement from this point forward. Linebacker Derrick Johnson should be very solid if he stays in the middle, particularly with Dorsey improving in front of him. The addition of linebacker Mike Vrabel will provide some desperately needed leadership amongst the front seven. Without Allen's emotion, it was simply a flat group last season. Cornerback Brandon Flowers was a nice young addition who should fit well with the new regime.
Work to be done: Where to start? There is a ton of shuffling yet to be completed. Many of the coaches on staff still don't have a title, and Haley is believed to have just recently finished his film evaluation of the current roster. That means virtually everything is still in flux, including the team's base defensive alignment. Indeed, there are more questions than answers right now. But the top three to be figured are: (1) Find a defensive coordinator with whom both Haley and Pioli are comfortable, and take a hard step forward with the scheme. (2) Settle on the third overall draft pick, which could be traded or used on Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, who would go a long way toward helping shore up the team's front seven. (3) Make a decision with Larry Johnson, whose status is still up in the air.
Bottom line: It would be staggering to see this team turn it all around in one season, and mind-blowing for a Super Bowl run to occur. But the team does have a nice talent base to work with, and Pioli has shown the ability to go on amazing hot streaks where talent acquisition is concerned. If Cassel solves a lot of the offensive problems … and Larry Johnson gets his head screwed on straight … and Haley and Pioli get this team disciplined quickly … who knows what can happen. Especially considering the ties of Haley and Pioli to the school of Bill Parcells, whose methods worked wonders in only one season in Miami.