Arizona Cardinals  

 

Despite offseason of change, Cardinals feel they're built to adapt

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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They're all gone: Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle, Bertrand Berry, Neil Rackers.

So much experience. So much contribution to two division titles and a conference championship. So much familiarity.

A dramatic overhaul -- brought on by retirement, trade, and free-agent departures -- has left the Arizona Cardinals almost unrecognizable.

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Whether it has rendered them uncompetitive won't be known for several months, but in the meantime it's certainly a question worth examining.

Not surprisingly, coach Ken Whisenhunt is bullish about his team's chances this season. Yet, when he talks about the positive direction he feels the Cardinals are headed, it doesn't sound so much like bravado. He insists they're prepared for this transition.

"It never is easy when you lose talented players like we've lost," Whisenhunt said. "But we also feel, much like when Anquan has missed games for us and (fourth-year receiver) Steve Breaston and (third-year receiver) Early Doucet have stepped up and played well, we're in a much better position to be able to have guys step in there and play. And hopefully that's what works for us."

Hopefully.

The Cardinals could end up with as many as nine new starters -- five on defense and four on offense. Considering that one of those spots is quarterback, where Warner had performed at an elite level until he retired, there is reason to at least wonder exactly how much hope there should be for the team to win a third consecutive NFC West crown.

With only 17 starts in four seasons, Matt Leinart has plenty to prove. Whisenhunt and the rest of the Cardinals' brass have expressed confidence that he can handle the job, even if that didn't stop them from expressing interest in San Diego Chargers backup Charlie Whitehurst before he was traded to division-rival Seattle and eventually adding veteran Derek Anderson.

If the Cardinals are to remain a contender, Leinart can't waste any time showing that he has what it takes to lead one of the NFL's more prolific passing attacks. He also must receive considerable help from his supporting cast. From the moment Whisenhunt took over as coach in 2007, he and the rest of the decision-makers in Arizona have made putting together a roster of players who could consistently pick up the slack for each other a top priority.

"Since we've been (in Arizona), one of the things that we've built the team to do is go through change," Whisenhunt said. "As you're starting a program out, if you're going to be successful, you're going to have a mix of older and younger players. You're going to have some players that you bring in that are in the latter part of their career that can provide leadership, can provide that guidance that you need to help build a team. And as those years progress, their effectiveness is going to diminish and your younger guys, you're going to have to develop.

"I think that, if you look at where we are as a football team right now, we've developed a lot of young players that have played well for us."

Examples that Whisenhunt cites besides Breaston and Doucet are third-year running back Tim Hightower, third-year defensive end Calais Campbell, second-year cornerback Greg Toler and third-year cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

The Cardinals used free agency to add some much-needed experience in 13th-year guard Alan Faneca, 12th-year outside linebacker Joey Porter, 10th-year kicker Jay Feely, and traded for sixth-year safety Kerry Rhodes. They also looked to plug some key holes in the draft by using their first-round pick on Tennessee nose tackle Dan Williams and a second-round choice on TCU linebacker Daryl Washington.

"But we're a lot better from a standpoint of a core group of guys," Whisenhunt said.

He's reminded of that each time he walks through the locker room during the offseason and sees 10 or 15 of his younger players on hand for workouts. He becomes even more convinced of their ability to make a strong contribution when he sees how well they work together on the field in non-contact practices.

"I think that we put a lot of time and effort in to try to build a team that can be consistent," Whisenhunt said. "I'm proud of our players and how much they've grown. I'm proud of the success that we've had with the draft and even (with) some of the free agents that we've signed. You want to see that continue. You want to see your younger guys play well. I want to see Matt Leinart do well at quarterback. I want to see (second-year running back) Beanie Wells continue to grow and develop at that position.

"You do have a lot invested in it, so it is exciting to want to see your young players step up and play well."

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