After watching a mass exodus of talent in Arizona, onlookers have questioned whether the Cardinals can win a third straight NFC West crown.
While those losses are clearly significant, it's the retirement of Kurt Warner that has cynics predicting the Cardinals' demise.
The two-time league MVP played at an elite level the past three seasons, which left opponents struggling for answers on how to slow down the Cardinals' wide-open attack.
Under Warner, the Cardinals ranked among the top five passing attacks in two of the past three seasons and scored an average of 25.1 points per game during that span. Warner keyed the offense by amassing 17 300-yard passing games in the last three seasons, including the playoffs. He also tallied 14 games with three or more touchdown passes, and finished with a passer rating of at least 89.8 in each season.
With Warner serving as the catalyst in Arizona, the biggest questions facing coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff heading into the season focus extensively on quarterback. More specifically, observers want to know if the Cardinals win with Matt Leinart.
The fifth-year pro entered the league widely touted as the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2006 draft after leading the University of Southern California to back-to-back national championships. The former Heisman Trophy winner compiled a 37-2 record as a starter and was seemingly prepared to handle the rigors of performing on the big stage.
After putting together a respectable rookie season (completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 2,547 yards with 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions), it appeared that Leinart was ready to solidify his status as the team's franchise player. However, he failed to capitalize on the momentum, and subsequently lost his job to Warner after a disappointing preseason. Additionally, questions about his work ethic and dedication raised doubts about his ability to lead.
While Leinart has spent the past two seasons working to overcome those perceptions, he will ultimately be judged on what he does on the field. And based on some of the signs, Whisenhunt will need to revamp his offensive approach to set up Leinart for success.
With Warner under center, the Cardinals used a spread-like offense that featured a myriad of three- and four-receiver sets from the shotgun formation to take advantage of his quick release and exceptional decision-making skills. Warner excelled at finding the soft spot in the defense and his accurate throws under pressure often led to big plays against the blitz.
In Leinart, the Cardinals have a quarterback better suited to function as a game manager than playmaker. He's at his best when he's asked to distribute the ball to a talented supporting cast rather than acting as the driving force for the offense. While that notion would appear to suggest that the offense will take a step backwards under Leinart's direction, Whisenhunt's desire to field a more balanced attack could make the Cardinals just as lethal.
Led by the late-season emergence of Beanie Wells, the Cardinals have the pieces to field a formidable running game. Wells rushed for 793 yards as a rookie while splitting time with Tim Hightower and shows signs of being the kind of hard-nosed runner needed to anchor a power-based ground attack.
Wells routinely found room to roam between the tackles and his willingness to finish off runs establishes a tone for the offense. Though he only averaged 11 carries per game, his 4.5 yards per carry keyed the team's gradual improvement on the ground.
Though Wells is slated to replace Hightower as the feature back, both will continue to play a significant role. Hightower was extremely productive when running out of the team's single-back sets (shotgun or "Ace" formation), and has the burst to get to the edge. He's also an outstanding receiver (63 receptions last season) who can make plays in space to open up the screen game.
Given the potentially explosive tandem, the Cardinals have taken significant steps to transform their offensive line into a unit capable of playing power football.
The Cardinals signed nine-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca during the offseason. Although he struggled in pass protection, Faneca gives the team a physical presence at left guard and remains a standout run blocker. He teams left tackle Levi Brown, who moves over from right side, to form a massive wall.
While the Cardinals still need to sort out the starters on the right side of the line (Reggie Wells, Deuce Lutui and Brandon Keith are all candidates to play on that side), having a formidable tandem on one side should encourage Whisenhunt to call more runs in key moments. The Cardinals ranked last in rushing attempts per game a season ago, but that is sure to change.
With the Cardinals poised to field a strong rushing attack, Leinart should have an easier time finding open windows in the passing game. The threat of running the ball effectively should cause more eight-man fronts, which will create more one-on-one matchups on the outside. The play-action package should also benefit as a result.
Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston are outstanding vertical route runners, and the draw of play fakes will allow them to sneak behind the coverage. While their opportunities would appear to decrease with Whisenhunt taking a more balanced approach, their explosive production (receptions of more than 20 yards) is bound to increase with more vertical throws incorporated into the game plan.
Although Leinart isn't thought to have a big arm, the use of play-action and movement passes (bootlegs or naked rollouts) will allow him to push the ball downfield. Leinart excelled at executing this package while at USC and Whisenhunt will surely incorporate some of those throws to make his young signal-caller comfortable.
The Cardinals will undoubtedly miss the talent they've lost, but a subtle offensive makeover could keep the team atop the NFC West. While Leinart has a lot to prove, Arizona's hopes are built around a resurgent running game.