|Matt York/Associated Press|
|Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart appears ready to establish himself as a bona fide NFL starter.|
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The drive up from Phoenix to Flagstaff to visit with the Cardinals was a beautiful ride as the temperature dropped from well over 100 degrees to closer to 75.
The Cardinals get away from Phoenix to get more work done and bring the team together. Coach Ken Whisenhunt, now in his second season, was visibly more relaxed as his team went through the workout, but he was quick to remind me that the second his players slip in their preparation he will revert back to the taskmaster he was last year when he was changing the culture of the Cardinals. I got the impression from all the players I spoke with that Whisenhunt will not have to revert back to the old ways because this team is on a mission to change its fortunes.
The Cardinals finished 8-8 last year with Kurt Warner leading the No. 12-ranked NFL offense. The passing game, however, ranked No. 5 in the league and the red-zone touchdown scoring was ranked third.
So why consider a change at quarterback? Whisenhunt explained that Matt Leinart would get the opportunity to lead this team, but Warner is right behind him and taking 50 percent of the plays with the first-team offense. Warner could still be an option if Leinart falters.
The Cardinals had their struggles last season -- kicker Neil Rackers missed nine field goals and the 29th-ranked rush defense and 28th-ranked pass defense didn't do enough to support the high-powered offense. While there appears to be some real progress on defense, the kicking game is a point of emphasis for the Cardinals and special teams coach Kevin Spencer.
Last year, the Cardinals achieved their first objective in the Whisenhunt era when they established their home-field advantage, going 6-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium. But they stumbled on the road, going 2-6, and missed the playoffs. At home, the team averaged 27 points a game and gave up just 22 points per contest. On the road, they averaged 23 points a game and surrendered 27 points. The Cardinals have to travel better, deal with hostile environments, and finish with a 4-4 record on the road.
I have mixed emotions about how far the Cardinals can go in 2008. Last year, they went 3-3 against NFC West opponents. This season they must finish no worse than 4-2 in the division. They have to win no fewer than four games on the road and they can't afford injuries to the offensive line. I think 9-7 is reasonable as Whisenhunt continues to develop his team.
Here are the top issues surrounding the Arizona Cardinals as they get ready to find a way to make the playoffs in 2008.
1. Who will be the quarterback?
Leinart was given every opportunity to be the quarterback this year, and it looks like he has taken full advantage of the situation. He has worked hard in the offseason, both on and off the field, and as Whisenhunt said, "so far, so good."
Leinart ran the no-huddle offense at the practice I attended, and looked very comfortable in that setting. There is no doubt he is starting to see his third option in the passing game and is making the right calls on the protection schemes.
"I know where my check-down receivers are at all times and that's something I didn't fully understand last year," he said.
Warner believes he's the best quarterback on the roster and wants to start. Warner is a very classy guy who will be a team player if it doesn't work out for him, but he needs to believe he received the fair chance promised to him by the coaches.
Warner assured me that his relationship with Leinart is strong and will not deteriorate as the season approaches, but it could be difficult for Warner, who believes he could help a dozen or so teams in the league. There's little doubt that if he ends up as the backup, teams will call Arizona about a trade. I'm not sure the Cardinals would let him go because the young quarterbacks behind Leinart and Warner are not ready to help the team win.
2. Is there a change-of-pace back to complement Edgerrin James?
I got a chance to talk with James after practice, and I always have to remind myself when I'm talking to him that he is on the verge of passing a number of Hall of Fame running backs in career rushing totals and could wind up as the seventh-best rusher in NFL history by the end of this season. Leinart becoming more familiar with his check-down receivers means more catches for James. As long as James gets his 20 to 25 touches a game, this team needs another back for the rest of the duties.
J.J. Arrington has a good sense of what to do as the third-down back. Rookie Tim Hightower has the inside vision and power to be the early-down backup to James. The Cardinals lack the speed back that creates the matchup problems Reggie Bush or Chris Johnson do for their respective teams.
3. What has the defense done to hold up its end of the bargain?
One of the more exciting issues at camp was the pressure looks this defense can create. In New England, the guys who possess pass-rush skills, coverage skills and make reading the defense almost impossible at times are called "jokers" by opposing teams. Tha Cardinals have an impressive number of "jokers," even though they lost Calvin Pace to free agency. Karlos Dansby, Clark Haggans, Chike Okeafor and Travis LaBoy give defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast all kinds of pressure options. Defensive end Bertrand Berry and rookie Calais Campbell give the team athletes who can drop into coverage while the "jokers" blitz. One player told me the team spent significant time looking at what the Giants did in the Super Bowl, and that they have the players to do the same.
4. Which "new" players will make an impact?
Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the team's first-round pick, rolled an ankle at practice on Tuesday and was carted off the field. Before the injury, he was working with the second team, but it will only be a matter of time before he breaks into the starting lineup. When he gets back from the injury, look for him to make his first big contribution on the nickel and dime defenses as the outside corner, while Eric Green moves into the nickel corner spot.
LaBoy was signed to replace Pace, and is the perfect hybrid player to let the Cardinals' defense jump from a 3-4 set to a 4-3 and back again this season.
5. Will the franchise sign Anquan Boldin, Dansby and Warner to new deals?
Boldin is the heart and soul of this team. The wide receiver is highly productive and plays hurt. Boldin assured me there would be no more contract talks during the season. With three years left on his deal he has no leverage, but I get the sense the club might want to do something for him before this season is over.
Dansby signed his franchise tag and is playing on a one-year deal, but he seemed content for now. Dansby needs a big season and I'm sure the club will get him extended to a long-term deal, but the price may get to levels no one can comprehend at this time. The team passed on the $20 million guaranteed Pace got from the Jets, and it may be even more for Dansby.
A new deal for Warner would present other problems. The veteran QB wants big starter money -- probably in the neighborhood of $9 million a year -- but he may not be the starter. Arizona wants to do a three-tiered deal that pays him according to his status. Unless Leinart gets injured, it doesn't look like a deal for the 38-year-old is in the works.
6. Can the offense be more balanced?
Last year, Whisenhunt wanted to run the ball with authority and that philosophy hasn't changed, but he does realize where his weapons are this season. If the Cardinals can pass protect with consistency -- and that may be a big issue if they lose an offensive tackle because there really isn't much depth -- the passing game will dominate the play-calling again.
This team passes the ball to set up the run, and after watching them practice there is no need to change now. Last season, Boldin and Fitzgerald grabbed 171 passes between them for 19 touchdowns, and there's no reason to believe they can't top that production this season.
Keep your eye on two young players who will play expanded rolls in the passing game. Steve Breaston and former practice squad tight end Ben Patrick will get significant playing time this season. Both can create matchup problems. Breaston has great vertical speed and is catching the ball well, while Patrick is a tweener tight end who is capable of beating linebacker coverage.