My editor emailed at 3:18 p.m. ET on Wednesday with a simple request: Give me one team that missed the playoffs in 2012 that will make it in 2013.
I love the Chicago Bears' potential under Marc Trestman. But that's a conventional wisdom take; that's not bold. The New York Giants have future Hall of Famers at coach and quarterback, and I love what GM Jerry Reese did over the past couple days, shedding about $14 million in cap space and retooling the G-Men. Big Blue will be back, but that doesn't pack a punch. Here's something that does:
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This is not a piece for shock value. I honestly, truly, deeply believe the Cardinals are going to be the surprise team of the year with the right tweaks along the way. Sit back. I'm about to sell you.
They have the right people running the show.
They now employ the 2012 NFL Coach of the Year.
And yes, they have a great defense.
Do you understand how gigantic the Bruce Arians hire was? There is no hypothetical attached to Arians. You don't have to wonder how the longtime assistant will fare in the head-coaching role. Arians became a head coach last year under the most difficult circumstances -- after Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia -- and handled it with aplomb. The organizational demands that come with being a head coach, the day-to-day dealings, aren't foreign to him. He lived it. He dominated it.
Arians is a winner. He brings the fire, attitude, X's and O's and résumé as an offensive coordinator and reigning head coach of the year. The Indianapolis Colts' nine-win improvement last season was the third-largest turnaround in NFL history.
The Arizona Cardinals won the coaching carousel. And Arians was savvy enough to bring the highly respected Tom Moore -- one of the best offensive minds in football -- out of semi-retirement and onto his staff.
I know: Arians had Andrew Luck, and Moore had Peyton Manning. They have Kevin Kolb in Arizona. But last week in New Orleans, Arians told us on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he was very impressed with Kolb's toughness while taking a beating last year. Kolb has talent, but he needs the line to provide some protection. Arians and Moore are going to coach up and maximize Kolb. They are two of the best offensive coordinators in the NFL over the last 10 years. The Colts finished 10th in the NFL in offense. Yeah, they had Luck, but look at the lack of talent on that offensive line. Arizona boasts a better receiving corps than the one Arians had in Indy. Larry Fitzgerald has to be giddy knowing how Arians throws the ball down field. And there will be a dramatic domino effect on both Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd, too.
Look, there's work to do on Kolb's mentality and play, but Arians and Moore will do it. And there is a building point here. Before Kolb got hurt in Week 6 last year, the Cardinals were 4-1. He rocked steady against the Philadelphia Eagles in a win. He was clutch against the Miami Dolphins. Kevin Kolb beat the New England Patriots.
And at some point, the Cards will add a quarterback, too.
The right coach at the right time matters to change a team's fortunes. As does the right general manager. Steve Keim is one of the most respected personnel guys amongst his peers. He has an amazing eye for talent on both the collegiate and pro levels. Rival executives tell me it was Keim who stumped for the Cardinals to draft Adrian Peterson when Rod Graves instead plucked up Levi Brown. Keim has found several diamonds in the rough in the draft, in addition to being ultra-successful early on. Just take a look at the draft picks Keim has made on defense.
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Yes, the defense ... Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Dan Williams form a dominant line. Daryl Washington had another spectacular season at linebacker with 140 tackles, nine sacks (most by any MLB in the NFL), and 14 tackles for a loss. Simply put, he is one of the best defenders in the league. Patrick Peterson had seven picks. Kerry Rhodes left the Hollywood persona in New York and has become a play-making safety and a consistent player in Arizona. Look at what the Cardinals' defense did to Tom Brady and Matt Ryan last season. This unit ranked fourth in takeaways and second in interceptions. Sure, the architect of that defense, Ray Horton, is gone to Cleveland. But Arians wisely picked up Todd Bowles, a longtime friend who played for Arians at Temple in the 1980s.
Every team has injuries, but Arizona had 17 offensive players combine to miss a whopping 103 games, with nine guys hitting injured reserve. Levi Brown didn't play a game. Home run threat Ryan Williams missed 11. Beanie Wells was out for seven. And Kolb, of course, missed 10, forcing John Skelton and Ryan Lindley into way too much action.
Anything that could've gone wrong went wrong for Ken Whisenhunt's team last year. That won't happen again in 2013.
As one playoff executive said to me, "For an offense that was inept last year, they actually aren't far away. Moore and Arians will help the QB (Kolb). They need to add a running back and solidify the line. Steve knows what he has to do there. The only piece to add on defense maybe is an edge rusher. The defense is loaded. Russ Grimm held that team back. He was a poor offensive line coach. The kids (on the offensive line) who struggled gained experience and the new staff will help."
What do you look for when you're seeking a worst-to-first, Horatio Alger tale in the NFL? I look for coaching. I look for a bright general manager and capable front office (Keim was smart enough to promote Jason Licht). I look for a defense. Sure, I'm concerned about the quarterback right now, but I think Arians and Moore can fix it.
Clip this column. Quote it back to me.