Cardinals' positive postseason seems like a distant memory

It's bad enough that, after playing the biggest game of your life, you have to endure walking off the field in a torrential downpour of confetti for the other team.

They're first. You're forgotten.

When it comes to humbling experiences, being a Super Bowl runner-up has a funny way of undoing all of the promise that winning a conference championship once offered. Lose a Super Bowl, and you can pretty much count on missing the playoffs entirely the following season. At least, that's what has happened to all but one team -- the Seattle Seahawks -- in the last nine years.

Why it happens is hardly a mystery. Free agents from a Super Bowl team, even the losing one, tend to be more attractive in the open market. After getting a taste of Super Bowl hype, players begin to believe they're either good enough to put in less effort to defend their conference crown or deserve a substantial pay raise for their role in the journey to the Promised Land -- or both.

And then there's the bull's-eye factor. The next-best thing to beating the defending Super Bowl champion is knocking off the runner-up, providing a little added incentive for every opponent on the schedule.

Can anyone get some towels for the Arizona Cardinals? After losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, they have to be sweating … and it has nothing to do with the desert heat.

Earlier this month, coach Ken Whisenhunt admitted to reporters in Arizona that his team has faced "a lot more turmoil" compared with what he encountered in the previous two offseasons since assuming the Cardinals' helm.

"I don't know if I would necessarily use the word 'turmoil,' but it's certainly been more challenging," general manager Rod Graves said. "The fact of the matter is we've had more to encounter. We've had more high-profile situations to deal with."

The Cardinals have taken significant hits to their coaching staff, as well as to their roster.

Both offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who became head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who was fired and took the same position with the Chiefs, are gone. So, too, is defensive end Antonio Smith, who became a free agent and received a $35 million deal to join the Houston Texans.

Price of success

Wide receiver Anquan Boldin and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett are seeking huge raises, despite having a combined five years left on their respective contracts, and want to be traded if they don't get them. But they shouldn't expect anything to happen in the near future, if at all. The Cardinals' immediate priority is to work out a long-term deal with linebacker Karlos Dansby, who has a franchise tag, and to extend the contract of strong safety Adrian Wilson, who is due to become a free agent after the 2009 season.

"I think that's just a situation that, as a successful team, you're going to have those challenges," Graves said. "I don't necessarily think it's a negative in any way. I just think that it's a headache that comes with success."

  -- Larry Fitzgerald 

On the plus side, the Cardinals were able to cross off one enormous item on their offseason checklist by re-signing quarterback Kurt Warner, who still is performing at a high level and continues to have arguably the best receiver in the league in Larry Fitzgerald.

"The other key thing is Ken Whisenhunt's leadership," Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said. "He's a tremendous head coach. The mind-set and attitude players developed on our team, particularly during the postseason, are something we've got to keep inside the locker room."

Part of that attitude manifests itself as a giant chip on the Cardinals' collective shoulder.

The theme of this offseason is that, despite their Super Bowl appearance, the Cardinals aren't truly regarded as an elite club. Sure, they might have gotten hot when it counted the most -- in the playoffs. Sure, they might have given the Steelers a scare in the Super Bowl. But they never demonstrated any consistent dominance through most of the regular season.

That is how the Cardinals believe they're perceived by the rest of the NFL.

"I don't think people really respect us still," Fitzgerald said. "They think last year -- I've heard it so many times already -- was a fluke, that it was a one-year wonder. I think we still have a chip on our shoulder.

"We still have to go out there and prove that we're a good football team. I think you saw it happen with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when they were thought to be the bad, cellar team, and how they reversed their fortunes when they won the Super Bowl (in the 2002 season). We have to do something like that to really make people believe in us."

Nevertheless, the Cardinals can count on opponents making every effort to prevent it from happening. That's especially true for Fitzgerald, who routinely makes big plays by out-jumping defensive backs and coming down with the ball. He fully expects the opposition to ramp up efforts to shut him down, if that's even possible.

But it doesn't faze him in the least.

"Since the day I started playing football, I've had a bull's-eye on my back," Fitzgerald said. "I wouldn't say it's unfamiliar territory for me, so I'm going to continue to prepare like I've always done -- continue to work hard, continue to listen to my coaches and do the things that have helped me have success so far. Every single year I've played, I've always been able to elevate my game a little bit more than the year before. I fully expect to do the same thing. I need to be able to run a little faster, to be able to get more separation, be stronger in press coverage and continue to run better after the catch."

As daunting as the task might seem for a Super Bowl runner-up, and especially one that has dealt with a great deal of hardships, the Cardinals aren't ready to surrender the NFC crown. The team's decision-makers are convinced Arizona still has the necessary ingredients to make another Super Bowl run.

And physical talent is only part of the equation.

"The veteran leadership is key and we have a lot of young players that were there who came so close to winning it all," Bidwill said. "They're hungry. A lot of it is keeping the foot on the gas mentally."

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