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Immense challenges lie ahead for surprising Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals came out of obscurity and the easy-to-be dismissed NFC West to represent their conference -- arguably better than any of the potential challengers -- in losing 27-23 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday.

The Cardinals made history in advancing to the Super Bowl for the first time, but looking forward, history isn't on their side -- as if that's anything new.

Only the Giants have represented the NFC twice in the Super Bowl since the calendar struck 2000, with those appearances coming in the 2000 and 2007 seasons. The Bears, Seahawks, Eagles, Panthers, Buccaneers and Rams also made it out of the NFC, but, for the most part, they haven't been heard from in the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl, since they did.

Like Arizona now, all of those teams figured they had the right nucleus, proper mix of youth and experience and the right coach and front office to contend for years. For the most part, they have been competitive, just not competitive enough.

Rebuilding, as we witnessed last season with the Falcons, Ravens and Dolphins, happens from year-to-year in a year, not over the course of seasons.

How many teams have supposedly built foundations, only to have injuries, free agency and coaching changes make them start over after three seasons? The consistency of the Colts, Steelers and Patriots is the model nearly every franchise aspires to emulate, but even their windows of opportunity are like winning lottery tickets.

"We know what it takes to get here again," Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "We'll take some time off and get back to work. Next year, we'll make a run for it again."

Just like those losing Super Bowl teams who won't forget what it's like watching the other team celebrate or those who can't get that taste of being so close and falling short out of their mouths.

The Cardinals have the pieces to be back in the thick of things next season. The offensive line is young -- and good. The defensive line is experienced and rugged. The secondary could emerge as one of the best in the NFL.

However, like every team, some key free-agent and contract issues are front and center. What's problematic for the Cardinals is that those issues aren't only with key players but at some of the most important positions.

Most notable is quarterback Kurt Warner, a 37-year-old free agent who's contemplating retirement.

"There are a lot of emotions that go into a decision like that," Warner said of his possible return following his third Super Bowl, two of which he has lost. "There are things that make you want to come back, and there are things that I am ready to have a break from. I really don't know at this point. I don't want to make an emotional decision."

Warner had an MVP-like regular season and an even more MVP-like playoff run. If he does play again, he has said he wants it to be with the Cardinals. His decision could be swayed by how much the team would be willing to offer financially -- and professionally.

Besides seemingly wanting a hefty salary, Warner could want the starting job guaranteed. Keep in mind, despite Warner playing well after supplanting starter and projected franchise star Matt Leinart last season, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt made the veteran earn the job during preseason. There is still debate as to whether Warner won it or Leinart lost it.

The team might balk at guaranteeing Warner the starting job, especially since, unlike grey-bearded peer Brett Favre, he doesn't have the track record of stringing together a series of seasons in which he consistently has been the starting quarterback. Injuries and suspect play have been interspersed between incredible production and leadership.

In asking for a guaranteed starting job, could Warner guarantee the Cardinals another season like he just had? It could be a worthy risk since Leinart is waiting in the wings, but this could develop into an interesting negotiation should Warner come back for more.

Several players, including Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, said they want Warner back. Endorsements like those could sway toward Warner's return and the team making sure it does what's needed to make it happen.

Besides Warner, there's the Anquan Boldin situation. Boldin, also a Pro Bowl wide receiver, wants his contract restructured somewhere in the ballpark of Fitzgerald's four-year, $40 million deal, which he signed last summer. The Cardinals want to keep Boldin happy, but at what price would he be?

Arizona is expected to have nearly $40 million under the projected $123 million salary cap to spend in free agency and re-work current contracts, so money shouldn't be an issue. Egos (some might reference them as principles), on all sides, could be.

Running back Edgerrin James served as the perfect ingredient in the ground game during the playoffs, but he has said he doesn't want to return to the Cardinals. The feeling could be mutual. James, 30, lost his starting job to rookie Tim Hightower and four-year pro J.J. Arrington for the last nine regular-season games, then regained it in the playoffs. Next season, the youth movement likely will continue, with James given his walking papers and the Cardinals looking at running backs in the draft.

Other key free agents are defensive end Antonio Smith and linebacker Karlos Dansby. Both proved themselves as vital players during the playoffs -- especially the versatile Dansby. However, pending free agents such as defensive end Julius Peppers and linebackers Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott could be viewed as better fits.

Outside of the roster, offensive coordinator Todd Haley could be lured away from Arizona by a head-coaching job. He has been tied to the Chiefs' vacancy, and if he leaves, the Cardinals would lose a creative passing-game designer and play-caller. However, Whisenhunt, although he doesn't call plays, was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, and much of what was executed on offense in Arizona was through his orchestration.

Haley has deflected all talk of leaving the Cardinals thus far, but he has said he would welcome the opportunity to be a head coach if the right situation arises.

Arizona's offseason questions aren't as ominous as other teams have had to -- and will have to -- face. The biggest struggle is making that needed push -- and getting the breaks again -- to not only reach the Super Bowl but win it.

The road will be tougher because opposing teams will be more aware of the Cardinals and because, in all likelihood, they will receive more exposure on nationally televised games and in preseason publications. Success breeds expectations, and only the strong survive.

Ask the Browns.

"Guys really bought into the program and really made some sacrifices," Fitzgerald said. "Guys seeing how close we are are going to buy into it even more, do a little bit more this offseason."

Another Arizona unexpectedly will emerge next season. Always does. Favored teams, like the Jaguars or Cowboys this season, also will underachieve. Always do.

For now, the Cardinals can only hope to avoid the trappings and once again do what wasn't expected -- and now, what is.

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