GLENDALE, Ariz. — There was no denying the gut feeling overtaking Larry Fitzgerald and his Cardinals teammates after Sunday’s 23-20 loss to the 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"It doesn’t feel good," Fitzgerald said. "But it doesn’t diminish what we were able to accomplish as a unit, as a team. Coach (Bruce) Arians hit it on the head. He said, ‘It’s just the beginning.’"
Everyone would have left Glendale feeling a little better had the Cardinals beaten the hated 49ers to even their division record at 3-3 and finish the season at 11-5. But the ultimate goal was the playoffs, and that possibility died quickly when the Saints jumped to an early lead and rolled over the Buccaneers 42-17.
The Cardinals insisted they weren’t paying any attention.
"It didn’t matter," Arians said. "This was the only game that mattered in town."
But the Saints score kept flashing up on the stadium scoreboard, and there was a noticeable lack of energy in the building for long stretches, even when the Cardinals mounted a gutty comeback, because the fans knew the score.
Surely, the Cardinals were aware that their season was ending, regardless of their own outcome. Phil Dawson’s game-winning 40-yard field goal as time expired was just the final aspect of that unwanted outcome.
"It hurts," center Lyle Sendlein said. "We knew that we didn’t start the year like we wanted, but we fought like we weren’t going to let that be the deciding factor in us making the playoffs. We came out with the attitude that we weren’t going to be saying, ‘What if this game, what if that game.’"
A 7-2 closing stretch wasn’t enough to save the season, but there were some tangible gains from the franchise’s fourth winning season since arriving in the Valley in 1988.
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"A strong finish like we had, it sets the standard, and that’s what our expectations are going to be for the beginning half of next year," Sendlein said. "You’ve got to have a winner’s attitude going into the offseason and prepare like youâre going to win and going to be a favorite."
You can debate the validity of momentum from one season to another, but there is a comfort level now that didn’t exist when a new coaching staff, a new GM and a roster that eventually turned over more than 50 percent of its personnel opened training camp in this same building five months ago.
"I think it’s more about better knowledge, because it won’t be the Cardinals again until September," Arians said. "We will have 90 guys pretty soon, and starting with a new football team, but again, as many of the core guys as we can keep together, the better that momentum can be. You lose 25 guys, it’s different."
Those evaluations and decisions will begin immediately after the Cardinals clean out their lockers Monday in Tempe. General manager Steve Keim must decide what to do with, among others, free agent Karlos Dansby, who had a Pro Bowl-caliber season despite the snub.
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He must decide if the big contracts of Fitzgerald and Darnell Dockett are still tenable. He must find a left tackle. He must find a young quarterback for the future. He must find a strong safety. He must assess all of his draft needs.
There are no guarantees that the Cardinals will build on this season. Injuries, defections, personnel and coaching decisions, even single plays could alter the course of this franchise.
But the Cardinals have something to build on after three straight disappointing seasons. And they delivered more than anyone outside the organization ever imagined possible.
"If we can keep the core of our players together, I think we will have a firm belief going into OTAs that this works, the system works, the way we practice, the way we work, training camp," Arians said. "All the way through, they know it works now and they know the process.
"You never know what’s going to happen next year with injuries and everything else, but we should be able to build and have a heck of an offseason from this."