Cards’ season transforms into salvage mission

TEMPE, Ariz. – The Cardinals’ bye week might have come one week too early.

Sure, many of the walking wounded returned to practice, although defensive end Calais Campbell (calf) swelled the injured ranks by one this week. Sure, the Cardinals reported to practice Wednesday with a bounce in their step not seen in some time. Sure, the coaching staff had time to evaluate personnel (and itself) to determine what’s working and what’s not.

But the reward for this down time is the 8-1 Atlanta Falcons, who promise to be focused after suffering their first loss last week. Nobody outside this organization believes the Cardinals are going to even their record at 5-5 on Sunday in the Georgia Dome. Nobody believes the talk coming from the Arizona locker room on Wednesday was anything more than bravado.

“People called the 4-0 start a fluke, and rightfully so, because we’ve lost the last five,” quarterback John Skelton said.

It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals being anything other than 4-6 on Monday. It’s folly to think they can beat Atlanta.

Not with Campbell and outside linebacker O’Brien Schofield, who is out for the season with an ankle injury, added to the growing injured list.

Not with rookie seventh-round pick Nate Potter starting at left tackle. Not without running back Beanie Wells, who isn’t eligible to return to the lineup for one more week. Not without quarterback Kevin Kolb, whose throwing motion is still robotic as his ribs slowly re-attach themselves to his sternum.

Rock bottom didn’t come Nov. 4 in Green Bay. Rock bottom will come Sunday in the form of a six-game losing streak. And then it will be time to pick up the pieces as the schedule and roster take more favorable turns.

Which begs the question: What do the Cardinals need to do to salvage this season – and what end result would define salvaging the season?

“For one, we need to get some guys healthy. For two, we need to get guys on the same page,” left guard Daryn Colledge said. “We’ve got a lot of guys trying to fill in roles, trying to take over for other guys and it’s hard because communication and chemistry are so important on offense and defense.”

With all the injuries that have beset the Cardinals this season, we think another 8-8 campaign would be satisfactory. That would mean four wins in the final six games. That would mean progress and proof that coach Ken Whisenhunt hasn’t lost the faith of his players. Another 8-8 record, and a third straight year of missing the playoffs, won’t satisfy the fan base, but it’s a realistic goal to set for a team that has endured such a freakishly long list of casualties.

“There is the positive of knowing that we did this last year when we struggled early,” Colledge said. “We were able to get it turned around, so this team knows how to win games.”

The key component in this equation is who comes back for the Cardinals. Left tackle Levi Brown, running back Ryan Williams and Schofield obviously will not. But if Wells can return to last season’s form, if Campbell’s injury is only a short-term situation, if tight end Todd Heap can come back and give the Cards a reliable intermediate receiving threat and, most importantly, if Kolb can return, the Cards have a chance to build momentum.

If Potter and Bobby Massie can show progress, the Cards might even be able to boast progress on their most troubled unit, the offensive line.

If receiver Michael Floyd can justify his draft status, the offseason personnel moves won’t be a total loss. And if the lineup changes Whisenhunt has promised produce some positive results, there just may be hope for the future.

It’s doubtful that Whisenhunt’s job is on the line over the season’s final seven games, but if the Cards go 8-8, there won’t be any basis for that discussion. On the flip side, if the Cardinals get healthy yet continue this downward spiral, the futures of Whisenhunt, Kolb and general manager Rod Graves should all be on the table.

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