Following their most successful season in 61 years, the Cardinals face a unique challenge this year, at least for them: Can they build upon success?
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The answer certainly hasn’t come in the preseason. The first units were impressive in the opening two games of the preseason, even though the club lost.
But the third game, an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Packers, prompted worries about the team’s maturity.
Playing with its first team, the Cardinals trailed, 38-10, at halftime, and looked like the disinterested, dispassionate club that was blown out twice in early December last year.
“They were prepared,” coach Whisenhunt said of the Packers, “and they were on a mission to accomplish exactly what they did. That was to come in here and set a tone. I’m disappointed that we’re not a more mature team that we could raise our level to meet that.”
All off-season, Whisenhunt has been watching his players for signs of contentment or overconfidence. Until the Packers game, he hadn’t seen any. At training camp, the Cardinals appeared to be a veteran group that worked diligently, requiring little motivation from coaches.
Almost daily, Whisenhunt praised his team’s work ethic.
But the Green Bay game suggested that maybe this team hasn’t grown up as much as Whisenhunt thought. He had hoped it was past the emotional ups and downs of last season, when the Cardinals started 7-3, then relaxed after clinching the division title.
“Two things I’m glad of,” Whisenhunt said. “No. 1, it’s a preseason game. No. 2, maybe this is a wakeup call for our guys. One thing you worry about with a team that’s had success is the idea that you can just show up and beat anybody.”
The starting offense has moved the ball in preseason but has scored only one touchdown. The defense played well in the first two games, but then fell apart against the Packers, giving up long pass plays and committing costly penalties.
Quarterback Kurt Warner normally doesn’t place a whole lot of stock in the preseason, but he said it’s time the Cardinals wake up.
“You get to the point where there really needs to be a sense of urgency moving forward,” he said. “Everyone has got to feel it, and everybody has to understand, and everybody has to take it upon themselves not to let it happen again.”
COACHING: Ken Whisenhunt, 3rd year, 3rd with Cardinals (17-15).
REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 9-7 (1st in NFC West); lost in Super Bowl XLIII to Steelers, 27-23.
PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 10-6 (1st in NFC West); lose in divisional round.
Notes and Quotes
–K Neil Rackers does more than your average kicker. He is known to make tackles on kickoffs, and his array of kickoffs – from onside kicks to pooches – gives the Cardinals considerable options. Rackers’ biggest challenge is controlling his emotions. Last week, he recovered his own onside kick against the Packers but then drew a penalty for spiking the ball.
–Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt wouldn’t go so far to say that cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie freelances too much. But he did say the second-year corner still has a lot to learn. “I would say he’s a young player that at times is undisciplined, and it’s our job, and it’s our defensive leaders’ job, to get him on the same page.” Rodgers-Cromartie was beaten twice for touchdowns by the Packers in the third preseason game. “I think he was disappointed in the way he played, embarrassed, and he worked in practice a lot harder.”
–Whisenhunt was so angry after the Green Bay game that he was thinking of playing his starters more than usual in the preseason finale against the Broncos. But then he calmed down as the week progressed. “One thing I’m happy about is this team has shown the ability to respond in the past.”
–QB Kurt Warner said the team could learn something from watching rookie running back Beanie Wells play for the first time in preseason. Wells ran hard, like he had something to prove, Warner said. “We all need to take a little something from that. “You hope guys aren’t getting a little complacent after the success of last year and thinking we can just turn it on when we step out on the field, because it doesn’t work that way.”
BY THE NUMBERS: 20 — The number of consecutive games the starting offensive line has been together.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “You see when we do it right how it works. The problem is, we’re not doing it right near enough.” — QB Kurt Warner on the preseason.
Strategy and Personnel
QB Matt Leinart was challenged in preseason by Brian St. Pierre for the No. 2 job. But Leinart played well throughout camp and has been impressive in three games. Not only did he secure the backup job, he gave the club some confidence that all is not lost if starter Kurt Warner were to miss a few games.
Depth at linebacker is a concern after a few injuries in preseason. Outside linebacker Cody Brown, the second round pick, is out for the season with a dislocated wrist. He was a top backup. Inside linebacker Pago Togafau, who likely was going to make the team as a reserve and special teamer, was waived/injured after suffering a fracture in his right foot during the preseason.
–TE Stephen Spach appears to have won the No. 1 job, especially with Ben Patrick suspended for the first four games. Spach underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL in February and has made a remarkable comeback.
–RB Beanie Wells was impressive in his preseason debut, gaining 46 yards on seven carries. And he says he’s not yet fully recovered from an ankle sprain that caused him to miss nearly a month.
–WR Early Doucet continues to have bad luck with injuries. After missing much of training camp with a shoulder sprain, Doucet suffered fractured ribs against the Packers and will miss at least two weeks.
–NT Alan Branch is in better shape than the past two seasons but he still can’t rise above third on the depth chart. Branch is behind Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson. He should make the team but coaches want to see more out of him.
–WR Anquan Boldin has a strained hamstring and will miss the last two preseason games. Boldin would probably be playing if it was the regular season. He hates the preseason so it’s not killing him to be sitting out.
–WR Sean Morey, known mostly as a special teams player, has had an excellent preseason when it comes to catching the ball. He likely has solidified his spot as the club’s fifth or sixth receiver.
PLAYER TO WATCH: RB LaRod Stephens-Howling — The seventh-round pick was impressive all preseason, both as a third-down back and kick returner. He has excellent quickness in the open field, and with his size (5-7, 185 pounds) looks like Darren Sproles of the Chargers. Stephens-Howling lacks top-end speed but he should help replace J.J. Arrington, who filled those roles last year.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/31, RB Beanie Wells, Ohio State — An ankle injury didn’t answer questions about durability and toughness. But Wells is healthy now and looked quick and explosive in his preseason debut.
Rd. 3/95, S Rashad Johnson, Alabama — Looked lost at times in coverage during the preseason, but he’s smart and should improve. Could play in dime packages and on special teams.
Rd. 4/131, CB Greg Toler, St. Paul’s College — Great speed and quickness. Has the physical tools but is struggling to adjust to playing at this level. He’s a season or two away from contributing.
Rd. 5/167, OT Herman Johnson, Louisiana State — A guard in college, he’s been moved to right tackle and has been very impressive. A powerful run blocker, he could become a starter by next season.
Rd. 6/204, OLB Will Davis, Illinois — Making the transition from a college defensive end will take time, but Davis has pass rush skills and should contribute on special teams.
Rd. 7/240, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling — Very quick and elusive in the open field. Could play on third downs and should be the team’s No. 1 kickoff returner.
Warner resurrected his career for a second time last season, setting franchise records for nearly every passing category. No one handles the blitz better, although he does tend to hold the ball too long at times. Leinart has shown great progress this off-season and has improved his mechanics. St. Pierre is a steady veteran, but he’s been hampered by a sore back.
Hightower, only in his second year, is mature and dedicated. Becoming an elite back is important to him. He will be challenged throughout the year by Wells, who has great physical skills but must prove his toughness and durability. Wright is a solid third-down back and special teamer, but Stephens-Howling is more dangerous in the open field. If Stephens-Howling has to pick up the blitz, however, there could be problems. The Cardinals use a fullback about 25 percent of the time so they likely won’t keep two of them.
Patrick could be the starter but he’s suspended for the first four games. Spach is the best remaining all-around tight end and has made a remarkable comeback from knee surgery in February. Becht is the best blocker of the group, while Byrd is an excellent receiver. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Leonard Pope, a starter for part of the past three years, cut.
Boldin and Fitzgerald might be the best starting tandem in the NFL. Boldin is nagged by a hamstring injury but should be able to go for the opener. Fitzgerald is one of the top two receivers in the game. Breaston is considered a starter, too, because the three-receiver set is the base offense. Urban had a great camp, as did Morey. Doucet, a third-round pick, is dealing with injuries but has a great upside. Long could be cut. If that happens, he’ll likely be claimed by the Chiefs and former Cards offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
There is not a Pro Bowl player in the starting lineup but most of the group has been together now for three years. The starters don’t get fooled much by blitzes, and they improved as run blockers. Lutui and Brown are good run blockers and Sendlein should improve after playing through a shoulder injury last year. Ross is an experienced backup, and Johnson and Keith are promising young players. Claxton can play some guard, which gives him the edge over Melvin Fowler.
Dockett is a force who is a great one-gap player. Robinson is steady inside and has held off challenges from Watson and Branch. If Branch loses some weight, he could play end, too. Campbell is starting for the first time and shows great promise. There isn’t much depth at end.
Haggans and Okeafor are over 30 but their experience should pay off. Dansby is a special player but could be more consistent. Hayes, at 246, brings a physical presence to the inside. Berry is a pass rush specialist who will replace Haggans in those situations. The depth at all the spots is questionable. Hobson can play inside or out. No one else has much experience.
Rodgers-Cromartie has the talent to be one of the best in the league but needs to practice harder. McFadden is a solid veteran who signed from Pittsburgh. He’s been hampered by an ankle injury. Wilson is one of the best in the game and he’ll line up at linebacker in passing situations and blitz off the edge. Rolle should be a playmaker at free safety and moves to nickel cornerback in those situations. Ware and Francisco play in dime situations.
Rackers is coming off a fine season, although he wasn’t asked to make too many pressure kicks. Graham, a late-season addition last year, has shown more consistency in preseason and is great at putting the ball inside the 20. Leach is a solid snapper and can cover. Stephens-Howling already has shown to be a dynamic kick returner. Breaston is a reliable punt catcher, but averaged just 7.2 yards last year, with a long of 25.