Are The Cardinals Finally Playoff Bound?
Antonio Smith (Harry How/Getty)
Antonio Smith (Harry How/Getty)

Posted Aug 28, 2008


The Cardinals ended training camp with a full-fledged quarterback controversy and one very irritated Pro Bowl receiver. Despite that, the overall mood was optimistic because players and coaches are confident they have the talent to win and contend for a playoff spot. Most people know about the offensive talent.

Running back Edgerrin James, receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner are household names.

But the biggest upgrade has been made on defense, where the additions of players such as linebackers Clark Haggans and Travis LaBoy should make a big difference.

"Oh, man. I didn't even know how many weapons we have," said defensive end Antonio Smith. "We have so many weapons. We're going to be stacked. I don't think it's going to be a starter or a non-starter. I think it's going to be more like what New York had last year, when anybody could come in and make the defense work."

The Cardinals had one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL in the latter half of 2007. Every starter returns, but there are still challenges.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt didn't settle on a quarterback through camp, and now it appears Matt Leinart has lost the job to Kurt Warner. Leinart likely will have to play some this year, so Whisenhunt will need to restore Leinart's confidence.

Boldin is upset the team hasn't extended his contract, and he's ripped management and Whisenhunt.

The impact of those issues remains to be seen. It probably won't be great since professional athletes are more accustomed to contract squabbles than anyone.

The biggest challenge for Whisenhunt and his staff will be instilling some discipline and intelligence. The Cardinals were penalized more than any other team last year, and they don't look much better in the preseason.

Mistakes ruined their season last year, playing big roles in two losses to the 49ers, as well as to the Redskins, Panthers and a handful of other NFC teams.

"They always say the first year is the learning year and the next year is the polishing year," said left tackle Mike Gandy. "And I think that's definitely the case. Anytime you get new players and new schemes you just have to learn how to get better as a team and grow as a team."

COACHING: Ken Whisenhunt, 2nd year (8-8).

REMEMBERING: 2007 record: 8-8 (2nd in NFC West). The team was 2-6 on the road and lost twice to the 49ers.

PREDICTING: 2008 regular season record 9-7 (2nd in NFC West); lose in the wild-card round.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Ken Whisenhunt made good on his threat to start benching players who commit selfish penalties. After DE Darnell Dockett was called for unsportsmanlike conduct against the Raiders, he was out for the next two series. "Penalties kind of calmed down after that, didn't they?" Whisenhunt said.

--Whisenhunt denied a report that he had named QB Kurt Warner the starter. "Contrary to everything I've heard. We have not made a decision. We have not named Kurt the starting quarterback. So that was inaccurate and it was unfortunate it was out there."

--WR Anquan Boldin tried to back away a bit from his recent criticism of Whisenhunt for getting involved in negotiations. Boldin told a national radio show that his comments were taken out of context. But he's the one who first brought them, criticizing Whisenhunt to a reporter from NFL.com.

--"I said to the team, 'Please, nobody get hurt and trip in the stampede to leave this field,'" Whisenhunt said as the team left training camp in Flagstaff.

BY THE NUMBERS: 11 - The number of years that have passed since the team returned its entire starting offensive line from the previous season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Oh, man. I didn't even know how many weapons we have. We have so many weapons. We're going to be stacked. I don't think it's going to be a starter or a non-starter. I think it's going to be more like what New York had last year, when anybody could come in and make the defense work." -- DE Antonio Smith on the talent on defense.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Coach Ken Whisenhunt might not name a starting quarterback until next week. If Whisenhunt knows what he's going to do, he's not admitting it. Most observers expect him to go with Kurt Warner.

PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Tim Hightower - A fifth-round pick from Richmond, he supposedly lacked breakaway speed. But he's shown a great burst this preseason and he's scored touchdowns in every game. Hightower is a downhill, one-cut runner who also shows great patience in reading blocks. He won't take over for Edgerrin James this year, but that could change a year from now.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK: Rd. 1/16, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Tennessee State -- He's shown great speed in the preseason and a willingness to tackle. Still needs work on technique and will be a backup this season.

Rd. 2/50, DE Calais Campbell, Miami -- A good athlete and at 6-8, he can be disruptive. He'll be a backup and will play in nickel situations at tackle.

Rd. 3/81, WR Early Doucet, LSU -- Progress was delayed by a hamstring injury. He won't be a factor early but could contribute after a few weeks.

Rd. 4/116, DE Kenny Iwebema, Iowa -- A strong run defender who has shown flashes. He should be able to play a few snaps off the bench.

Rd. 5/149, RB Tim Hightower, Richmond - Looks like one of the team's best late-round picks in years. Explosive and quick to make cuts. He's smart and mature, too.

Rd. 6/185, OLB Chris Harrington, Texas A&M -- He played defensive end in college, so the transition isn't easy. He looks like he could be a good player.

Rd. 7/225, OT Brandon Keith, Northern Iowa -- He has the athletic ability to play left tackle one day. The Cardinals think he was a great value.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter - Kurt Warner. Backups - Matt Leinart, Brian St. Pierre, Anthony Morelli.

Whisenhunt hasn't named a starter, but Leinart's inconsistencies will make it hard not to pick Warner. Warner lacks mobility and fumbles too much, but he's also fearless and this team trusts him. Leinart has looked tentative in recent weeks and doesn't appear confident. St. Pierre is a solid veteran and Morelli has a great arm.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Edgerrin James, FB Tim Castille. Backups - RB Tim Hightower, RB J.J. Arrington, FB Terrelle Smith.

James still has the talent to rush for 1,200 to 1,400 yards and handle 300 plus carries. But Hightower might ease that work load. He's too explosive to sit on the bench. Castille is a good athlete who can catch, but Smith is a better blocker. It will be hard to keep Smith on the bench.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Leonard Pope. Backups - Ben Patrick, Jerame Tuman.

Pope is an excellent receiver who sometimes struggles to block. Patrick also is a good receiver and is learning how to block. Tuman is a solid veteran who is a capable blocker.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald. Backups - Steve Breaston, Jerheme Urban, Early Doucet, Sean Morey.

Boldin is one of the toughest, most competitive guys in the league and is dangerous after he catches the ball. Fitzgerald has freakish ability. He is so strong and athletic that smaller corners don't have much of a chance. Breaston has improved from a year ago but he's unproven. Urban has size and speed, but he hasn't proven he can make the tough catch. Doucet, a rookie, should make a push to play. Morey is a special teams player.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Mike Gandy, LG Reggie Wells, C Al Johnson, RG Deuce Lutui, RT Levi Brown. Backups - G/T Elton Brown, C Lyle Sendlein, G/T Brandon Keith, T Keith Butler, C Pat Ross.

Gandy, Wells and Johnson are solid, although Johnson will miss the opener. Lutui and Brown must play better than last year. Brown is a solid reserve, as is Sendlein. The others are unproven. Coaches are high on Keith, but the club is in trouble if injuries hit.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Darnell Dockett, NT Bryan Robinson, RE Antonio Smith. Backups - DE Calais Campbell, DE Kenny Iwebema, NT Gabe Watson, NT Alan Branch, DE Joe Tafoya.

Dockett has Pro Bowl ability but must play smarter. He gets too many penalties. Robinson will be a backup once Watson returns from injury. Smith is solid, not spectacular. Robinson is valuable because he plays inside and outside. Campbell and Iwebema are promising rookies.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Chike Okeafor, OLB Travis LaBoy, ILB Gerald Hayes, ILB Karlos Dansby. Backups - OLB Bertrand Berry, OLB Clark Haggans, OLB Chris Harrington. ILB Ali Highsmith, ILB Monty Beisel, ILB Matt Stewart, ILB Brandon Moore.

This is the deepest position on the team. The starters are solid, and Dansby has Pro Bowl ability. Hayes is a real thumper. Haggans and Berry are two great backups. Beisel is reliable and Highsmith is a talented rookie.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Rod Hood, CB Eric Green, SS Adrian Wilson, FS Antrel Rolle. Backups - CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB Ralph Brown, S Aaron Francisco, S Matt Ware, CB Michael Adams.

Hood is an underrated cover guy, and Green is showing improvement. The strength of the unit is at safety. Wilson is among the best in the NFL, and Rolle should be better at free safety than he was at cornerback. Francisco and Ware have played a lot of snaps in recent years. Rodgers-Cromartie, the first-round pick, has tremendous speed. Brown is a smart veteran.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Neil Rackers, P Dirk Johnson, LS Nathan Hodel, PR Steve Breaston, KOR Steve Breaston, J.J. Arrington.

Rackers is coming off a disappointing year when he missed two potential game winners. Johnson has been average in the preseason. Breaston is a breakaway threat, as is Arrington.



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