Cards' puzzle now missing huge piece - East Valley Tribune: News

Cards' puzzle now missing huge piece

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Posted: Friday, January 29, 2010 6:15 pm | Updated: 3:38 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Mark Heller: To the surprise of nobody, the most important piece of the Cardinals roster walked away on Friday, concluding a 12-year career even the most wacky wordsmiths would have an arduous time trying to sufficiently explain in writing, or sell as a “based on a true story” movie script.

Warner brings end to stirring 12-year career

Slideshow: Warner announces retirement

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To the surprise of nobody, the most important piece of the Cardinals roster walked away on Friday, concluding a 12-year career even the most wacky wordsmiths would have an arduous time trying to sufficiently explain in writing, or sell as a “based on a true story” movie script.

A floundering, insert-joke-here franchise has been flipped, thanks to the union of Warner, a spaceship-looking stadium in Glendale and coach Ken Whisenhunt.

Only the stadium and Whisenhunt remain, as Warner, Whisenhunt, team president Michael Bidwill and general manager Rod Graves spent an hour reflecting on the 38-year-old quarterback’s career, memories, the gamble each side took on the other, and the undeniably positive results on the field and in the locker room.

“This is one of the greatest players to ever play for this organization,” Bidwill said.

Warner brings end to stirring 12-year career

Slideshow: Warner announces retirement

Column: Warner likely retiring, and we'll miss him

Warner also happened to play the most important position on the field. Party-man-turned-understudy Matt Leinart is the heir apparent, but even though Warner’s retirement answers the team’s most pressing question for 2010 (like it or not), many more need to be solved.

Understandably, Whisenhunt and Rod Graves both deflected questions about the future makeup of the Cardinals, saying Friday was Warner’s day and there was plenty of time for the future roster to take shape in the coming months.

“I’ll say this: I’m excited about our football team,” Whisenhunt said. “Matt has had an opportunity to play behind a guy that’s played at as high a level as anybody in the league. He’s grown and learned. I’m excited about what Matt’s going to do for us in the future.”

Problem is, with a collective bargaining agreement impasse on the horizon and the possibility of no salary cap in 2010 or even a season in 2011, the rest of the Cardinals’ issues going forward through free agency, trades or the draft could be slow.

We know it’s a make-or-break season for Leinart, who’s due to make $2.5 million in 2010 but upwards of $13 million in 2011 ($7.36 million plus a $5 million roster bonus). He has started 17 games in his career, but only one in the last two seasons.

If Leinart ascends into the starting spot, the Cardinals might bring in a veteran backup quarterback in case Leinart falters or is injured.

It’s difficult to pinpoint who’d be on that list because of the salary cap and who the team sees as a good fit for its system, but a few veteran free agents include David Carr (New York Giants), Kyle Boller (St. Louis), ailing Chad Pennington (Miami), Kellen Clemens (New York Jets) and Jon Kitna (Dallas).

Third-string QB Brian St. Pierre is expected to recover from a back injury and could get a look behind Leinart, but don't be surprised if the team uses a later-round pick in this year’s draft on a quarterback. It’s a QB crop considered to be top-heavy with the likes of Colt McCoy (Texas), Sam Bradford (Oklahoma) and Jimmy Clausen (Notre Dame) likely off the board early.

There’s also the Anquan Boldin contract situation, for which he’ll either play out the final year and become a free agent, or be traded by the team this offseason (if that happens it’d likely be for draft picks between the second and fifth rounds).

Offense isn’t even the half of it. Remember the defense that was shredded for 90 points in two playoff games? Strengthening defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ side of the ball — especially the pass rush — should be the team’s No. 1 offseason priority, if only it were that easy.

Darnell Dockett wants a new contract. Bertrand Berry retired. Chike Okeafor isn’t likely to return. Bryan Robinson played well at defensive tackle, but is 34 years old, a free agent and hasn’t decided if he’ll retire.

After two franchise tags, linebacker Karlos Dansby wants a big free-agent deal the Cardinals aren’t inclined to offer without a few monetary concessions on Dansby’s part, but there is no ready-to-roll replacement on the roster.

Safety Antrel Rolle was just named to the Pro Bowl as a replacement and, thanks to an escalation clause as part of his original rookie deal, he’s about to make a total of $12 million in the final year of his contract.

Are the Cardinals willing to pay premium money long-term for two safeties (Adrian Wilson got his new deal last offseason)?

Secondary depth became a significant issue when Matt Ware was lost for the season. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was named to the Pro Bowl but has months of recovery time coming after his knee injury in the playoffs, and Bryant McFadden didn’t create the impact the Cardinals were counting on opposite DRC. When 5-foot-7 Michael Adams had to be inserted into the regular rotation, opposing teams immediately threw at him.

Warner deserves all the accolades he has and will receive, including what should be the door to the Hall of Fame. But with the franchise’s biggest wonderment for 2010 having been decided (in sad fashion for most Cardinals fans), this offseason’s puzzle still has 1,000 pieces waiting to be fitted.

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