The Cardinals start training camp in Flagstaff this week with the goal of making their first playoff run since 1998. Sound familiar?
The Cards have been a trendy pick in recent years to accomplish that goal, but this may be the season they have actually made enough improvements to justify those expectations.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt, now in his second year, said the Cards are “much further along at this point this year than we were last year.
“Everything is running much smoother. Guys are faster, quicker. They understand what we’re doing.”
The team has much greater depth on defense, addressed a glaring need at cornerback with first-round draft pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and returns star players at the skill positions on offense.
But the biggest question, as always, comes under center where Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner have shared duties the past two seasons due to injuries and inconsistencies.
Leinart goes into camp as the starter, but, “Kurt is going to be there pushing him,” Whisenhunt said. “It’s going to be a tough job for Matt to keep because Kurt played at a high level for us last year and he’s been doing a lot of work in the offseason.
“That’s what you want, though. And it’s not just quarterback. It’s every position on our team. That’s the way we’d like to have it.”
10 QUESTIONS FOR THE CARDS
Will dissatisfaction over their contracts turn into a sore spot for Anquan Boldin and Darnell Dockett?
Boldin’s situation is tricky, what with Larry Fitzgerald just having signed a deal paying $10 million a year. Dockett’s request is even more far-fetched; he has four years left on his contract.
Perhaps they will wear out their welcomes, or at least their status as team leaders.
They would have to enjoy tremendous, injury-free seasons to command the respect they’ve enjoyed in the past.
Come to think of it, this could turn out to be a pleasant dilemma, as both have every incentive to show they are worth more than their current deals.
Still, not everyone can have the contract of his dreams, especially on an 8-8 team.
Will last year’s rookie class, so far a pretty uninspiring group, develop into a force this season?
A kick returner (Steve Breaston, the fifth-round pick) shouldn’t be the eye-catcher of a draft class.
First-round pick Levi Brown, when healthy, looked like a guy who’ll be able to play in the league a long time. Whether he can blossom into a star at offensive tackle is anybody’s guess.
The Cardinals also need to continue to develop defensive tackle Alan Branch.
Do the Cardinals have enough depth on defense to withstand the sort of injury run that wore them down last season?
The name Travis LaBoy, the Cardinals’ biggest free-agent singing, doesn’t mean much to most Cardinals fans. Maybe he can start, while Chike Okeafor — who looked terrific in training camp last season before suffering a season-ending injury — can bolster what turned out to be a thin defensive front.
The Cardinals also signed an experienced linebacker in Clark Haggans, a veteran defensive lineman in Bryan Robinson and drafted two intriguing prospects in Calais Campbell and Kenny Iwebema at defensive end.
They should be in much better shape than last year if their starters start going down again.
Will cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie be able play regularly as a rookie at a position that has been a traditional worry spot?
When Eric Green went out with a season-ending injury, the Cardinals developed holes (this went double after Wilson’s injury).
Antrel Rolle’s move to safety and Wilson’s return should bolster that position greatly.
But it’s unclear how much depth the Cardinals have behind Rod Hood and Green.
If the rookie corner comes through, the Cardinals’ defense will be fortified.
Will Antonio Smith develop into a star at defensive end?
Smith quietly developed into a consistent starter while the overall defense struggled with injuries.
If he has a higher ceiling, the Cardinals’ defensive front — now anchored by Dockett — will be formidable.
Will Steve Breaston move into the No. 3 receiver spot and play as well as Bryant Johnson did last season?
Breaston was the hit of the offseason. If he can slide into the No. 3 spot, then the Cardinals won’t miss Johnson and opposing defenses will have to pick their poison while also trying to cover Fitzgerald and Boldin.
Will the third year be the charmed one for Matt Leinart or will the quarterback situation develop into a media and team circus, with various factions supporting Leinart and others Kurt Warner?
Leinart is under contract for four more years, so it’s understandable that coaches and management want to give him every chance to succeed.
Leinart fared well for a rookie two seasons ago. But he started slowly last season, then went down with a season-ending collarbone injury. By season’s end, Warner had the Cardinals’ offense looking like a juggernaut.
This year, Warner believes, “the best player is going to play.”
“That’s how I look at it. I believe everybody else is looking at it the same way. I’m going to try to prove to these guys I’m the best guy for the job.
Leinart said last season was difficult for two reasons:
He was still recovering from a shoulder injury suffered at the end of his rookie year in 2006. And, “I had some personal stuff going in my life that was difficult.”
His apparent reference: the custody settlement with his ex-girlfriend over the care for their child.
“I wasn’t used to being able to balance all of that. That’s something I’ve learned over the past year,” he said. “It’s become a lot easier.”
Leinart has had a solid offseason — except for those photos with the young ladies — and looked sharp in recent drills.
But so did Warner.
Bottom line: Leinart needs a solid start.
Will the Cardinals play well enough to protect their new fan base in Glendale?
The Glendale welcome wagon has shown only slight signs of going off track. An unexpected flop in 2008 could change all that. And that could end up providing the answer to Question No. 1. Again, Leinart needs a solid start.
Will Adrian Wilson rebound from a disappointing season that ended prematurely with a heel injury?
Even discounting the blow-to-the-head penalty called on him at Baltimore — a flag that may have cost the Cardinals a toss-up game — the former Pro Bowl safety had a quiet year until going down.
He is among the players who would like a new contract. He’ll have to earn it this season.
Will the Cardinals’ tight end spot develop into a real weapon for the first time in nearly 20 years?
Leonard Pope was starting to blossom as a consistent force — particularly near the goal line — when he went down with a season-ending injury.
The Cardinals haven’t had an elite tight end since Jay Novacek started catching passes nearly 20 years ago. (Inexplicably, the Cardinals let him go.)
If Pope can take off, how will a defense defend the Cardinals?