Ask coach Dave McGinnis to put aside the obvious turnover problem and address what his Cardinals have done well and not so well halfway through the season, and he doesn’t hesitate in his answer.
He talks about the turnover problem.
“It’s the difference between the light switch on and light switch off,” McGinnis said. “When we turn the ball over, we are in the dark. When we turn it over for touchdowns, we’re in the double dark. When we protect it, we have a chance to play.
“When you turn it over and turn it over for touchdowns, it makes your whole operation look ugly.”
The Cardinals’ troubles through a 3-5 start aren’t necessarily that simple. Even in the games the Cardinals have won and avoided turnovers, they narrowly escaped losing against Green Bay, San Francisco and Cincinnati — victories compiled by a combined 13 points.
And in the losses, it has often been more than ugly.
Turnovers don’t explain the secondary breakdowns against Seattle, the lack of a pass rush against St. Louis, the offensive ineptitude against Dallas. Now the schedule tilts heavily toward the road, where the Cardinals have lost eight straight times. Four of the next five are away from Sun Devil Stadium, which could put a dent in the era of good feelings generated by a two-game winning streak. Fortunately, McGinnis and his staff seem to have found a blueprint, besides avoiding turnovers, to give the Cardinals a shot on Sundays.
Constant juggling of the defensive line seems to have produced a combination that puts some kind of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It’s never a good sign when the sacks leader on your team is a guy who came into training camp as the nickel cornerback — the 5-foot-11, 194-pound Renaldo Hill, with two sacks — but the youthful combination of recent draftees Calvin Pace, Dennis Johnson, Kenny King and Wendell Bryant has shown improvement.
On offense, the Cards have been thrilled with the emergence of rookie wide receiver Anquan Boldin. He remains on pace to set the rookie record for catches (96, topping Terry Glenn’s 90 in 1996). But that isn’t what this offense was supposed to be about.
The Cardinals spent a lot of money on offensive linemen to pave the way for an improved ground game. That didn’t happen through the first six games, when the Cards ranked 32nd and dead last in the NFL in rushing.
Then Marcel Shipp ran for 165 and 141 yards over the past two games, and the Cards are suddenly 11th in the league in rushing.
There is no single explanation for the change. The line has played better.
Shipp’s ability to get on the field because of the shoulder injury to Emmitt Smith helped. And since the Cards have kept the games closer, McGinnis and offensive coordinator Jerry Sullivan haven’t had to abandon the run to play catch-up.
Sullivan would have preferred a more dynamic passing game — the Cardinals have yet to hit on a long bomb all season — but quarterback Jeff Blake is willing to play more conservatively to win games.
“This is how we should have been doing it the whole time,” guard Cameron Spikes said. “We’re finally climbing out of the hole.”
It will get bumpy again for McGinnis and his team. Besides the road tests, the Cards finish the season possibly playing three straight games against teams vying for the best record in the NFC: Carolina, Seattle and Minnesota. At some point, a team will figure out a way to slow Shipp, putting the onus back on Blake and his still inexperienced receivers.
McGinnis will also have to find a way to defuse the potentially combustible running back situation, deciding who to start when Smith returns.
But the promise by the players that they would come back from their bye week viewing their record at 0-0 — even though the team was actually a dismal 1-5 — seems to have held up.
“We made a commitment that we were going to take a different attitude and commitment the second half of the season,” Shipp said. “So far we have taken two right steps toward that.”
Added safety Dexter Jackson, “I think everyone is coming together. Everyone believes.”
As long as they don’t turn the ball over.
EXTRA POINTS: The Cardinals activated offensive lineman Raleigh Roundtree on Tuesday. Roundtree had spent the entire season on the physically-unable-to-perform list because of spleen surgery. Reserve tackle Kendrick Rogers was placed on injured reserve and will have wrist surgery. . . .
McGinnis said kicker Bill Gramatica will try again this week to play with his bad back. . . . The Cards shaved $1 million off guard Leonard Davis’ salary each of the next three seasons in the restructuring of his contract, Davis’ agent, Leigh Steinberg, said. That will lower Davis’ salary-cap number to $5.8 million in 2004, $6.8 million in 2005 and $7 million in 2006. . . . Drew Pittman, the agent for cornerback David Barrett, said he has not closed the door on working out a contract extension for the free-agent-to-be but that talks had essentially stalled for now because of the wide gap in what Barrett wants and what the Cards want to pay.