After a disappointing 2011 season, the Arizona Cardinals are ready to move forward. The team aggressively pursued super free-agent Peyton Manning and lost out, but there’s still quiet optimism in Phoenix heading into the upcoming season. With the 49ers already anointed kings of an unproven NFC West division, the Cardinals are ready to surprise many & make a push for a playoff spot. For them to get past the regular season however, some dominos need to fall in the right direction:
1. Kevin Kolb’s Development
When Alex Smith is the most proven quarterback in the division, it is time for concern. Hopes were high in Arizona heading into 2011 after the big money deal to bring in Kolb as a partner for stud WR Larry Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, a combination of a shaky offensive line, injuries, and inconsistent play by Kolb left fans frustrated with the passing attack’s lack of production & cohesiveness. With a lockout-free offseason and guys like Michael Floyd & Ryan Williams joining the offense Kolb needs to show consistency & run the offense like a top QB should. Management’s failed courtship of Peyton Manning showed him the team is always looking at ways to improve at any position, and being serviceable just isn’t good enough. Kevin Kolb needs to lead this offense near the level of the Kurt Warner days or fans may start calling to cut ties with the young man.
2. Running Back Knee Injuries
Once training camp started last year, the buzz was all about Virginia Tech rookie RB Ryan Williams emerging as the game breaker Ken Whisenhunt had been looking for. A pattelar tendon tear in a preseason game at Green Bay ended that buzz rather quickly, but the Cardinals are hoping Williams can make a Blake Griffin-like recovery after red-shirtting his first year in the pros. (He was cleared for limited activity last week, fingers crossed.) The story of Beanie Wells is a common & frustrating one: talented and productive, if he can stay on the field. Wells only missed 2 games last year but just had knee surgery this off-season and hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about the details of the severity making some nervous. It’s essential for these important yet brittle playmakers to stay on the field this season for the offense to be effective.
3. Patrick Peterson
Patrick Peterson was recently voted #55 out 100 greatest current NFL players by his peers, but mainly for his punt returning ability not his shutdown skills. Peterson had a tough assignment being thrust into the #1 corner spot from the beginning, but he was targeted and burnt much too often for a player of his ability. The addition of former Steeler William Gay should bring some accountability to the other side of the field, but for the defense to reach its peak Peterson may need to reach his ballhawking potential a little faster than originally planned. The cornerbacks need to hold up their end of the bargain for this defense to become a top tier unit, and everyone knows Peterson is the face of that position.
4. Better Offensive Line Play
To say the offensive line could’ve played better last year (or the past 4 or 5) is a massive understatement. Kevin Kolb and John Skelton were routinely harassed last year, and the matador efforts of the offensive line is the main reason the struggling QB’s haven’t been ran out of town yet. Their run blocking was adequate last year, but protecting the quarterback and keeping rushers out of the backfield needs to be the top priority. 4th round pick Bobby Massie could be a potential draft day steal due to his quick feet and athleticism, but relying on rookies is never safe. Most of the burden rests of former top draft pick Levi Brown. Brown hasn’t really been the dominant left tackle coaches had hoped for up to this point, but they’re optimistic that his strong end to the 2011 season will be something to build on. It is common knowledge that the game of football is won in the trenches, and the Cardinals will continue to struggle until they get better blocking up front.
5. Defense, Defense, Defense
Switching to a 3-4 last season didn’t go without its fair share of growing pains, but in the latter half of the season they were a force to be reckoned with. Re-signing Calais Campbell was huge, he’s a good leader and a great fit for the 3-4 defense. It is well known that Darnell Dockett isn’t happy with how things went last season, and he should be back with the same furious motor we’ve been accustomed to seeing. Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson aren’t getting any younger, but they know how to make plays and aren’t scared to mix it up. They’ll have to stay healthy & be leaders this season. There is legitimate reason to be excited about the linebacker group of Sam Acho, Daryl Washington, and O’Brien Schofield. They’re one of the best combinations of youth & talent in the league and the acquisition of Quentin Groves only adds depth to the position. The aforementioned position of cornerback looks like it will be the key to the damage this defense can do this season. This could be the side of the ball that surprises a lot of people outside of Arizona this year.
Looks like more than just a couple things need to go right for the Cards to be playoff bound this season, but any team in the NFL will tell you a little luck can go a long way. There appears to be the right mix of talent and hunger down in the desert right now and the summer heat added with last years bitterness is only making these guys thirstier for football. Even though Peyton spurned us for Denver (No, we’re still not over it yet.), I believe this could be a very progressive year for Cardinals football.
About the Author
Written by Thomas Mitchell
Born & raised in Arizona, part of the MJ generation. Lifelong sports fanatic