Wednesday, July 18, 2007

2007 NFL Preview: Arizona Cardinals

By Dave Golokhov

2006 In The Rearview Mirror

As Denny Green would say: "If you want to crown them, then crown them."

Many people might crown the Arizona Cardinals as one of the worst NFL franchises over the last two decades and none of that changed in 2006.

Even with that "gift from heaven" — or however Green described Matt Leinart slipping to the Cardinals during the 2006 NFL Draft — and the signing of prized free agent running back, Edgerrin James, the Cardinals were exactly who we though they were.

The Cardinals extended their streak of losing seasons to eight years and now only have one winning season in the last 22 years.

After being touted as a sleeper outfit in the regular season, the Cardinals once again proved to have the confidence of Nicole Richie at a hot dog eating competition.

The Cardinals won their home opener in their beautiful brand new stadium and didn't win another game for 10 weeks.

Green's club was once again psychologically frail to the point where they consistently made mental and physical failures. The perfect example being their Week 6 loss to the Chicago Bears, where the Bears had trailed 23-3 as the third quarter neared a close.

The theme of the season started with optimistic thoughts of budding potential, but quickly turned into a Denny Green pink slip countdown.

As per usual, the Cardinals have to regroup in the offseason and take forward the positives.

The biggest plus figures to be the seamless transition of quarterbacks for Arizona. Kurt Warner flopped on his face badly last year, but served as an excellent tutor for Matt Leinart. Leinart set a franchise record for passing yards by a rookie and although he still needs to grow, it appears that the Cardinals have finally found their franchise quarterback.

Leinart had no support from his running game or offensive line, but still managed to look respectable during his rookie season.

Going forward, the Cardinals' offense can hang their hat on a talented trio of wide receivers and Leinart.

The signing of Edgerrin James didn't work out as planned for neither James — who clearly left Indianapolis a season early — nor the Cardinals. The Cards' rushing attack finished with the worst yards-per-carry average for a second consecutive season.

On defense, the Cardinals don't really have much to hang their hat on. They finished with the fourth-worst unit in the league (both yards and scoring).

The problem is threefold.

The first issue being the lack of development of prospects. Linebacker Karlos Dansby was hampered by toe, thumb, and groin injuries while former first-round pick, Antrel Rolle, has yet to prove he is a legitimate starter. The same can be said for Calvin Pace, one the team's 2003 first-rounders.

The second issue was getting off the field. The Cardinals were adequate in the turnover category, but they allowed many prolonged drives. Opponents average 20.7 first downs per game against Arizona (only Cincinnati permitted more).

Lastly, the lack of a consistent running game factored greatly in the freshness of the defense. The offense wasn't able to control the ball and therefore, pace of the game, which translated into forcing the defense onto the field for prolonged periods of time.

Using Letters To Breakdown Numbers: Rushing Offense

After entailing the league's worst rushing offense in 2005, the Arizona Cardinals tried to employ a Houston Texans-like approach to fix their ground woes: they signed a top-flight running back, but completely ignored their permeable offensive line.

Switching from scrubs like Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington to James was an impressive move on paper, but without an upgrade to their offensive line, the rushing results looking dauntingly similar.

The Cardinals had the lowest yards-per-carry average in 2005 and that repeated in 2006.

The 3.2 yards-per-carry average that the Cardinals posted during the last two seasons was a reflection of just how bad the offensive line was. James has lost a step, but not even LaDainian Tomlinson can find room behind these five turnstiles.

James has never been known as a home run threat, but in his previous seven seasons, he averaged just under six runs of 20 yards or longer. For Arizona last season, his longest rush of the season was 18 yards.

He has averaged roughly 75 rushing first downs per year, but last season had only 59.

James — quite literally — grinded out 1,159 yards on 337 carries and for the second time in his eight-year career, finished with a per-carry average of less than 4.1.

To make matters worse, not only did James not receive any help from his lineman, there were no other running backs to spell him in the backfield. Matt Leinart was second on the team in rushing yards (49) and attempts (22).

Gotta Have A Montage

Just like the movie "Team America," when Gary turns from being a soft actor to a stout asset for Team America, the Cardinals need to have a montage.

Ken Whisenhunt is the chosen man to direct Arizona's montage and his plan is to add some much needed toughness to the softest team in the league.

Whisenhunt has demanded more intensity in practice and is instilling ferociousness, which ideally would make the Cardinals look similar to his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

So far, practices have been more concentrated, but shorter in general, which should help with wear and tear later in the season. The goal: fewer mental mistakes, more physicality, and more hard-hitting, although the latter two are redundant.

The Cardinals have all the skill pieces in place on the outskirts of their offense — wide receiver, running back, and quarterback — but to make all of that work, they need to find continuity and consistency along the offensive line.

The Cardinals have a few interesting pieces and will be coached up to overachieve. Tackle Oliver Ross, who has been a free agent bust in Arizona, has worked under offensive line coach Russ Grimm in Pittsburgh before, which should help resurrect his career. The Cardinals also invested heavily into rookie tackle Levi Brown with the fifth pick in the 2007 draft, which should pair a decent rotation with Ross, Brown, and Mike Gandy. In the center of the line, the Cardinals will have free agent center Al Johnson, an undersized center whom two of Whisenhunt's assistants vouched for, and Reggie Wells and Deuce Lutui, both of whom performed adequately last season.

The offense's success is contingent on the Cardinals finding the five right guys.

On defense, the Cardinals are switching to a 3-4. The good news is that they might have a nose tackle on their roster.

For a second consecutive season, the Cardinals have drafted a defensive tackle from Michigan who is deemed to have a lot of potential, but is tabbed as someone who frequently takes plays off.

Here's a little secret about the Michigan Wolverines: they don't rotate their defensive line very well/frequently, which means that big 300-pound tackles who are left out for too many plays will get fatigued and take plays off.

Regardless of whether Gabe Watson and Alan Branch are in fact lazy or simply looked lazy because of Michigan's system, the Cards should have one nose tackle between the two of them. Outside of that, this figures to be a transitional year for the rest of the defense.

Defensive ends Chike Okeafor and Bert Berry, who were a fairly effective 1-2 punch at the ends, are now moving to the outside linebacker spots. Gerald Hayes and Karlos Dansby will fit in the middle, but both will have to take on more blockers than they are accustomed to.

Darnell Dockett, who was kind of an end/tackle in-betweener in the 4-3 scheme, could be fine at end in the 3-4, while Chris Cooper/Antonio Smith will man the other side.

Not many of the members of the front seven have experience in the 3-4 and there are a ton of experiments going on here, which definitely doesn't bode well.

The secondary figures to be better if Eric Green and Antrel Rolle continue to develop. The Cards also picked up former Eagles' nickel back, Rod Hood, who will battle Green for starting duties.

At the back end, the Cardinals have had a gaping hole at free safety for a while and they feel that Terrence Holt is the plug. That's debatable, but at least he'll get to look good playing beside Adrian Wilson, who finally received Pro Bowl recognition last year and is among the best strong safeties in the NFL. Holt and Wilson were teammates in college.

Identity Crisis?

Maybe I'm looking too far ahead, but is the Cardinals' offense in line for some strategic friction? Whisenhunt plans to emphasize a tough, rugged running game, which doesn't exactly fit James' style. He also plans to include much more work for the fullback than Dennis Green ever used.

Furthermore, if the plan is to recreate the Steelers' offense, the Cardinals prolific wide receivers might be put in the back seat to the running game, just as the passing game was Plan B in Pittsburgh. The Cardinals do need to patch up the offensive line and Whisenhunt and Grimm are the right coaches to do that, but they also have to focus on keeping Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Bryant Johnson the main outlets for the offense.

Biggest Weakness: Depth — They simply don't have enough of it in case of injury or underperformance.

Offensive X-Factor: Offensive line — With a cohesive unit, the offense can stop being a sleeper and wake up.

Defensive X-Factor: DT Alan Branch — If they have their anchor at nose tackle for their 3-4, the defense's transition will be much smoother.

Fantasy Market: Buy Low

The hidden fantasy value on this offense has to be James, whose value is low off a subpar season. Last year, the expectations were huge, but neither the coaching staff nor the right personnel was present on the offensive line. However, James still finished with the seventh-most rushing yards in the NFC last season. With better parts around him, those numbers figure to go up. Here's two important points to remember: while most teams have evolved to a two-back system, James is the only serviceable option for the Cardinals and head coach Ken Whisenhunt desperately wants to restore the running game.

"Vegas" Dave Golokhov hosts "THE Fantasy Show" on Hardcore Sports Radio, channel 186 on Sirius Satellite Radio, beginning September. Send media requests, thoughts, love letters, or hate mail to [email protected].

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