With the retirement of Kurt Warner, the Arizona Cardinals are supposed to be so vulnerable, so directionless, so crippled that they're no longer the team to beat in the NFC West.
I wouldn't be so sure.
For one, tell me who's going to beat them. San Francisco? The 49ers haven't had a winning season since 2002. Seattle? The Seahawks are 9-23 the past two years and in dire need of an oil change. St. Louis? Please. The Rams won three games the past two years.
Nope, I wouldn't be so quick to rule out a third straight division title for Arizona, basically because I wouldn't be so quick to put down Warner's successor, Matt Leinart. Granted, he hasn't won a game in two years, but he won the confidence of coach Ken Whisenhunt, who named him the starter after Warner departed.
"It's his chance to step up," said Whisenhunt.
My guess is that Leinart will be better than you think. I believe the Cardinals will be better than you think, too, and that doesn't have as much to do with Leinart as it does Whisenhunt. He hasn't had a losing season in three years at Arizona, with each regular-season record better than the last. Tell me the last time you can say that about anyone associated with the Cards.
Whisenhunt is one of the best coaches out there, winning four playoff games the past two years and going to the Super Bowl ... with the Arizona freakin' Cardinals, for crying out loud. Remember that the next time you make San Francisco your preseason favorite in the NFC West.
QB: The Leinart Era begins, and already skeptics wonder how soon before the Cards turn to Derek Anderson. Me? I think they're in decent shape, primarily because Leinart spent the past two years sitting and watching Warner operate on and off the field. Whisenhunt has been supportive of Leinart and for good reason: He was ready to name him his starter two summers ago before Warner moved to the head of the class in training camp. Leinart needed time to mature and learn, and he got it when Warner took control of the team. Now it's his moment, and, just a hunch, but he doesn't screw it up. So he's not Kurt Warner. If he was a good listener while Warner taught class he can be the quarterback the Cards envisioned when they made him a first-round pick.
RB: When Whisenhunt took over three years ago he promised to produce a rushing attack that was better than what the Cardinals had, which wasn't much. But in his tenure the Cardinals have not ranked higher than 28th -- their finish in 2009. Part of that had to do with Warner and his ability to throw effectively, but part of it was what the Cards had in their backfield, which wasn't much. Now they believe they have the backs to change all that, and they better hope so. You want somebody to help take the load off Leinart's shoulders. When you start with Beanie Wells, who averaged 4.5 yards a carry, and add Tim Hightower, an effective short-yardage and goal-line back, Arizona might have found those players. They form a decent 1-2 combination and, with Whisenhunt pledging support for the run again, should produce an attack that defenses must respect. Trust me, that is nothing but good for the new quarterback.
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WR: With Anquan Boldin gone, people wonder how Larry Fitzgerald is affected. My guess: Not much. Fitzgerald thrived without Boldin in the 2008 playoffs, and there's no reason he can't do so again -- provided, of course, Leinart becomes the quarterback the Cardinals believe he can be. The Cards are deep here, one reason they didn't hesitate to peddle the unhappy Boldin when the opportunity arose. First, there's Steve Breaston, who produced a 1,000-yard season two years ago. Then there's Early Doucet, who had more catches (14) and as many touchdowns (2) as Fitzgerald in last season's playoffs. Then there's this: The only regular-season game Boldin missed last season, the Cardinals won big. Plus, they were 6-2 without him in 2008. They can survive the loss of Boldin, but that doesn't mean they can't use some depth. They can, with the loss of Jerheme Urban shortening their bench. But that's why they have a draft, folks.
TE: Nothing new here. The Cards re-signed Anthony Becht and Ben Patrick, which means last year's tight ends are this year's tight ends. That's not exactly cause for a parade because last year's tight ends didn't make much of an impact, with Becht, Patrick and Stephen Spach combining for 23 catches and three TDs. If Patrick stays healthy he could be effective, but tight ends don't really factor in the Cards passing game.
OL: This isn't the glaring area of need it has been in the past. Cardinals quarterbacks were sacked only 26 times in 2009 and the backs were up to 4.1 yards per carry. Whisenhunt and his staff believe they were deeper on their offensive line last season than ever, and now they think they've strengthened their hand with the addition of guard Rex Hadnot. A free agent signed away from Cleveland, Hadnot should push starting guards Reggie Wells and Deuce Lutui, with Jeremy Bridges another possibility at the position. But Bridges is expected to battle Brandon Keith for the starting right-tackle position, with former starter Levi Brown moving to the left side. Brown will replace Mike Gandy, who was not re-signed, even though there is nothing official on that front. Backup Herman Johnson could be a factor at guard or tackle, too, but he's probably a year away. Bottom line: Look for changes galore, except at center where Lyle Sendlein is the unchallenged starter. If the Cardinals are going to protect Leinart with a decent running game they can start by improving up front.
DL: Starting nose tackle Bryan Robinson is 35 and unsigned. That leaves Gabe Watson or Alan Branch as the next option, and Cardinals coaches are ready to give one of them a chance. Still, that makes nose tackle a question mark, which means the Cards could be in the market for one high in this month's draft. They're in better shape on the outside, where Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell each had seven sacks last year to lead the team. Combined with linebacker Joey Porter, they should comprise an effective pass-rushing unit -- provided, of course, Porter's play doesn't tail off. If there's a concern, it's with the depth after Bertrand Berry's retirement. There isn't much. Watson, Branch and defensive end Kenny Iwebema are the best of the backups, and they could use help.
LB: The Cards absorbed huge offseason hits when they lost Karlos Dansby and Chike Okeafor. Dansby left for Miami and more money. Considering that he was the team's leading tackler, that could be a problem except ... the club then went out and signed Porter, who produced 26½ sacks the past two seasons, and inside linebacker Paris Lenon. Porter, who turned 33 last month, is reunited with former Pittsburgh teammate Clark Haggans, as well as members of the Steelers' staff who moved west when Whisenhunt took the job. So there's a level of comfort that should suit him. There's also a 3-4 defense. And then there's Haggans, who led the club in pressures. Porter makes sense for a couple of reasons: 1) He continues to be an effective edge rusher; 2) He can mentor young players like outside linebackers Cody Brown and Will Davis. Lenon, who had back-to-back 100-tackle seasons in Detroit before playing for St. Louis, should compete for Dansby's inside job, and the Cards think so much of him they chose him over free agent Larry Foote. But the question still remains: How much will they miss Dansby? I'm not sure the Cards even know because they re-signed Monty Beisel as insurance. One guy I would watch: Ali Highsmith. The Cards have high hopes for him.
DB: There's a lack of depth here that was most noticeable in the playoffs when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Antrel Rolle bowed out of the blowout loss to New Orleans. There's also a hole created by the departure of Rolle, who signed with the New York Giants. Maybe newcomer Kerry Rhodes alleviates some of those problems. Rhodes thinks he will, and so do the Cards. Rolle priced himself out of Arizona, while Rhodes talked his way out of New York. So the switch was made, with Rhodes reunited with former Jets assistant Donnie Henderson, now the Cards' secondary coach. Arizona doesn't play in a division with elite passers, so their shortcomings are masked until they reach the playoffs -- when Green Bay and New Orleans put up 90 points and seven passing touchdowns. There is nothing wrong with strong safety Adrian Wilson, one of the best in the league, but Rodgers-Cromartie's recovery from a torn MCL and a chipped bone near his knee is worth following. He's expected back by training camp. Stay tuned. At the other corner, Bryant McFadden is coming off a poor season, and look for Greg Toler to push him at the position. Backup safety Rashad Johnson is supposed to be better than he showed, but re-signing Matt Ware gives the Cardinals a welcome safety net.