GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A year ago, spending time around the Arizona Cardinals, you got the sense they thought they could be pretty good, might surprise some people, maybe could be more of a factor in the NFC West than most were allowing. Now, in their second preseason under coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim, and their second with Carson Palmer at quarterback, that hope feels more now like belief.
Now, you get the sense that they know they're good. It's not just that usual optimistic mumbo-jumbo you hear everywhere this time of year -- even from the bevy of teams that are destined to stink -- but there is a real confidence that the Cards can play with anybody. When Arians continues to reiterate his stance about believing his team can play in this same stadium they practiced in Monday -- University of Phoenix Stadium -- come the Super Bowl in February (this is the host city), it seems to strike his players not as folly or lip service, but as something distinctly feasible.
"There's no reason we can't," Arians said. "First and foremost we have to win our division."
Indeed, there is a lot to like about this group. I'm not quite as bullish on them as, say, my man Pete Prisco, who came through the desert a few weeks back stopping just short of planning the parade route, but I don't see any reason why the way they played the second half of last season was any kind of fluke, and if three teams emerged from this power division come January, well, I wouldn't be surprised. The Cardinals could certainly be one of those teams, and, after the last two seasons he's conjured up (leading the Colts to the playoffs while head coach Chuck Pagano battled cancer, then taking Arizona to 10-6 last year) far be it for me to question anything Arians says or does. And his demeanor is all over this team.
"I don't know how to characterize it other than this is a confident group," said receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has seen it all around here since 2004. "We're confident in who we are, our identity and what we can do out there, so we can go out and play fast and execute. And it's exiting having a group of guys like that, going out there expecting to have success and expecting to win and expecting to be physical and execute. It's fun to be around guys who are like that."
Palmer harkened back to Arians' comments before camp last season, when the coach admitted his team was an unknown commodity, and no one could be certain they could go to places like Seattle and San Francisco and compete with those big, bad Super Bowl hopefuls.
"Every team has some false confidence, even the bad ones," Palmer said, "and we just didn't truly believe until you get on the field and we lost to San Francisco in San Francisco (a game they lost in large part due to four turnovers), and you have that feeling like, what did we just do?
"Now that we've been to Seattle and won in Seattle and we've played well within the division, it just comes down to execution. It's not, 'We have to play perfect and they have to play just OK and we need the ball to bounce our way.' It's not about that. We just need to execute and we know if we do, we'll win."
I'm buying that.
Defensively, this group will attack under Todd Bowles and this roster fits his mentality and style of game calling perfectly. Losing Daryl Washington for the season to suspension was a massive blow, and we'll see how John Arbaham emerges from his DUI arrest (Arians said he believes the veteran pass rusher could return to the team this week), and they need Tyrann Mathieu to make a complete recovery from injury, but the pieces are there and they can make offenses in the league uncomfortable.
Offensively, the unit hit stride in the second half adjusting to Arians' intricate system with sight adjustments and lots of interplay necessary between the players. They finally found a running game with Andre Ellington and, finally, seemed to have the makings of a decent offensive line. As the players caught on to the timing and tempo of the offense, things took off, and they are decidedly ahead of where they were a year ago in that regard. They scored 27 points or more in six of their final nine games, and are much deeper at receiver and tight end now than they were then.
"We've made strides, but we have a ways to go," Palmer said. "Once this system is mastered we can really move the play and up the tempo of the game. For where we are timing-wise, going into the second preseason game, I think we're at a really good point with our understanding and confidence in the system. We just have to continue to grow in it."
Arians said: "The last eight games we were much better at it," Arians said of the timing of his passing game and ability to protect the passer, "and that started when we were getting the ball out faster, and we ran the ball better. The ball was coming out of Carson's hand faster, and everybody we playing at a faster speed. Early in the year it was wait and see and where is he going, and then it's an interception or a bad moment or a hit. Later in the year he knew the body language (of the receivers) and the ball is out and the guy turns around and catches it. And we've been able to pick that up in OTAs and continue to build on it now.
"It's so much easier now. Carson does more coaching now than the coaches, and that's what you want out of the quarterback. It's, 'Give me this body language or give me that body language, and I know what routes you run and I want to see this and then I know when you're going.'"
A year ago the Cardinals finished 2-4 in the NFC West, throwing nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions in those games, allowing 16 sacks and rushing for just 3.4 yards per carry. They become a little more productive in those games, and cut out some of the early-season mistakes, and a move up the standings is certainly possible.
After years of trying, the Cardinals feel they finally have the offensive line sorted out. Even with last year's top pick, guard Jonathan Cooper, not exactly lighting up camp, and the guard positions very much in competition, there is a comfort in the eight bodies the team expects to take into the regular-season roster.
They have decent depth at swing tackle with guys like Max Starks around, who knows Arians inside out, and vice versa, while Bobby Massie is making good strides at right tackle ("He's being the player we'd hoped he'd be," Arians said), and they believe big free-agent signing Jared Veldheer has stabilized left tackle. They are limiting the reps veteran Lyle Sendlein is getting, wanting to avoid any further injury risk, but this unit is a lot closer to becoming a strength than could be said about it in a long time.
"We've got enough talent there now, there is no doubt," Arians said. "This year we have the potential to cut a guy who would have made our team easily last year."
• The receiver competition has been a buzz at this camp as well. Losing Andre Roberts to free agency doesn't seem to have slowed them down any. Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd make a strong starting tandem, Ted Ginn offers special-teams sizzle and rookie John Brown has done nothing but impress in his first NFL camp. (Rookie Walt Powell and second-year receiver Jaron Brown are among those pushing to make it as well.)
John Brown ran the third fastest time at the combine, and he plays fast as well. It's not just speed for speed's sake. The rookie from Pittsburg State has earned high marks from everyone I spoke to. "I've been very impressed," said Fitzgerald, one of the greatest receivers of his era. "He's going to be a big part of what we do this year."
General manager Steve Keim is already starting to do cut-down math in his head to figure out a way to juggle a 53-man unit that includes possibly six receivers. The competition within this group is intense.
"One bad day could cost you your job," Arians said. Palmer added: "I don't know if we're going to keep six (receivers), but if we don't that sixth guy won't be around to pick; if there an injury and we try to re-sign him later, he won't be there."
• Rookie kicker Chandler Catanzaro had a strong outing in the preseason opener and if he keeps this up I wouldn't be surprised if the Cards become the latest in a string of teams to go with very young, cheap kickers with live legs. Veteran Jay Feely -- who Arians cautioned will get his opportunity in future preseason games -- is on a one-year minimum contract worth about $1M, while Catanzaro was an undrafted free agent.
Catanzaro, Clemson's all-time leading scorer, didn't handle kickoffs in college -- they had another specialist do it -- but he has displayed no lack of leg strength thus far ("I knew I could do it," he said of kicking off). I don't get the sense he and Feely are super chummy ("We really don't talk that much," the kid said), and coming off a season in which the Cards ranked 27th in touchbacks and were also below the league average in overall field-goal percentage, and in which Feely missed three of 19 kicks inside of 39 yards, change could be in the air. This division is so competitive and the margin for error so tight, that if Catanzaro shows the pressure isn't too big for him he might emerge.
• Back-up quarterback Drew Stanton is having a good showing thus far. Arians lets his quarterbacks chose their 10 favorite plays to take into a preseason game and then he works up multiple formations for each play, and puts them in a comfort zone. They're generally facing more vanilla fronts than they see in practice, so the expectation is on speed and production from the offense. So far so good.
• Don't expect to see much of Ellington in the preseason. "We know what we have in Andre," Arians said. I wouldn't be surprised if he saw extremely limited action, if any.
• Expect another huge year from Calais Campbell, a standout 3-4 defensive end who does so much dirty work it can obscure just how good he is. He's getting a little tired of hearing how underrated he is. "It's a term I really don't like," he said. "You want to be viewed as one of the best in the game ... But it's better than nothing, I guess."