After using four different quarterbacks and going from to-worst a season ago, the Arizona Cardinals feel like they have their man to lead them back to the postseason.
It would be fair to say the Cardinals rolled the dice in sending a Pro Bowl cornerback and high draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for new field general Kevin Kolb, but he isn't the only new face the franchise is counting on in 2011.
Kolb will, however, be the one with the most pressure on him. And that doesn't seem to faze the 26-year-old one bit despite getting a new five-year contract that netted him more than $20 million in guaranteed money.
"There is always pressure to perform, and perform great," Kolb said. "I put that on myself. As a quarterback in the National Football League, you better put that on yourself and it's going to be there...but there was a lot of pressure in every situation I've been thrown in so far, so it's nothing new for me."
Following back-to-back NFC West titles in 2008 and 2009, the Cardinals slipped to a 5-11 mark and a last-place finish in the division a season ago, thanks in large part to a seven-game losing streak that began in late October. Constant flux under center was also to blame after Kurt Warner retired and preseason option Matt Leinart was sent packing. Derek Anderson, who was released following the Kolb trade, didn't have much success, nor did younger fallbacks Max Hall, John Skelton and Richard Bartel. Those three are now all looking up at Kolb on the depth chart.
The price to get Kolb -- talented corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round draft choice -- was steep, considering he owns just seven career starts, but general manager Rod Graves wasn't going to sit back and miss a chance at getting a quarterback whom head coach Ken Whisenhunt said was the best option for what the club is trying to accomplish.
"Historically, there have been trades made with players at that position who have not had a great deal of playing time leading up to that," Graves added. "If you believe in the player and you feel like he's a good fit for your organization, you go after it and that is what we did."
In addition to working in a handful of offseason additions -- including tight end Todd Heap, offensive lineman Daryn Colledge and rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson, Arizona's 2011 first-round draft pick -- Whisenhunt will also be getting his players used to a new pair of coaches.
Out as defensive coordinator is Bill Davis after the Cardinals allowed the second-most points in the league last year. He was replaced by Ray Horton, who comes to the desert after seven successful seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That includes the last four as the team's defensive backs coach and part of a unit that constantly ranks as one of the league's best.
Also, Mike Miller becomes Arizona's first official offensive coordinator since Todd Haley left the position following the 2008 season to take over the head coach's role with Kansas City. Whisenhunt had assumed the responsibilities of play-calling, while Miller, then the team's passing game coordinator, ran the air attack while assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm oversaw the ground game.
Despite all the changes, the plan remains simple for the Cardinals.
"I think for us, it starts with winning this division and seeing what happens after that," said Heap. "I'm sure that's not our only goal or highest goal, but I think that's where it starts."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Arizona Cardinals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 5-11 (4th, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to New Orleans in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Ken Whisenhunt (32-32 in four seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Miller (first season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ray Horton (first season)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Larry Fitzgerald, WR (90 receptions, 1137 yards, 6 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Adrian Wilson, S (88 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 31st overall (32nd rushing, 31st passing), tied 26th scoring (18.1 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 29th overall (30th rushing, 23rd passing), 30th scoring (27.1 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Kevin Kolb (from Eagles), TE Todd Heap (from Ravens), TE Jeff King (from Panthers), OG Daryn Colledge (from Packers), ILB Stewart Bradley (from Eagles), CB Patrick Peterson (1st Round, LSU), RB Ryan Williams (2nd Round, Virginia Tech), WR Chansi Stuckey (from Browns), OG Floyd Womack (from Browns), DE Vonnie Holliday (from Redskins), DE Nick Eason (from Steelers), CB Richard Marshall (from Panthers)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Derek Anderson (to Panthers), RB Tim Hightower (to Redskins), WR Steve Breaston (to Chiefs), TE Ben Patrick (to Giants), OG Alan Faneca (retired), NT Bryan Robinson (not tendered), CB Dominique Rodgers- Cromartie (to Eagles), FB Jason Wright (retired), DE Alan Branch (to Seahawks), DE Kenny Iwebema (not tendered), NT Gabe Watson (to Giants), ILB Gerald Hayes (released), CB Trumaine McBride (to Saints)
QB: Kolb (1197 passing yards, 7 TD, 7 INT in 2010) gets his second chance at taking over for a franchise after the Cardinals rescued him from a tough-luck situation in Philadelphia. He was set to receive the torch from Donovan McNabb for the Eagles last year, but suffered a concussion in Week 1 that opened the door for Mike Vick's well-documented comeback. That made Kolb expendable, and the Cardinals pounced on the 2007 second-round draft pick. He has put up good numbers when given a chance to start, owning three 300-yard passing games and 10 touchdown throws as a starter, and should help the offensive line thanks to his quick release. Arizona will hope that Kolb will bring some stability to the position and keep the likes of second-year backups Skelton (662 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) and Hall (370 passing yards, 1 TD, 6 INT) on the sidelines.
RB: The Cardinals will also go through a changing of the guard in the backfield, but their new option to take handoffs from Kolb is at least a familiar face. Beanie Wells (397 rushing yards, 2 TD) has been hampered by injuries since being taken 31st overall in the 2009 draft, including a knee ailment that hindered him through all of last season, but the Ohio State product is No. 1 on the depth chart after Arizona dealt Tim Hightower to Washington for defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday and a 2012 draft pick. The ground game has not been a productive phase of Arizona's offense in some time, and Wells will need to stay healthy for that to finally change. Considering his history, there isn't a great chance of that happening, so the Cardinals did select power back Ryan Williams in the second round of the 2011 draft. Williams has big-play potential, but also durability issues, as he missed much of last season with Virginia Tech because of a hamstring problem. Return man LaRod Stephens-Howling will also get some carries now that Hightower is gone, while rookie Anthony Sherman (5th Round, Connecticut), Reagan Maui'a and Charlies Ali will be among those trying to replace retired fullback Jason Wright.
WR/TE: Kolb had a plethora of weapons to throw to in Philadelphia, but he now gets to connect with one of the best wide receivers in the game, Larry Fitzgerald (90 receptions, 1137 receiving yards). The lack of a consistent passer certainly had an impact on Fitzgerald's numbers a season ago, with the playmaking wideout watching his touchdown total fall from 13 to six. Arizona's passing game was also likely hindered by the offseason loss of multiple Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin, who was traded to Baltimore. Recent free-agent departee Steve Breaston struggled to replace Boldin's production, logging the second- most receptions on the club with only 47. The Cardinals did not bring in another big-name veteran receiver, leaving the underachieving Early Doucet (26 receptions, 1 TD), second-year pro Andre Roberts (24 receptions, 2 TD) and newcomer Chansi Stuckey (40 receptions, 0 TD with Browns) to battle for the No. 2 role. The Cards did get Kolb a big-play option at the tight end spot in the 10-year veteran Heap (40 receptions, 5 TD), a salary cap casualty in Baltimore whom the team believes has still plenty left in the tank. Arizona also signed former Carolina tight end Jeff King (19 receptions, 2 TD) and selected the athletic Rob Housler out of Florida Atlantic in the draft's third round as a pass-catching option.
OL: Arizona quarterbacks were sacked 50 times a year ago, and the line lost a veteran presence when starting left guard Alan Faneca opted to retire at season's end. The ex-Packer Colledge was signed to take over that spot alongside former first-round pick Levi Brown, who shifted back to his college spot of left tackle last season after spending his first three campaigns on the right side. Brown was one of three Cardinals linemen to start all 16 games last year, joining center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui, both of whom were re-signed this offseason. Right tackle Brandon Keith made the first nine starts of his NFL career last year and is penciled in for that spot again, while veterans Jeremy Bridges, Rex Hadnot and fourth-year center Ben Claxton are set for reserve roles along with former Browns starter Floyd Womack.
DL: End Calais Campbell (60 tackles, 6 sacks) and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (52 tackles, 5 sacks) both return after making 15 starts in 2010 and were two of Arizona's top sack producers in the club's 3-4 scheme, though Campbell struggled at times to be consistent. However, starting nose tackle Bryan Robinson and fellow defensive linemen Gabe Watson and Alan Branch are all gone. Dan Williams (38 tackles), the club's first-round selection in 2010, will get the first shot at starting at the middle and give the Cardinals a talented and young front three, while Holliday (29 tackles, 2.5 sacks with Redskins) and Nick Eason (16 tackles, 1.5 sacks with Steelers) were brought in to lend some experience off the bench. If Campbell and Dockett can get a little help this year and Williams can take a step forward, the Cardinals could have a very disruptive presence up front.
LB: All four linebackers who saw significant time a season ago return. and the Cardinals also have two reserves who could make an impact on the field. On the outside, the Cardinals could begin to transition from 34-year-old veteran Joey Porter (50 tackles, 5 sacks) to O'Brien Schofield, who notched a pair of sacks as a rookie last year after coming back from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee suffered at the 2010 Senior Bowl. Arizona could use the younger legs from the pass rush to lend a hand to its linemen, a philosophy that also leaves fellow 34-year-old outside linebacker Clark Haggans (47 tackles, 5 sacks) trying to hold off youngsters Will Davis and rookie fourth-round pick Sam Acho (Texas), who is making the switch from college defensive end. The inside seems set with returning second-year man Daryl Washington (78 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and leading tackler Paris Lenon (125 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), but Arizona did add an experienced alternative in former Eagle Stewart Bradley (60 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), who missed all of 2009 with a torn ACL and also battled a concussion last year.
DB: The loss of Rodgers-Cromartie, who tallied 13 interceptions in his three seasons with the Cardinals, leaves Horton without a proven top-notch coverage guy, but the new coordinator prefers physical cornerbacks and the new Eagle doesn't really fit that mold. Greg Toler (90 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Peterson do, and the selection of the talented No. 5 overall pick out of LSU, who blends great size with sensational speed, made the loss of Rodgers- Cromartie more bearable. Horton should also enjoy coaching strong safety and team leader Adrian Wilson (88 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), a hard-hitting Pro Bowler who may miss the beginning of the season because of a partially torn right biceps tendon after already having undergone offseason hip surgery. Rashad Johnson (43 tackles, 1 INT) will likely start in Wilson's place alongside free safety Kerry Rhodes (90 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT), who led the team in interceptions last year and took two of his four fumble recoveries back for touchdowns. Former Panther Richard Marshall (88 tackles 1 sack, 3 INT) will serve as insurance if Peterson isn't ready to start right away, while Hamza Abdullah returns to back up at safety. Michael Adams (47 tackles, 2 INT) is more valuable as a special teamer, but should serve as the fourth corner.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Cardinals saw Stephens-Howling emerge as a major threat in the kick return game last year, with the 24-year-old sophomore taking a pair of kickoffs back for scores. He averaged an impressive 27.2 yards per return, while Roberts handled the punt duties and averaged 7.5 yards per runback. Kicker Jay Feely bounced back from a rough 2009 campaign with the Jets to hit on 88.9 percent (24-of-27) of his field goals last year. He made all 14 of his kicks from inside the 40-yard line and missed three of his 13 tries from further out. Punter Ben Graham averaged 43.4 yards a kick and stuck 29 of his attempts inside the 20 last yeare after doing so an NFL record-tying 42 times in '09.
PROGNOSIS: Last season marked a big step back for the Cardinals, so it is no surprise that the club overhauled several aspects of its offense. That normally would leave Arizona a step behind the rest of the league, given the shorter time to work with new players due to the lockout, but the fact that the Seahawks won the NFC West despite a sub-.500 record a season ago means it is still anybody's game in the division. Of course, Arizona's offense will only go as far as Kolb can take it, but the presence of Fitzgerald and Heap will help. Coming from Philadelphia, Kolb is also use to operating without a heavy run game, so Wells will have some room to grow as a No. 1 back. The Cardinals' defense should improve under Horton, but not having Rodgers- Cromartie and possibly Wilson will leave the secondary with some growing pains. In any other division, the Cardinals would be at least a year away from battling for a playoff spot, but anything can happen in the NFC West. Still, a division title for Arizona in 2011 would mark as an overachievement.