TEMPE, Ariz. – The Arizona Cardinals had the worst offense in the NFL a year ago.
After a 4-0 start, the team lost 11 of 12 to finish 5-11, leading to the firing of coach Ken Whisenhunt after six seasons that included a run to the Super Bowl in 2008.
Enter Bruce Arians, the 60-year-old veteran of two decades as an NFL assistant who parlayed his successful stint as interim coach last year in Indianapolis into a full-time head coaching gig in Arizona.
Arians and new general manager Steve Keim, promoted after Rod Graves was fired, overhauled the roster, bringing in quarterback Carson Palmer, running back Rashard Mendenhall and a host of others.
Arians joked about teaming with the 33-year-old Palmer.
"This is a cowboy movie," he said, "with two old guys, this is our last rodeo in the desert."
Arians has an impressive pedigree when it comes to quarterbacks, working with the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck in his years as an NFL assistant.
Now he will try to improve the fortunes of Palmer, who put up big numbers a year ago for Oakland but many of those yards came with the Raiders trying to come from behind in games en route to a 3-13 season.
Arians has placed his stamp on the team already, calling out players publicly at times, lacing his critiques to players with profanity and making clear his lack of tolerance for mental errors.
He has an "accountability sheet" that lists players who made mistakes or otherwise ran afoul of the coach and shows it to the entire team. No one, not even star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, is exempt.
Still, rebuilding is no easy task, especially in the tough NFC West.
Here are five issues facing the Cardinals:
1. CAN PALMER BE A WINNER? Carson Palmer has put up some impressive numbers in his 10-year NFL career. Last season, the former No. 1 draft pick threw for 4,018 yards with Oakland, but many of those yards came with his team trying to come back in games, and the result was a 3-13 season. It was the third time Palmer has topped 4,000 yards passing, but his team didn't have a winning record in any of those seasons. In fact, Palmer is 54-68 as a starter.
Palmer is well aware that any success for the Cardinals is tied to what he does.
"That's the game in this league," he said. "I'm used to that. I've been playing quarterback my whole life so I'm used to the pressures that come with the position, the good, the bad. Obviously the quarterback plays an integral part of every team's success."
Arizona had four players start at quarterback last season.
Palmer has called Arians' offense the most challenging he's had, and he repeatedly has touted his receivers — Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd and Rob Housler.
"We have smart football players on this offense," Palmer said. "Combine that with athleticism and speed and experience. You look at a guy like Larry's experience and his catches and his touches in games, I'm as excited and as optimistic as ever."
2. KEEPING CARSON UPRIGHT: The Cardinals gave up an NFL-worst 58 sacks last season, and Palmer isn't exactly the most mobile of quarterbacks.
If he goes down to injury, the job would fall to Drew Stanton, who hasn't thrown a pass in an NFL game since 2010. Suffice it to say, keeping Palmer upright is very important.
Plans for an improved offensive line took a major hit when first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper, the starting left guard, broke his left leg in the third preseason game. Cooper might be able to come back late in the season, but in the meantime Arizona will shift Daryn Colledge back to left guard after planning to move him to the right side. Paul Fanaika, out of the league last season, is tentatively scheduled to start at right guard.
Levi Brown, out all of last season with torn triceps, is the left tackle, with late signee Eric Winston on the right side. Lyle Sendlein is back at center.
"It's a big setback because we all feel bad for Cooper," Colledge said of the injury, "but the guys in this locker room are going to say it's no setback because we want to plug a guy in and keep rolling."
3. MULTI-PURPOSE PETERSON: The more that Arians saw what kind of athlete Patrick Peterson was, the more he wanted to use the cornerback and punt returner on offense, too.
Peterson says that interest has grown to some 60 plays in the preseason. If Peterson doesn't get the ball on a handoff, he'll catch a pass, maybe even throw one or at the very least be a decoy that opponents must have to worry about.
Peterson said people shouldn't worry about him getting too much to do. He says he's the best-conditioned athlete on the team and no one is going to argue with him. He also says that he's a cornerback first and foremost.
But, as Arians said, "He's an ascending offensive player."
4. CHANGES ON DEFENSE: Defense was a bright spot for the Cardinals through their misery a year ago, and coordinator Ray Horton (now with Cleveland) was a finalist to replace Whisenhunt.
But there have been plenty of personnel changes on the defensive side, especially with Pro Bowl inside linebacker Daryl Washington suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Karlos Dansby returned to his former team to play at one inside linebacker spot, with Jasper Brinkley the other and second-round draft pick Kevin Minter a backup as well as a player on special teams.
Jerraud Powers will play opposite Peterson at cornerback. Both safeties, longtime Cardinal Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, are gone. Rashad Johnson, who started much of the time a year ago, is at strong safety with Yeremiah Bell coming in at the other.
Up front, the Cardinals are unchanged with Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams. Sam Acho is back at outside linebacker. Lorenzo Alexander and John Abraham, the active leader in career sacks with a whopping 122 including 10 last season, will play the other outside spot.
5. HOW SWEET IS THE HONEY BADGER? The Cardinals took a chance on Tyrann Mathieu and drafted him in the third round. Mathieu, out of football last season after being kicked off the LSU team due to marijuana troubles, has impressed the coaches.
He figures to see plenty of action in the Cardinals secondary.
Arians calls him "a lovable kid."
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