Stop us if you've heard this one before, but the Arizona Cardinals are better. And, yes, we did say the same thing last year at this time, right before the Cardinals went out and hung up a 5-11 mark, dropping head coach Dennis Green's two-year record in the desert to 11-21. So what's so different about this year's Cardinals? For starters, there's a fresh air of anticipation for football season in Arizona thanks to the opening of a new stadium in suburban Phoenix and the free-agent signing of ex-Colts running back Edgerrin James. The signing of James has to boost the fortunes of a Cardinals running game that ranked dead last in the league in 2005, but what remains to be seen is whether Arizona did enough to improve its dreadful offensive-line play. The Cardinals drafted USC guard Deuce Lutui in the second round and he'll start right away. Arizona's passing game ranked first in the NFL last season and now quarterback-of-the-future Matt Leinart is on hand should starter Kurt Warner falter or turn fragile. The Cardinals can move the ball in the air, but they need to get much better in the red zone to have legitimate playoff hopes. Defensively, Arizona has great young talent, but it has yet to prove it can win a game on its own. Despite finishing in the top 10 two years running, it's time for coordinator ClancyPendergast's unit to start distinguishing itself.
Team in transition
Every early indication says these are not your father's St. Louis Rams. The Greatest Show on Turf era is long gone, and if the Rams follow their new blueprint to success this season, no one will accuse them of being a finesse team anymore. Under new head coach Scott Linehan, St. Louis wants to get more physical on both sides of the ball and beef up a running attack that took a backseat to the high-flying passing game favored by former offensive coordinator and head coach Mike Martz. The Rams used the draft to focus on the tight end position, taking both Colorado's Joe Klopfenstein and USC's Dominique Byrd in the first three rounds, and while St. Louis will still throw the ball plenty, clearing the way for running back Steven Jackson will be the top priority on offense. The Rams made two key additions on defense: hiring former Saints head coach Jim Haslett as coordinator and signing Carolina outside linebacker Will Witherspoon, whose playmaking skills will be featured. Haslett, a noted tough guy, knows how to mold a swarming, aggressive unit, and he could be the perfect fit for the mentality St. Louis wants to adopt.
Coach in the spotlight
DENNIS GREEN, ARIZONA
When he took the Cardinals job in 2004, Green knew he was undertaking the most daunting coaching project in the NFL, but many of us believed he could reverse the fortunes of a franchise that had made only one trip to the playoffs (in 1998) since 1982. But so far, not so good, as Green has gone 6-10 and 5-11 in his first two years in Arizona. Compare that with his 10-year track record as Minnesota's head coach, where his Vikings missed the playoffs only twice in his entire tenure. With the Cardinals moving into their new stadium in Glendale this year, it's vital that Green's team build on the positive buzz surrounding that long-awaited milestone. When the usually fiscally conservative Cardinals spent big to lure Edgerrin James to town, it only increased the pressure on Green to win and win now.