Who will be next season's Cards?
Arizona's Super Bowl run gives hope to non-playoff teams
Late-season success gives Texans hope for 2009
Bills, Niners are more teams right on the cusp
The Arizona Cardinals fell just short of claiming the ultimate prize on the sport's biggest stage. Their playoff run, however, provided hope to the scores of players who reside on the rosters of historically moribund franchises. If the Cardinals, with their pathetic body of work over the past 60 years, can make it to, and almost win, the Super Bowl, why can't some of the other downtrodden franchises?
I know the league preaches parity and is currently designed in such a way that players on every team feel they can win a championship. That doesn't mean deep down in the recesses of their subconscious they actually believe it. Players in cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo may think they have what it takes to go on a deep playoff run. The problem is, based on recent historical precedent, that run seems altogether unlikely. In fact, those players would probably admit they would be thrilled just to make the playoffs.
That is where Arizona comes in. They won their first division title and hosted their first playoff game in forever. But then a funny thing happened. They beat Atlanta and truly started to believe. The wins over both Carolina and Philadelphia sent shockwaves through the players on teams previously considered afterthoughts. Suddenly players on the perennial also-rans realize they might indeed have a legitimate opportunity. If the Cardinals can do it, maybe they can, too. If studs like Adrian Wilson, Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby can finally get their due, maybe other elite players on poor teams can finally get some respect by playing a string of nationally televised playoff games.
It starts with changing the culture that surrounds the organization. This is not easy. Players who get drafted by Pittsburgh and New England expect to win. There is an inner-confidence permeating throughout the building. Players who get selected by Cleveland and Detroit, well, they aren't exactly sure what to expect. Though the inner-belief might be there for their own personal skills, the same cannot be said for team success.
Franchises mired in mediocrity should take a page from Arizona's playbook and realize the need to take any momentum they have during a season or a span of seasons and run with it. The men that make up the rosters of perennially bad teams are not losers. They are typically superb players who won championships in high school and college. But when they get to an average franchise they start to look at themselves as being a part of an average team, no matter how hard they might try to feel otherwise.
That is why what the Arizona Cardinals did is so special. It is one thing for a storied franchise like the New York Giants to go on an unexpected wild Super Bowl run. It is quite another when it is a franchise like Arizona. The Cardinals may not have won it all, but their success could have a profound impact on the NFL the next couple of years as hope once again springs eternal.
Here are three teams I think could become next season's version of the Arizona Cardinals, and why:
The Texans were a somewhat trendy pick by a lot of pundits to make their first postseason appearance in 2008. The combination of a poor start, tough schedule, injury to their starting quarterback, weather complications and a porous defense proved way too much to overcome for a group that finished 8-8 for the second consecutive year.
Residing in the AFC South makes it extremely difficult for the Texans to be next year's Cardinals. But if Houston can somehow navigate its divisional gauntlet and find its way into the postseason, it has enough firepower to go on an Arizona-like run. The Texans have an outstanding group of young skill players who could make their offense lethal for years to come. Quarterback Matt Schaub proved down the stretch why Houston gave him that huge contract. Steve Slaton was a not-so-hidden gem in the third round. Owen Daniels is a stud at tight end. The receiving corps is led by Andre Johnson, arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL depending upon who you talk to, and yes, I am aware of Larry Fitzgerald. The offensive line is not dominant but it is at least as good as Arizona's.
The problem is the defensive side of the ball. Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans are young studs and would become next year's version of Dockett and Dansby should Houston go on an extended run. But those two can't do it by themselves, so head coach Gary Kubiak has made changes to his defensive staff in an effort to get his defense up to speed.
The Bills feel as if they blew a golden opportunity to win the AFC East by faltering after a 5-1 start in a season in which New England was without Tom Brady. They are absolutely right, they did miss out on a unique chance, and the Miami Dolphins were all too happy to slide in and wrest the division away from the perennial division champion Patriots.
But all is not lost for a Bills organization that has compiled a good group of talented young players. Marshawn Lynch looks to be one of the best all-around backs in the league. He and Fred Jackson were successful running behind the offensive line once right guard Brad Butler was back in the fold after injury. The Bills have a No. 1 receiver in Lee Evans and a quarterback (Trent Edwards) who appeared to be on the rise before he got injured and worked through a bit of a sophomore slump.
Defensively, the Bills were able to make strides in some areas and Marcus Stroud was a big reason for that. The loss of Aaron Schobel and his consistent pass rush, however, proved fatal. The Bills need improved roster depth to overcome these types of injuries.
San Francisco 49ers
The most likely team to make a Cardinal-like impact in the NFC next season ironically resides in the Cards' division, the NFC West. The San Francisco 49ers finished the 2008 season on a high note under then interim coach Mike Singletary and were one yard away from beating the aforementioned Cardinals on a Monday nighter in the desert.
Though they clearly lack an elite receiver, the Niners flourished under the leadership of Singletary and the quarterbacking of Shaun Hill down the stretch. Hill showed his mettle in some adverse conditions and won the respect of the offensive line for his gutsy playmaking late in games. Frank Gore is a horse when healthy and new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye will likely ride him as much as possible.
San Francisco made their biggest strides under Singletary on the defensive side of the ball. Patrick Willis may lay claim to being the best inside linebacker in the NFL and Justin Smith brought his motor with him when he signed the big free-agent deal from Cincinnati. If San Francisco can get a consistent pass rusher, its defense could be dominant.