Kurt Warner hopes to regain his touch in the wide-open Cardinals offense.
John W. McDonough/SI
at N.Y. Giants
at St. Louis
at San Francisco
After all the free-agent busts the Cardinals have signed over the years, they hit the jackpot with Bertrand Berry during the 2004 off-season. The 6'3", 277-pound defensive end had an NFC-best 14 1/2 sacks last season, the third-highest total in franchise history. (Four came against Kurt Warner in a victory over the Giants.) Berry also forced three fumbles in earning his first Pro Bowl selection. Not bad for a guy who was out of football in 2000, after being released in camp by the Rams.
There's reason for optimism in the desert, starting with veteran passer Kurt Warner and an explosive set of young wideouts
That buzz emanating from the Arizona desert is not the annual summertime invasion of cicadas, but rather the drone of unusually upbeat comments from football insiders about the Cardinals' 2005 prospects. And it isn't coming merely from the media, either. "Their offense is pretty potent with Kurt Warner leading the charge," says Cowboys safety Roy Williams, whose team lost its preseason opener to Arizona. "If they can stay healthy, the Cardinals will be a team to look out for this year."
It's easy to chalk up the optimism as some peyote-induced delusion. After all, Arizona fans have enjoyed only one winning season since the franchise moved to the Phoenix area in 1988, and last year's 6-10 effort was the team's sixth straight losing campaign. The franchise, dating to the days in Chicago, has one playoff victory in the last 56 years. Yet with second-year coach Dennis Green slowly changing the organization's cheap and cynical culture, plus an infusion of youthful talent (11 starters have three years or less experience), the Cardinals have bought into the hype.
"I know we're a buzz team and all that, but people don't realize how good we really are," says veteran safety Robert Griffith, who signed with Arizona as a free agent after three seasons with the Browns. "We have some very good players, and we're going to win here." It also doesn't hurt that the Cardinals play in what is shaping up as a weak division.
While Griffith is expected to provide steady leadership to a fast, aggressive defense, another 34-year-old free-agent acquisition, Warner, will try to bring the Cardinals' offense up to speed. The former two-time league MVP and Super Bowl MVP hopes to rebound from an unfulfilling half season as the Giants' starter and prove that he's still a productive NFL quarterback. Warner, who felt handcuffed in the Giants' restrictive offense before losing his job to anointed franchise savior Eli Manning last November, should have an ideal opportunity to recapture his old magic. The Cardinals may not be the Greatest Show on Turf, as the Rams were known in the quarterback's heyday in St. Louis, but there are some similarities: an explosive set of receivers, a versatile running back with pass-catching ability and a coach committed to a wide-open offense.
"What most people don't understand is that it's going to be more of a balanced attack this year," says wideout Anquan Boldin, a rookie sensation in 2003 who struggled in '04 after missing the first six games with torn cartilage in his right knee. "When people think of Denny, they think air attack, but we'll definitely run the ball."
That means rookie J.J. Arrington, a second-round draft pick out of Cal, should have a chance to make the same kind of sudden impact that Boldin made as a rookie. There are concerns about Arrington's size (5'9", 214 pounds) and durability, but second-year wideout Larry Fitzgerald doesn't share them. "J.J.'s going to be huge for us," says Fitzgerald, who had 58 receptions for 780 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie. "He's a shorter guy, but I think that gives him a huge advantage. If you're a defender, you can't identify him coming out of the hole, and by the time you see him, he's making you look bad."
With Boldin, Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson, a first-round pick out of Penn State in '03, racing downfield, Warner could look very good. That's assuming his line gives him time to throw. The line, led by massive left tackle Leonard Davis, is a work in progress, but Warner says the issue of protection extends beyond linemen holding their blocks. "So much of it is the receivers' timing and ability to get open -- that allows me to set my feet and make quick reads," Warner says. "If you have a strong running game and good play-calling, with the coach mixing things up and keeping the defense off-balance, all of those things make an offensive line better."
Green, noting that the '04 Cardinals lost four games by three points each, believes this year's team will be good enough to pull out victories in such situations. Fitzgerald agrees but hopes that opponents continue to underestimate his club. "We think we're a good team," he says, "but we don't want the rest of the nation to catch on. We want them to think we're the Cardinals of old and come out and play half-speed against us. Maybe we'll get a couple of quick, cheap wins before they figure it out."