VP of football operations Rod Graves is all for a little healthy competition. "(Coach Green) made the comment, 'Guys will not be able to afford a down day, because we'll have young players behind them who will certainly be looking for an opportunity to take a starting position.' We're moving in the direction of creating that kind of environment, and I think it's a healthy one," he says.
Quarterback Kurt Warner is a little tired of explaining why he is no longer a Ram "It's hard to (dispel) those questions. I was a two-time MVP, I did go to two Super Bowls. It doesn't make sense that a guy like that doesn't finish his career (in St. Louis) or play longer with a team. It's hard to explain to people that it didn't have anything to do with football."
South of the border
The Cardinals will "host" the 49ers on Oct. 2 in Mexico City, the first NFL regular-season game held outside the United States. Aztec Stadium is expected to have a crowd of more than 100,000; last year's Cardinals-49ers game drew 35,069.
Make the most of it
Despite missing six games with a knee injury last season, second-year receiver Anquan Boldin had 56 catches, just two fewer than team leader Larry Fitzgerald had in all 16 games.
The Prophecy: "Denny Green might have the Cardinals going in the right direction ... but instant success is going to be difficult."
The Lie: "Josh McCown – I think he's going to be a great one ... when I buy into a quarterback, I really do." -- Denny Green
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The changes the Arizona Cardinals have undergone since Dennis Green was hired as coach in January of 2004 have been amazing. The team has overhauled much of the roster, upgraded the defense and is getting set to head into a new stadium in 2006.
They even redesigned their uniforms, the first significant change in decades — perhaps ever.
“When the organization does this, when they say we’re going to change the uniform and they do, it shows the commitment,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett says. “When you add that up, the new coach, new uniforms, a good draft class last year, a good class this year, we can really start turning this thing around.”
The thing is, the Cardinals still haven’t won. Despite all the changes last year, Green’s first season at the helm ended at 6–10. And the team needs to up that win total in order to make sure the new stadium won’t be like current home Sun Devil Stadium is most Sundays -- half empty.
To no one’s surprise, Green went looking for a new quarterback in free agency and picked up Kurt Warner, a two-time NFL MVP. Warner, trying to resurrect his career after fizzling in both St. Louis and New York, signed a one-year deal. Publicly, Green has said that Warner will battle 2004 starter Josh McCown for the starting job, but it’s Warner’s jersey on sale in the team shops, and only a training camp flop will keep Warner off the field to start 2005. Warner has struggled lately, and it’s no lock the Cards have enough talent around him to be effective.
Green wanted a speed back; Emmitt Smith was not it. So the team spent their second-round pick on Cal’s breakaway back J.J. Arrington, who had 2,018 yards rushing as a senior. Arrington should beat out Marcel Shipp and Troy Hambrick for the starting job, although Green likes to use multiple backs, and the banger Shipp would serve as a good off-speed counter to Arrington. Shipp, however, is coming off ankle surgery. Hambrick is the leading returning rusher with a mere 283 yards.
The Cards never did get to fully understand what they had at receiver last season when Anquan Boldin hurt his knee in training camp. Boldin missed six games, and he still came within two catches of rookie Larry Fitzgerald’s team-leading total. Boldin is the best they’ve got, but he isn’t happy with a contract that pays him significantly less than Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, was solid as a rookie, but coaches say he needs to improve his work ethic in practice and concentrate on better route-running. He’s young, though, and should come around. Bryant Johnson is turning into a decent third receiver.
Tight end is a mess right now. With the Cardinals’ inability to take one early in the draft, Eric Edwards -- an undrafted rookie last year who had just five catches -- is the de facto starter. The spot needs to be addressed. Other candidates are Bobby Blizzard and Aaron Golliday, two guys without much NFL experience.
Green has dismantled and reassembled the line for his vision. He’s left with one first-round pick in left tackle Leonard Davis, and four other guys who were either undrafted, second-day picks or cut from other teams -- center Alex Stepanovich, guards Reggie Wells and Jeremy Bridges, and tackle Oliver Ross.
“What you need is five guys that can work together,” Green says. “Five guys that were role players in college and are in a great role now because they are making pretty good money, five guys that have really shown they love the game. Otherwise they wouldn’t have a chance to be where they are at.”
The team is still lacking depth, and Bridges is still a question mark at right guard. Elton Brown, taken in the fourth round, is expected to push Bridges for a staring job. Chances are slim that veteran L.J. Shelton -- who has never meshed with Green’s expectations -- will make it through training camp. If Shelton is cut or traded, depth is a huge problem.
Here is where Green’s overhaul has made the biggest impact. The team signed defensive end Bertrand Berry as a free agent last season, and all he did was post 14.5 sacks and make the Pro Bowl. This year, the Cardinals acquired end Chike Okeafor to man the other side, and a pass rush that was nonexistent two years ago should be much improved.
Dockett had an impressive rookie year at defensive tackle, and the Cards got Russell Davis’ best year as well. Kenny King returns from injury having bulked up and should be a factor at backup tackle and end. The question becomes whether 2003 first-round pick Calvin Pace can play well enough at end to make the team.
Karlos Dansby (five sacks) was the Cards’ best rookie in 2004, starting and showing he was the playmaker the Cards had hoped for when they made him a second-round pick. He’s the anchor of this corps, which will need to be upgraded at some point. James Darling is coming off a solid season as the weak-side starter, but he’s getting up in years, and the Cards will try Gerald Hayes there as well. Hayes might also vie with Orlando Huff to replace Ron McKinnon in the middle, but neither are game-changers.
The team took Darryl Blackstock in the third round of the draft; he’s a player who mirrors Dansby’s entry to the NFL last year, as a raw pass rusher who Green thinks can have the same kind of impact Dansby did.
Losing both Duane Starks (traded to New England) and Renaldo Hill (free agency), the Cards drafted cornerbacks Antrel Rolle and Eric Green among their first three draft picks. Rolle, who was selected eighth overall, was a solid member of an outstanding Miami defense and should start immediately. He brings versatility to the secondary, along with a physical style of play that allows him to effectively blitz from the slot, jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and make sure tackles in open space.
“He gives us more flexibility. They ( Miami) used him in a lot of different positions, which was appealing because he was a very smart kid and has shown flexibility in his career,” said defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
Green will battle veteran David Macklin for the other starting job. All three will play a lot, and all three are physical types that Green likes. Depth beyond that is thin, though, so injuries would be a concern.
At strong safety, Adrian Wilson emerged as a potential Pro Bowler and one of the leaders of the defense. Green signed Robert Griffith — one of his former Vikings — as a free agent to play free safety. Ifeanyi Ohalete started most of last season at free safety and provides depth at both spots.
Kicker Neil Rackers (five 50-plus yard field goals) and punter Scott Player are solid. Josh Scobey fell off as a kick returner last season (only 22.6 yards per return) and Green is looking to replace him. Rolle has been a punt returner and will get a shot at the job, especially since the Cards averaged only 6.7 yards per return last season. In 2003, Rolle returned 13 punts for 202 yards and one touchdown.
With the improvements Green has made to the team through both free agency and the draft in two seasons, the Cardinals suddenly have a chance to become a factor in the NFC West. The defense is the strength of this team. If either Warner or McCown can be a steady leader for the offense and the team can find a decent running game, the Cards should push for a division title. But for a team that has been .500 just twice since moving to Arizona in 1988, getting to eight wins should be the first goal.
There is, however, new hope for Cardinals fans. With a new logo, new uniforms and exciting new players, success could be the next new concept in Phoenix.