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ANQUAN BOLDIN has witnessed so many changes in coaches and personnel during his career with the Cardinals that he pauses, rolls his eyes and chuckles before trying to recount them.
"Let's see," the receiver says after a late-afternoon practice during training camp. "I'm in my sixth year and I've had three head coaches, probably five or six coordinators, six quarterbacks and new O-linemen every week."
About the only change he hasn't witnessed is in the team's fortunes. Arizona remains football's version of purgatory: The Cardinals have not had a winning season since 1998, the only time they finished above .500 in the last 24 years. Constant turnover has been a prime culprit. The franchise has had eight coaches since moving from St. Louis in 1988—only the Raiders (nine) have had more during that span—and its 12 coaching changes since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 are tied with Buffalo for the most among franchises that have been in continuous existence since then.
If the team wasn't making a move at the top—going from Vince Tobin to Dave McGinnis to Dennis Green to Ken Whisenhunt in this decade alone—it was making the quick-fix reach for fading stars in free agency. The notables include NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith and reigning Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson in 2003, former league and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner in '05 and Colts star Edgerrin James in '06.
This year, however, the theme is continuity. For the first time in recent memory, the Cardinals have brought back the same coaching staff, the same playbooks and, basically, the same roster from the previous season. While some teams take those things for granted, such constancy is looked upon with wonder in Arizona.
"For us to go into a season under the same system, under the same head coach, with pretty much the same players means a lot," Boldin says. "I thought we showed flashes last year—especially toward the end of the year—of how good we can be. Right now we're picking up where we left off."
If true, the Cardinals might finally live up to their annual billing as a potential sleeper, an expectation they've failed to justify the last several seasons. But a 5--3 finish over the second half of 2007—with two of the defeats by a touchdown or less—has them believing they're ready to be winners at last. The continuity could begin with the quarterback who directed that solid finish. After taking over for the injured Matt Leinart in Week 6 last year, Warner had his best season since 2001 (27 TDs, 17 INTs) and looked ready to win the competition for the job. On the line, all five starters return at the same positions—only the second time in 20 years that the Cardinals could make that statement.
"As an offense, the more you play together, the better you're going to be," says James, who in his first seven years in the league, with the Colts, played for one coordinator (Tom Moore) and lined up behind one starting quarterback (Peyton Manning). Indy ranked in the top four in scoring six times in that span. "You've got to have the core intact, and once you have the core intact you can plug people in," James says. "But until you get that core together, it's kind of complicated. You're kind of freestyling."
There are playmakers at wideout in Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, a blend of experience (James) and youth (rookie Tim Hightower from Richmond) at running back, a savvy Super Bowl winner at quarterback (Warner) and a defense that gets back three potential impact players who missed a total of 30 games in '07 because of injuries: safety Adrian Wilson, linebacker Chike Okeafor and end-linebacker Bertrand Berry.
"We can be unstoppable with the guys we have on this field, on both sides of the ball," Boldin says. "Look at the weapons we have on offense. Look at the speed and the athleticism we have on defense. The sky's the limit." This time, he doesn't roll his eyes.