As the NFL Conference Championships loom this weekend an even bigger event looms right here in our backyard. It won't be televised or given wall-to-wall coverage like the games this weekend but the impact of this event could be far reaching, at least if you're a fan of the Arizona Cardinals. The event is called the offseason and the Cardinals due to their dubious fall into mediocrity this season have been into the offseason for nearly a month.
Based on their results this season, some Cardinal fans are already suggesting the end is near and that the sweet taste of success was nice while it lasted. That's what a couple of decades of incompetence will do to your fans. They can't bear the thought of sitting in a half empty stadium and watching a team fall all over itself as it did this year. So you can see why this event may not have the attention of the nation but it certainly has the attention of Big Red fans and for a very good reason.
For the first time since he arrived here coach Ken Whisenhunt is being put under the microscope by fans, the media and to some degree the ownership. Yes he's brought more success to this franchise in the last four seasons than it had ever tasted, but the NFL is no different than any other sport or many businesses for that matter. What have you done for me lately is what the game is all about. A trip to the Super Bowl and consecutive division titles earned him a few extra challenge flags from the management and fans but based on this year's results he now carries only one.
What complicates this offseason for the coach is that he must make numerous decisions that will have a great impact on his club. This is not a team that's one or two players away from being a winner again. It was easy to put the spotlight on the QB debacle that unfolded throughout the season but if you really examined this team from top to bottom there were other areas that were equally inept.
The offensive line was never able to consistently control the point of attack that would have allowed the run game to become established (32nd in yards rushing per game @ 88ypg). Yes the QB carousel didn't help matters but if the Cards had been able to effectively run the ball it would've taken more pressure off the QB. When the team did rush the football well there was that little problem of hanging onto the rock. There were countless times when Tim Hightower would break a big run for a first down only to lose the football. While his season total wasn't alarmingly high (5 fumbles with 4 lost) it was the timing of those fumbles that proved to be drive killers.
If you have a defense that can dictate play those fumbles are easier to swallow and overlook. The Cardinals did not have such a defense unfortunately.
This unit was supposed to be the strength of this year's club based on experience and personnel but it was as inept as the offense. Defensively this unit was ranked 29th and that won't win you games much less a division crown. For all the criticism of the offense the defense was just as much to blame for this year's failures.
Yes, the offense did them no favors with numerous three-and-outs and if not for the defense there were at least two wins that wouldn't have occurred due to the unit creating turnovers. Having said that there were also countless times the Cards "D" had teams in third-and-long situations only to surrender a big play by being out of position or poor tackling (or lack thereof).
What fans and those around the league began to recognize was that this defense has had problems even going back to the Super Bowl run. It was easy for those problems to be masked over because of the exploits of Kurt Warner and a once explosive offense. You look at the defensive statistics dating back to 2007 and the Cards defense has ranked as follows in total yardage allowed:
With all of the problems facing this team offensively this offseason, why am I making defense the focal point here?
I'm hoping Ken Whisenhunt is thinking the same thing I am. You see his former club the Steelers will be playing in their 5th AFC Championship this weekend and while Big Ben is having a remarkable season and engineering come from behind wins he's able to do so because his defense always gives him a chance to go win it.
Compare the Cards defensive numbers above to those of the Steelers and you'll see why terrible towels will once again be out in full force this weekend. For the same years (2007 thru 2010) the Steelers have ranked respectfully: #1, #1, #5 and this year #2.
Still think it's just Steeler luck that has them on the doorstep of another Super Bowl appearance?
As important as the decision will be about a QB, Whisenhunt faces an equally large decision about his Defensive Coordinator and what players to keep defensively. This will be the third DC in the last five seasons the team will have had when they take field for offseason workouts.
Clancy Pendergast was to blame for the Super Bowl defensive meltdown on the final drive. Bill Davis was shown the door after his unit was unable to get critical third down stops all season long. Between those decisions and the signing of Derek Anderson, Whisenhunt must know that 2011 is a must-succeed season for him.
The one time Steeler assistant would be well served to look back at his notes from his days in the Steel City and truly examine the culture that's been developed throughout the history of that storied franchise. Whisenhunt, like the players must take this year's failures personally because let's not forget the Rooney's chose Mike Tomlin and not Ken Whisenhunt as their head coach.
So while the Steelers prepare for another raucous home game on Sunday the Cardinals prepare for what will surely be one of their longest off seasons. July can't come fast enough for this franchise but it's the decisions between now and then that will truly determine their fate come this fall.