In just six days the Arizona Cardinals will start their 2011 season. Though most would like to wipe the memories of 2010 clear, the fact remains that the Cards went a paltry 5-11 and frankly looked much worse than that for the most part.
So why are hopes so high going into 2011? I'm glad you asked because I have five strong reasons for those feelings.
(1) Kevin Kolb
I'll start with the one on everyone's mind.
I feel good after seeing Kolb perform solidly in the preseason and after hearing the way the Cardinal players laud his leadership abilities but let's be honest, this one can just as easily be called "Derek Anderson nor Max Hall will not play quarterback".
If anyone ever needs proof that you can't win with a crappy quarterback please feel free to point them to any game tape from the 2010 Arizona Cardinals. Trent Dilfer and countless other game managers have proved that you can win as long as a quarterback doesn't take anything off the table but Hall and Anderson ransacked the table like a starving orphan.
Sensing the obvious need to improve the QB play, the Cardinals front office was aggressive in acquiring the long-time Eagles backup at the cost of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick. Then they went on to put their money where their mouths were by giving Kolb a five-year, $63 million contract.
The pressure is certainly on Kolb to achieve but this is the opportunity he's been waiting for his entire career (and that was snapped away from him by way of an injury in the 2010 opener) and he seems to have the right mentality to succeed. If he can be close to the guy who has been NFC Player of the Week twice in his seven starts then the Cardinals should be in good shape.
(2) The Schedule
When you finish with the worst record in the NFL's worst division some perks come along with the indignity. In the case of the Cardinals that perk is what's well-acknowledged as the NFL's easiest schedule.
Of Arizona's 16 games, just five of them are against teams that were in the NFL playoffs in 2010. When you then realize that two of those five are against the Seattle Seahawks who clearly decided they are in rebuilding mode by opting to go with Tavaris Jackson at QB you see how truly thin the schedule is.
The set up is even favorable - in the first five weeks of the season when the Cardinals are going to try and mesh a bunch of new parts they'll play four teams that are breaking in new starting quarterbacks.
The first two quarterbacks the Cardinals will face are first overall pick Cam Newton (43% completion percentage in the preseason) and Rex Grossman (who is Rex Grossman). A visit to Seattle follows and a trip to Minnesota and Donovan McNabb awaits in Week 5.
Following the bye week the Cardinals have a tough four games stretch with game against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Philadelphia but the back end more than makes up for it. From Week 11 through the rest of the season the Cardinals play only one playoff team (Seattle in Week 17).
Even if the team isn't as good as we like, the schedule should keep them in the race.
(3) The NFC West
During the Cardinals two year run at the top of the division in 2008 and 2009 the NFC West wasn't exactly competitive - after Kurt Warner retired the division was even worse. Last season the Seahawks won the division with an unimpressive 7-9 record after defeating the young Rams on the final night of the season.
This year, the defending champions decided to part ways with Matt Hasselbeck who had led them to five NFC West titles and have generally seemed to have taken significant steps back from last year. The Niners are finally rid of the clown that is Mike Singletary but new head coach Jim Harbaugh must be implementing the "Get Andrew Luck" plan since he decided to give Alex Smith yet another shot. I don't know what it is about Alex Smith but he must make a hell of a first impression as he's talked multiple coaches into giving him a starting job.
The most up and coming team in the division is probably in St. Louis where Sam Bradford is entering his second season and has Josh McDaniel running his offense. The Rams surprised last season by finishing 7-9 after a number of last place finishes in a row but it's always interesting how a young team handles things when people aren't going to be caught by surprise. But more than that, the schedule isn't exactly easy.
St. Louis will be tested early when they play Philly, the Giants, and Baltimore in the first three weeks. If they survive that they may be a force to be reckoned with. They are definitely a wild card of a team.
(4) New Defensive Blood
Defense hasn't been a strong point for the Cardinals in recent years as the team is welcoming in their third defensive coordinator in the past four seasons. Former Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton gets the call this season and will apparently be bringing with him an aggressive style.
But as anyone will tell you, coaches can only take you so far. Though the team traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and lost Greg Toler for the season to injury they've made some significant additions to the roster.
It starts with 2011 fifth overall pick Patrick Peterson - a playmaker so dynamic that he's expected to be a shut down corner in just his first season. Peterson will be joined in the defensive backfield by former Carolina starting corner Richard Marshall and second-year man A.J. Jefferson who though he debuted in 2010 is basically considered a new guy (he played in just two games).
The two big defensive losses for the Cardinals in the 2010 offseason were Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle. Arizona did a heck of a job replacing Rolle with Kerry Rhodes (a wash at worst) but effectively did nothing to replace Dansby (sorry Paris Lenon) this year they addressed the middle with former Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley. Bradley has struggled with injuries in recent years but when healthy he's a Pro-Bowl level talent.
On the defensive line, first rounder Dan Williams is entering his second season but he came into camp out of shape and has been pushed at nose tackle by this year's sixth-round draft pick David Carter.
As strange as it might sound, the best thing that could probably happen to the Cardinals defense is having an offense that can actually score points and sustain drives. Watching three and out after three and out has to be demoralizing for any defense.
They might not be perfect but it's a step in the right direction.
OK, stability may be taking it a little far so how about the potential of stability? As you see from reading above a great deal of the teams most important positions were volatile in 2010 and the Cards have made moves to address those issues. They've got their preferred QB, the defensive coordinator they've been chasing for a few years, a new middle linebacker, and a potential lock down corner.
Beyond that, one of the biggest question marks for the franchise was the status of star WR Larry Fitzgerald.
Pretty much everyone knew that Fitz wasn't going to stick around in Arizona with a lousy quarterback after watching what seemed like a perpetual loop of him putting his hands on his helmet after a badly overthrown (Anderson) or underthrown (Hall) ball.
After Arizona's aggressive offseason they convinced Fitzgerald to sign up for eight additional years. Sure the cost was $120 million with $45 million guaranteed but he's one of the best receivers in the game (for my money, the best) and he provides a signaling effect to the rest of the league that the Cardinals are looking to win.
The Cardinals haven't been cheap since they moved into University of Phoenix Stadium but really nobody has noticed - with Fitzgerald's deal I think that's going to change. The way the front office is willing to spend might see the Cardinals become similar to the Suns in the early to mid 90s - a team that's a free agent destination.