The 2010-2011 season is mercifully over for the 5-11 Arizona Cardinals, who -- like the undead husband finally shot in the head by the mournful, tearful wife who realizes that no, despite appearances, this is not her loved one, but in fact a flesh-eating zombie intent on devouring her -- can finally die for reals. Yes, 2010-2011 Arizona Cardinals, you are a rotting shell of a once-living team that needed to be double-killed. Good riddance.
Now that this painful and futile season has come to an uncomfortable close, the team faces perhaps a harder test -- preparing for next season, and all the roster-destroying, QB-locating, and coach-firing that that entails. Where do coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rod Graves start in the process of cleansing this team of its demons to start down a path of football goodness once again? It's an immense job with a lot of moving parts, including a potential lockout that may limit the timeframe teams have to sign players to contracts and offseason training. But first, the Cards need to identify their needs.
The biggest need, of course, is at quarterback. Although it's kind of charming to watch project rookie quarterbacks give football a try -- in the same way that observing an infant walking for the first time is so darn adorable -- it'd probably be a lot better to have one that can complete passes, understand blitzes and do things quarterbacks are generally expected to do in the NFL.
Many fans expect that the team will draft a quarterback in the first round with its fifth overall pick, but there are rumblings that Whisenhunt may not have the patience to develop such a quarterback or that the front office will be reluctant to pay the big bucks required to sign a first round QB. But, let's say they do pursue one in the 2011 NFL Draft. Who's going to be available?
The dominos have not yet completely fallen, given that consensus first overall pick Andrew Luck may return to Stanford. If he does go back, this may be a bad year for the Cards to draft a QB, as that's one less quality player on the board when they're picking. But let's assume Luck comes out. The teams that pick before Arizona are the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Panthers, if they're not stupid, are going to take Luck despite drafting Jimmy Clausen in the second round last year. The Broncos are likely to stick with Tim Tebow given his impressive performances to close out the year (and first round pick status). The Bills could pass on drafting a QB; incumbent Ryan Fitzpatrick had a pretty good year and could very well be the answer for Buffalo if they boost his supporting cast. The Bengals are another wild card ("wild card" in this context meaning a team with an inept front office capable of making illogical, unpredictable decisions). Word has them still liking Carson Palmer, despite a turnover-happy season. But he's also being paid $11.5 million in 2011. So, they may cut him. Or keep him. It seems feasible that one of the two wild-card teams may draft a QB.
Most mock drafts have Auburn's Cam Newton, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, Washington's Jake Locker, and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert being available after the first overall pick and likely worth taking in the first round. Gabbert's a late addition to the discussion, but ESPN's draft guru Todd McShay has him as the second-best quarterback in the 2011 Draft and has Arizona taking him fifth overall. Mallett's been a more popular target of speculation for the Cards, however, and Newton has been in the discussion, as well. It's debatable whether Newton is a Whisenhunt type of player, given his off-the-field concerns and his run-happy playing style. Fifth overall is probably a stretch for any of these guys, and Arizona may eschew them all completely and take a "best talent on the board" approach and end up drafting someone like Georgia WR A.J. Green or Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara. They might also look at trading down in the draft to get an extra pick and still grab a QB near the end of the first round.
Regardless of whether or not the Cardinals draft a quarterback, they'll end up acquiring a veteran in free agency (or trade), as well. They still like John Skelton, but they probably like him more as a third-string guy that has two or three years to learn the game at his leisure. Donovan McNabb is likely to be available, but the team had no interest in him last offseason and likely still won't, given that he just finished up one of the worst seasons of his career with the Washington Redskins. Baltimore Ravens back-up Marc Bulger was one of the team's targets last season, but his delayed release by the St. Louis Rams, combined with his own qualms about jumping right back into the fire after a 2009-2010 that was physically and mentally draining, made that marriage impossible. But with his contract expiring and a year to heal his body and soul, would Bulger have interest in signing in Arizona? Bulger may be a few years too far on the washed-up side, though.
The Cardinals are reportedly interested in pursuing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb, but trading for him would probably cost Arizona a first-round pick. If Carolina, Cincinnati, or Buffalo drafts a QB, then Jimmy Clausen (blech!), Carson Palmer (less blech, but half-broken and overpaid), or Ryan Fitzpatrick may be available. Fitzpatrick is young(ish), smart, reasonably accurate and reasonably careful with the football. He's probably not a franchise guy, but he's an above-average filler until you find that guy, perhaps under a couch cushion or beneath that pile of old magazines you're keeping for some reason. In Denver, Kyle Orton may be the odd man out and might fit nicely as a stop-gap for the Cardinals, though he'll supposedly cost a second round pick, which is a bit heavy considering he's already being paid $8.4 million next season and has a weird sloppy beard that borders on hobo-chic.
There are a lot of options on the table to address the team's biggest position of need, and the good news is that almost all of the options are better than Derek Anderson, Max Hall or John Skelton taking starting snaps in 2011-2012.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of other positions of need. Ken Whisenhunt was very curt in addressing widespread underperformances on this year's team. "I think sometimes you get emotionally attached to players and what they've done for you in the past, and you have a tendency to overlook certain things," Whisenhunt said. "I think that builds up over time when you have success and you start evaluating players based on what you remember them doing a year or two or three or four ago and maybe not candidly assessing where they are now."
Though he didn't name names, safety Adrian Wilson, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive ends Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, offensive linemen Levi Brown and Alan Faneca, running back Beanie Wells, and wide receivers Early Doucet and Steve Breaston are a handful of the perceived "talent" that either fell short of expectations or are facing contract situations that aren't likely to be resolved with their current team. There is heavy roster turnover every year in the NFL, but after such a difficult season (after winning back-to-back division titles), there are bound to be some surprising cuts/trades for players once thought to be part of the team's core.
Of course, there are only so many positions that can be effectively addressed with the draft or free agency, so some of the so-called slackers are likely to just get a talkin' to and a stern warning to elevate their play going forward. The Cardinals oh-so-desperately need some elite pass-rushing and pass protection, so linebacker and left tackle are likely to be very high on the team's list of "positions we can no longer suck at." Rookie LBs O'Brien Schofield and Daryl Washington both showed a lot of promise throughout the season, but it would not be overly shocking if Arizona drafted another one in the first three rounds.
Though there are huge holes to fill on the field, not all of the problems lie there. The coaching staff will require some cleansing. It seems obvious that defensive coordinator Bill Davis will be fired, or at least removed from his position, flogged excessively and then cast to the lowest rung of the coaching depth chart which includes duties like giving Russ Grimm foot massages and reminding the Millers which one is which on an hourly basis.
Arizona's defense came into the season touted very highly, so much so that Whisenhunt felt comfortable with Derek Anderson as the team's starting quarterback. Seems silly now, but the expectation was that the D would be able to keep the team in games that could not be won on pure scoring. Well, that didn't happen. Not only was this year's team second-to-last in total offense, it was fourth-to-last in total offense allowed. So, yeah, double-failure. Outside of getting a quality D-coordinator (like perhaps Jeff Fisher (if Titans owner Bud Adams chooses Vince Young over his long-time coach)), the Cards may also consider a scheme change. Going from 3-4 to 4-3 may better suit some of the team's personnel like Dockett, who's a more effective interior lineman than an end, given that he's more about strength than agility -- more hippo than crocodile, to use a dangerous aquatic creatures metaphor.
Some have petitioned for Whisenhunt to permanently give up play-calling duties and for the team to hire a true offensive coordinator. However, the team's offensive problems seemed more personnel- and execution-based. Yes, Whisenhunt probably should have realized his quarterback and pass protection talent would not support a pass-based offensive system any longer, but his options were pretty limited. The run game was equally horrendous. Tim Hightower and Wells finished the season with 736 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and 397 yards (3.4 YPC), respectively. It's unlikely the team wastes time/money going after an OC and instead hopes that having players that can effectively play offense will do the trick.
The only other major coaching change might come on the offensive line. Russ Grimm, though a long-time friend and coaching companion of Whisenhunt, might be fired -- though it's more likely he leaves the team for a head coaching gig elsewhere. The offensive line was supposed to be much better and deeper than last year's version, but no. Whisenhunt, when filling out the O-Line Mad Libs, should have used "crappier" and "less filled with talent" as the adjectives instead to avoid lying to himself and Cardinals fans.
The Arizona Cardinals have a lot to do this offseason, if staying in contention is on their honey-do list. And they have to do it all in an uncertain financial environment that may be filled with work stoppages. Rod Graves and Ken Whisenhunt do not have jobs to be coveted -- unless you like the idea of getting paid millions of dollars to think about football all the time instead of real-world issues like world hunger, poverty, global warming, unemployment in a weak job market, Mayan end-of-the-world scenarios and the possibility of Sarah Palin actually running this country in 2012.