THE BELIEF A $455million state-of-the-art stadium has cured the team's inferiority complex, andthe addition of charismatic running back Edgerrin James provides the missingoffensive link for a club that hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher-or made it to thepostseason-since 1998.
THE REALITY Sincecoach Dennis Green was hired before the 2004 season the Cardinals have been theLos Angeles Clippers of the NFL: a team that intrigues in the preseason butdisappoints on the field. Yet even after finishing 5-11 last year, they showedwhy prognosticators loved them: Arizona was the only team in the NFL ranked inthe top 10 in offense and defense (eighth in both categories).
With dynamicyoung receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin the attack was indeedprolific-but at the same time deeply flawed. The Cardinals passed for 4,723yards and rushed for 1,138, the widest disparity in the league, percentagewise.And while they moved the chains plenty, they lost their mojo in the red zone,with only 13 touchdowns in 46 trips inside the 20. Yes, placekicker NeilRackers made a league-record 40 field goals, but Arizona doesn't want himscoring 45% of its points again.
"If weimprove inside the red zone, it's going to be a whole different season,"says quarterback Kurt Warner, who missed six games with knee and groininjuries. "If you're going to throw the ball every snap inside the five,there's not a lot of places to throw it. So it gets harder the closer you getto the end zone."
That's whereJames, the former Colts All-Pro signed to a four-year, $30 million contract,comes in. At 28 he isn't in the waning days of his career: Last year he had1,506 rushing yards and an NFL-best 115 first downs on carries and receptions."He brings a winning attitude," says Boldin. "He brings aconfidence, a swagger. But most of all he brings a running presence."
But James'sproduction will be hard to replicate behind a line that's not nearly as sturdyas Indianapolis's. How weak is that unit? It expects a boost from former Texansright guard Milford Brown-and Houston allowed the most sacks in the league lastyear. But left tackle Leonard Davis was a Pro Bowl alternate in '05 and will bemotivated to play even more impressively this year, the last on his contract.Most promising, Green replaced inexperienced line coach Everett Lindsay withthe respected Steve Loney from the Vikings.
The Cardinals'defense was ranked higher than such established units as New England's,Seattle's and Washington's. But blitz-happy Arizona struggled to preventred-zone scoring (24 TDs in 44 chances, 24th in the league). The return ofdefensive end Bert Berry, who had six sacks in eight games before aseason-ending knee injury, will help, as will the continued development ofyoung linebacker Karlos Dansby, cornerback Antrel Rolle and safety AdrianWilson.
Spirits are sohigh in the desert that season tickets sold out for the first time since thefranchise arrived from St. Louis in 1988. And the new climate-controlledstadium enables Arizona to host an opening-week game for the first time.
Is all thisoptimism justified? Hey, the Clippers made the playoffs this year-they evenadvanced to the second round. "We have the talent, we have the rightcoaches," says Boldin. "The only thing we have to do is cometogether."
17 at Seattle
24 ST. LOUIS
1 at Atlanta
8 KANSAS CITY
22 at Oakland
29 at GreenBay
3 at St.Louis
24 at SanFrancisco
31 at SanDiego
NFL rank 19
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .500
Games againstplayoff teams 4
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE CARDINALS
> The mainquestion is, Will quarterback Kurt Warner be durable enough? Which leads you tothe next question: Will Matt Leinart be ready to fill that role?
> Newassistant Steve Loney is a quality offensive line coach, but how long it takesthem to adjust to his teaching will be critical.
> I thoughtLeonard Davis, their first-rounder in 2001, would become a dominant lineman.You really shouldn't draft a guard that high, but that's what he is: a guardplaying left tackle.
> LinebackerKarlos Dansby has all the tools to be a star, but I wonder about his workethic.
> Thedefensive line is good. Darnell Dockett at tackle makes them solid on theinterior, and end Bert Berry is a proven pass rusher.
Corner AntrelRolle's ideal position is safety. He's tough and physical. He'd absolutelyexcel there.
This guy blursthe line between safety and linebacker. The 6'3" 230-pounder uses superbclosing speed and excellent instincts to create havoc near the line ofscrimmage. The 2001 third-rounder out of N.C. State had eight sacks in '05, anNFL record for defensive backs, while making a team-best 109 tackles-and stillwas only a Pro Bowl third alternate. If the Cards turn things around, Wilsonwon't go unrecognized much longer. Says cornerback Antrel Rolle, "I wastelling him the other day, 'Adrian, you shouldn't be able to walk around inpublic.'"
COACH DENNISGREEN (108-83 in NFL), third season with Arizona
EDGERRIN JAMES --NEW ACQUISITION
LEONARD POPE (R)-- NEW ACQUISITION
MILFORD BROWN --NEW ACQUISITION
SACKS 7 1/2
KENDRICK CLANCY-- NEW ACQUISITION
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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PETER READ MILLER (WARNER)
LUCKY 13? Fingers are crossed that Warner, who piloted the league's best air attack in '05, stays upright.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ