Wednesday February 24th, 2010

No team is likely to absorb more body blows than the Cardinals this offseason. Pro Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner retired three weeks ago and defensive standouts Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle are expected to leave next month as free agents. All were key contributors the past two years, when the Cardinals won playoff games in consecutive seasons for the first time in team history, and their absences will be felt if the expected becomes reality.

Still, a case can be made that the Cardinals' future has never looked brighter. For the first time in the franchise's 91-year history, these former Keystone Kops appear to have a credible plan for building a consistent winner, and that means risking short-term pain for long-term gain. The team doesn't want to lose Dansby or Rolle, but it's no longer willing to skydive without a parachute when it comes to contract negotiations.

The Cardinals could keep Dansby, a talented linebacker entering his seventh season, off the open market by slapping the franchise tag on him for a third consecutive year. But that would mean guaranteeing him $16.4 million on a one-year deal (or nearly double what he earned the previous two seasons combined). Dansby is a nice player, but not $16.4 million-for-one-year nice.

Rolle is a talented free safety whom the Cardinals could keep by honoring his current contract. But that would mean paying $12 million in virtual guarantees for one season -- $4 million in a roster bonus next month and $8 million in salary. Rolle is a nice player, but not $12 million-for-one-year nice.

That the Cardinals are willing to let the players walk does not mean the organization is cheap. It means Arizona is finally getting wise. It's looking at tomorrow and not just today. Committing $28.4 million to two very good, but not great, players is foolish for one season. That kind of short-sightedness is a major reason the Cardinals are even in this mess.

In 2004 and 2005, respectively, they wanted rookies Larry Fitzgerald and Rolle to report to training camp as early as possible, so they gave in and signed them to contracts that included significant escalator clauses in the latter part of the deals. The Cardinals reasoned that if the players lived up to expectations the team would redo the deals before the escalators kicked in. One problem: The escalators were so significant that the players had no real incentive to renegotiate their rookie deals.

Fitzgerald, who was selected third overall in 2004, was scheduled to make $14.5 million in 2008 and $17.4 million in 2009 as part of his original deal. Those salaries were unprecedented for a wideout at the time and they forced the team, which was desperate for salary-cap relief, to sign Fitzgerald to a record $40 million, four-year deal in March 2008.

Rolle was selected eighth overall in 2005, and the Cardinals believed that if he triggered his escalators they would have one of the game's top young cornerbacks. The problem? Rolle was switched to safety last season after struggling at cornerback. The $12 million he's scheduled to earn this season is almost double the franchise number ($6.455 million) for safeties.

Arizona does not want to find itself in that position again, which is why it's taking a potentially unpopular (in the short-term) stance with Dansby and Rolle. Fact is, it's the right decision. Rolle is a good player, but the Cardinals still must redo Fitzgerald, arguably the game's top wideout, in the next two years, and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Darnell Dockett also is seeking an upgraded deal, as is wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Third-year cornerback Dominique Rodgers Cromartie also could be in line for a big payday in the next couple of years, as could quarterback Matt Leinart if he proves to be a capable replacement for Warner.

Good teams are mindful of their salary structure, and the Cardinals last year signed strong safety Adrian Wilson to a $39 million, five-year deal that included $18.5 million in guarantees. If the team keeps Rolle under his current contract, it would have $18 million invested in its starting safeties for this season: $12 million in Rolle, $6 million in Wilson. That's too much.

The decision to let Rolle hit the open market is actually a calculated gamble by the Cardinals, who hope to re-sign him if they can't get a new deal done before the start of free agency. Teams are not expected to spend as lavishly in free agency this year for fear of a possible work stoppage (lockout) in 2011. If clubs do show more restraint -- granted, that's a big if -- it could mean Rolle's best offer might be the one the Cardinals have on the table.

That's a long-winded way of saying the Cardinals are not stumbling around in the dark. They appear to have learned from their mistakes of the past. The franchise is not only growing up, but getting wiser too.

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