With NFL training camps just around the corner, we're taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Last year was a tale of two seasons for the Arizona Cardinals. After dropping Cam Newton and the Panthers in Week 1, the Cardinals lost their next six games, essentially ending their playoff dreams. But Arizona still proceeded to take seven of its final nine games, a run that included four overtime victories and wins over the Cowboys and 49ers.
Which team will show up to start 2012?
With the addition of first-round pick receiver Michael Floyd, the Cardinals hope to finally take some pressure off Larry Fitzgerald, who has had to carry the passing game load basically by himself since Anquan Boldin left for Baltimore in 2010. That, and a relatively quiet offseason otherwise, has Arizona generating some positive momentum. The gap between the Cardinals and the top teams in the NFC may not be as wide as it looked through the 2011 season's halfway point.
2011 Record: 8-8 (second place, NFC West)
Key Additions: CB Jamell Fleming, WR Michael Floyd, CB William Gay, LB Quentin Groves, OL Adam Snyder
Key Subtractions: LB Clark Haggans, CB Richard Marshall
Team Strengths: ST, WR, DB
Team Weaknesses: QB, RB, OL
Three Things to Watch:
1. Is Kevin Kolb the right man for the job?: The Cardinals didn't do much to hide their interest in Peyton Manning when he hit the open market this offseason. While it's understandable that they'd want the future Hall of Famer, their pursuit of him doesn't say a lot for the team's confidence in Kolb. The ex-Eagle went 3-6 in his first season with Arizona, while John Skelton posted a 5-2 record with Kolb out due to a concussion. Can Kolb, who is signed through 2016, hold onto his starting job or will Skelton unseat him? Either way, Arizona might be in the market for a QB next summer.
2. Will Patrick Peterson take the next step?: Move over, Devin Hester -- there's a new special teams superstar in town. Peterson, the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft, returned four punts for TDs last season, including a 99-yarder to beat St. Louis in overtime. The speedy Peterson gives Arizona a dangerous return-game dimension that few teams have. But what Arizona needs from its second-year star is better play at the cornerback spot. Peterson led the Cardinals defense with 10 penalties in 2011, and the receivers he was responsible for put up nearly 900 yards receiving. Arizona is counting on him to develop into a Pro Bowl talent at defensive back, in addition to his world-class return game.
3. Can the Cardinals' offensive line improve?: Arizona QBs were sacked 54 times last season, one off the league-high mark set by divisional rival St. Louis. The Cardinals also ran the ball just 389 times, the fifth-lowest total in the NFL. To get back to playoff contention in 2012, the Cardinals need better pass protection and a much more even balance in their game plan. Both goals start up front, where new arrival Adam Snyder should slot in at right guard, adding an experienced and proven player on the interior. But the big key will be the play of left tackle Levi Brown -- he was downright putrid last season, giving up 11 of those 54 sacks by himself.
Outlook: The Cardinals have one of the league's best weapons on offense in wide receiver Fitzgerald, and the dynamic Peterson gives them hope for a similar game-changer on defense. This team is also not all that far removed from the one that captured back-to-back division titles in 2008-09 and made a Super Bowl run.
The main difference is under center, where Arizona has traded in Kurt Warner for Kolb and, to a lesser extent, Skelton. Alex Smith
and the 49ers proved last season that you can win without consistently great quarterback play, but the Cardinals need one of their two guys to step up and grab the bull by the horns. If that happens, there's no reason this team can't compete. Don't be surprised if Arizona walks away with the NFC West in 2012.