The Arizona Cardinals started 4-0 last season. Remember that?
They knocked off the Seahawks in Week 1, then marched into Foxboro and took down the mighty Patriots in Week 2. Wins over Philadelphia and Miami followed, with QB Kevin Kolb throwing a combined five touchdowns passes in those games, and just like that the Cardinals were the NFL's surprise team at the quarter pole.
Unfortunately for them, they also were a league laughingstock over the final 3/4 of the year -- their lone win over the final 13 weeks of the regular season came over the Lions on Dec. 16. That 38-10 triumph snapped a nine-game losing streak (and, as luck would have it, also cost the Cardinals three or four spots in the draft).
The Cardinals' collapse enticed them to make some big changes, both at QB, where Carson Palmer will replace Kolb; and at head coach and GM, where Bruce Arians and Steve Keim now have the reins, respectively. That new regime has also made some smart moves this offseason.
The result: Arizona could be a much improved team in 2013. And the standings might not show it at all.
That's because the Cardinals have the current misfortune of playing in the NFL's best division, the NFC West. San Francisco and Seattle are the two most popular conference-champion picks for this coming season (per the gambling site Bovada, the 49ers are Super Bowl favorites at 6/1 odds; Seattle is fourth at 17/2). Also standing in Arizona's way is a St. Louis team that finished 7-8-1 last season (including a 2-1-1 mark against the Niners and Seahawks) and stocked up in the draft with players like Tavon Austin and Alec Ogletree.
The Cardinals finished 1-5 against their NFC West rivals last season, the lone victory that Week 1 takedown of Seattle. Another six intra-division games loom this season, as always, plus trips to New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Tennessee and home games with Atlanta, Houston and Indianapolis.
Will the Cardinals even be able to match last year's win total, given that daunting schedule?
Even if they don't take a page out of their early 2012 playbook and sneak up on some people, there's plenty of evidence that this ship is headed in the right direction. Consider that:
• Arizona still has Larry Fitzgerald, easily a top-10 receiver in this league, though his numbers have suffered due to poor QB and offensive line play in recent seasons.
• The Cardinals addressed that sieve-like line by drafting guards Jonathan Cooper (Round 1) and Earl Watford (Round 4), two important building blocks along the interior.
• Calais Campbell continues to be one of the league's best 3-4 defensive ends -- Pro Football Focus graded him out as the No. 3 player at that position last season.
• Patrick Peterson is among the game's brighter stars at cornerback -- he picked off seven passes last season -- and received help with the offseason signings of Antoine Cason and Jerraud Powers, as well as the draft selection of Tyrann Mathieu.
Long story short, Arizona's dream of returning to relevance is not just a desert mirage. But there remains plenty to be concerned about, starting with the quarterback position.
With the Kolb era coming to a dismal end, Arizona turned to Palmer as its next hope there. The veteran QB could be a nice fit in Arians' offense, too, and should offer Fitzgerald much more consistent options in the passing game. Palmer is also 33 years old, fell out of favor in Oakland and has a combined 12-28 mark as a starter since 2010.
Arizona also still needs to figure out who its No. 2 receiver will be: Ryan Swope, Andre Roberts or Michael Floyd? That offensive line remains a work in progress, as well, especially at tackle -- Arizona allowed more sacks (58) than any team in the league last season.
Oh yeah, and Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington will miss the first four games of the year for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and could be facing a longer suspension, following an offseason arrest. His absence could be doubly painful since the Cardinals bid farewell this offseason to stalwarts Kerry Rhodes, Adrian Wilson, Quentin Groves and defensive coordinator Ray Horton (in favor of Todd Bowles).
But when all the ins and outs of Arizona's roster reworkings are done, the only question that matters is this: Are the Cardinals headed in the right direction?
It's easy to get caught up in the intoxication of a new course of action. Every coaching/GM change inherently brings an air of optimism along with it, often ensued by a letdown. The Cardinals need look no further than Denny Green's run as head coach (or the end of Ken Whisenhunt's time with Arizona) as evidence.
What seems to lay the groundwork here for brighter days is the shrewd approach Keim has taken to his personnel moves thus far.
The draft brought the Cardinals as many as seven or eight rookies that could contribute early, including sixth-rounders Ryan Swope and Andre Ellington. Keim has coupled that infusion of youth with low-risk signings -- Dansby, Cason and RB Rashard Mendenhall all received cheap, one-year deals; Palmer's three-year, $26 million contract likely will cost Arizona only $10-$16 million over the next couple of seasons.
Rather than swing for the fences and overpay one or two big-name players, the Cardinals have focused on staying viable long-term, supplementing promising but unproven talent with reliable veterans.
The trick will be sticking with that slow-and-steady outlook if (when?) the Cardinals struggle to compete against the rest of the NFC West in 2013. That 4-0 start by the Cardinals in 2012 was misleading -- Arizona was never quite as good as it seemed early. The reverse scenario might play out this year, as an improving Cardinals team struggles to find wins.