THAT BUZZ emanating from the Arizona desert is not the annual summertime invasion of cicadas, but rather the drone of unusually upbeat comments from football insiders about the Cardinals' 2005 prospects. And it isn't coming merely from the media, either. "Their offense is pretty potent with Kurt Warner leading the charge," says Cowboys safety Roy Williams, whose team lost its preseason opener to Arizona. "If they can stay healthy, the Cardinals will be a team to look out for this year."
It's easy to chalk up the optimism as some peyote-induced delusion. After all, Arizona fans have enjoyed only one winning season since the franchise moved to the Phoenix area in 1988, and last year's 6--10 effort was the team's sixth straight losing campaign. The franchise, dating to the days in Chicago, has one playoff victory in the last 56 years. Yet with second-year coach Dennis Green slowly changing the organization's cheap and cynical culture, plus an infusion of youthful talent (11 starters have three years or less experience), the Cardinals have bought into the hype.
"I know we're a buzz team and all that, but people don't realize how good we really are," says veteran safety Robert Griffith, who signed with Arizona as a free agent after three seasons with the Browns. "We have some very good players, and we're going to win here." It also doesn't hurt that the Cardinals play in what is shaping up as a weak division.
While Griffith is expected to provide steady leadership to a fast, aggressive defense, another 34-year-old free-agent acquisition, Warner, will try to bring the Cardinals' offense up to speed. The former two-time league MVP and Super Bowl MVP hopes to rebound from an unfulfilling half season as the Giants' starter and prove that he's still a productive NFL quarterback. Warner, who felt handcuffed in the Giants' restrictive offense before losing his job to anointed franchise savior Eli Manning last November, should have an ideal opportunity to recapture his old magic. The Cardinals may not be the Greatest Show on Turf, as the Rams were known in the quarterback's heyday in St. Louis, but there are some similarities: an explosive set of receivers, a versatile running back with pass-catching ability and a coach committed to a wide-open offense.
"What most people don't understand is that it's going to be more of a balanced attack this year," says wideout Anquan Boldin, a rookie sensation in 2003 who struggled in '04 after missing the first six games with torn cartilage in his right knee. "When people think of Denny, they think air attack, but we'll definitely run the ball."
That means rookie J.J. Arrington, a second-round draft pick out of Cal, should have a chance to make the same kind of sudden impact that Boldin made as a rookie. There are concerns about Arrington's size (5'9", 214 pounds) and durability, but second-year wideout Larry Fitzgerald doesn't share them. "J.J.'s going to be huge for us," says Fitzgerald, who had 58 receptions for 780 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie. "He's a shorter guy, but I think that gives him a huge advantage. If you're a defender, you can't identify him coming out of the hole, and by the time you see him, he's making you look bad."
With Boldin, Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson, a first-round pick out of Penn State in '03, racing downfield, Warner could look very good. That's assuming his line gives him time to throw. The line, led by massive left tackle Leonard Davis, is a work in progress, but Warner says the issue of protection extends beyond linemen holding their blocks. "So much of it is the receivers' timing and ability to get open--that allows me to set my feet and make quick reads," Warner says. "If you have a strong running game and good play-calling, with the coach mixing things up and keeping the defense off-balance, all of those things make an offensive line better."
Green, noting that the '04 Cardinals lost four games by three points each, believes this year's team will be good enough to pull out victories in such situations. Fitzgerald agrees but hopes that opponents continue to underestimate his club. "We think we're a good team," he says, "but we don't want the rest of the nation to catch on. We want them to think we're the Cardinals of old and come out and play half-speed against us. Maybe we'll get a couple of quick, cheap wins before they figure it out." --M.S.
After all the free-agent busts the Cardinals have signed over the years, they hit the jackpot with Bertrand Berry during the 2004 off-season. The 6'3", 277-pound defensive end had an NFC-best 141/2 sacks last season, the third-highest total in franchise history. (Four came against Kurt Warner in a victory over the Giants.) Berry also forced three fumbles in earning his first Pro Bowl selection. Not bad for a guy who was out of football in 2000, after being released in camp by the Rams.
AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW
This team has a lot of young talent, energy and potential. Still, I think people are overrating them a little bit. They have a chance to be 8--8 or a little better.... Bert Berry's a really good pass rusher, and Chike Okeaforwill help them too. Darnell Dockett's the type of inside player you like to have on a line.... Karlos Dansby has a lot of versatility--he can rush the passer, play the run or drop into coverage, and he's good at all of it.... The secondary has a chance to be really good. Robert Griffith is a smart player who's aggressive on run support; he just attacks the ball.... Adrian Wilson is a rangy, long-striding guy with ball skills. He makes some big hits, but he'll miss some tackles too.... The key on offense is whether Kurt Warner stays healthy. They're in real trouble if he goes down, because they don't have a good backup.... Their offensive line was better a couple of years ago. That right side, with Oliver Ross, might be able to get them through a season, but it's a little shaky.... Anquan Boldinis a lot like Torry Holt--he gets good separation from the top of his routes. When he breaks, he breaks open. Kurt will love him because he's a timing guy.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 6--10
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE 22/24/27 DEFENSE 27/9/12
COACH: Dennis Green; second season with Arizona (103--72 in NFL)
ELTON BROWN (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
OLIVER ROSS [NEW ACQUISITION]
YARDS 623 1
J.J. ARRINGTON (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
KURT WARNER [NEW ACQUISITION]
INT. 6 4
AARON GOLLIDAY* [NEW ACQUISITION]
XPs MADE 28
XPs ATT. 28
FG MADE 22
FG ATT. 29
SACKS 14 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
CHIKE OKEAFOR [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 8 1/2
ORLANDO HUFF [NEW ACQUISITION]
ROBERT GRIFFITH [NEW ACQUISITION]
FS 118 1 1
ANTREL ROLLE (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (stats for final college year) *2002 college PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
11 at N.Y. Giants
18 ST. LOUIS
25 at Seattle
2 SAN FRANCISCO*
16 Open date
30 at Dallas
13 at Detroit
20 at St. Louis
4 at San Francisco
18 at Houston
24 PHILADELPHIA (S)
1 at Indianapolis
(S) SATURDAY *IN MEXICO CITY
NFL rank: 31 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .449 Games against playoff teams: 6