ANQUAN BOLDIN haswitnessed so many changes in coaches and personnel during his career with theCardinals that he pauses, rolls his eyes and chuckles before trying to recountthem.
"Let'ssee," the receiver says after a late-afternoon practice during trainingcamp. "I'm in my sixth year and I've had three head coaches, probably fiveor six coordinators, six quarterbacks and new O-linemen every week."
About the onlychange he hasn't witnessed is in the team's fortunes. Arizona remainsfootball's version of purgatory: The Cardinals have not had a winning seasonsince 1998, the only time they finished above .500 in the last 24 years.Constant turnover has been a prime culprit. The franchise has had eight coachessince moving from St. Louis in 1988—only the Raiders (nine) have had moreduring that span—and its 12 coaching changes since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970are tied with Buffalo for the most among franchises that have been incontinuous existence since then.
If the teamwasn't making a move at the top—going from Vince Tobin to Dave McGinnis toDennis Green to Ken Whisenhunt in this decade alone—it was making the quick-fixreach for fading stars in free agency. The notables include NFL career rushingleader Emmitt Smith and reigning Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson in 2003, formerleague and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner in '05 and Colts star Edgerrin James in'06.
August 31, 2008
This year,however, the theme is continuity. For the first time in recent memory, theCardinals have brought back the same coaching staff, the same playbooks and,basically, the same roster from the previous season. While some teams takethose things for granted, such constancy is looked upon with wonder inArizona.
"For us to gointo a season under the same system, under the same head coach, with prettymuch the same players means a lot," Boldin says. "I thought we showedflashes last year—especially toward the end of the year—of how good we can be.Right now we're picking up where we left off."
If true, theCardinals might finally live up to their annual billing as a potential sleeper,an expectation they've failed to justify the last several seasons. But a 5--3finish over the second half of 2007—with two of the defeats by a touchdown orless—has them believing they're ready to be winners at last. The continuitycould begin with the quarterback who directed that solid finish. After takingover for the injured Matt Leinart in Week 6 last year, Warner had his bestseason since 2001 (27 TDs, 17 INTs) and looked ready to win the competition forthe job. On the line, all five starters return at the same positions—only thesecond time in 20 years that the Cardinals could make that statement.
"As anoffense, the more you play together, the better you're going to be," saysJames, who in his first seven years in the league, with the Colts, played forone coordinator (Tom Moore) and lined up behind one starting quarterback(Peyton Manning). Indy ranked in the top four in scoring six times in thatspan. "You've got to have the core intact, and once you have the coreintact you can plug people in," James says. "But until you get thatcore together, it's kind of complicated. You're kind of freestyling."
There areplaymakers at wideout in Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, a blend of experience(James) and youth (rookie Tim Hightower from Richmond) at running back, a savvySuper Bowl winner at quarterback (Warner) and a defense that gets back threepotential impact players who missed a total of 30 games in '07 because ofinjuries: safety Adrian Wilson, linebacker Chike Okeafor and end-linebackerBertrand Berry.
"We can beunstoppable with the guys we have on this field, on both sides of theball," Boldin says. "Look at the weapons we have on offense. Look atthe speed and the athleticism we have on defense. The sky's the limit."This time, he doesn't roll his eyes.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH KEN WHISENHUNT (8--8 in NFL), secondseason with Cardinals
SACKS 8 1/2
SACKS 5 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 2 1/2
2007 RECORD 8--8NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 29/5/12 DEFENSE 9/28/17
7 at San Francisco
21 at Washington
28 at N.Y. Jets
26 at Carolina
2 at St. Louis
10 SAN FRANCISCO (M)
16 at Seattle
23 N.Y. GIANTS
27 at Philadelphia (T)
7 ST. LOUIS
21 at New England
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL Rank: 21
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .465
Games against playoff teams: 6
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Cardinals' units.
Will Matt Leinart ever emerge as the clear No. 1?
James is 30 and on the decline; very little behind him.
Boldin, Fitzgerald are elite; fine prospect in Early Doucet.
Area of renewed emphasis; Pope must come through in '08.
Line has been building for some time; one of the team's strengths.
Two young tackles, Watson and Alan Branch, must mature.
Health of oft-injured Okeafor and Dansby is major concern.
Questions at corner; Wilson a hard-hitting playmaker.
Rackers must rediscover the form he showed in '06.
A corner since he was All-America at Miami, Rolle hasbeen moved to a new position. Arizona wants to capitalize on his good range andball skills (five interceptions in 2007, three returned for touchdowns). IfRolle makes a smooth transition, he and Adrian Wilson give the Cardinals one ofthe league's top safety tandems.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
October 7, 1957
MATSON SAT up on the edge of the cot and rubbed a shingently. His leg is pocked and scarred with the stigmata of the trade of arunning back in the National Football League, and he explored the scars gentlywith the tips of surprisingly slender fingers. "This is a very roughgame," he said. "But it has never been rougher on me because of myrace."
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