The Warners, er, Cardinals

To accurately assess the Arizona Cardinals, there is one mandatory rule.  You must first place a value on Kurt Warner, the quarterback who is considering retirement.  Was he 100 percent responsible for the team’s successes of the last two seasons?  Or 50 percent?  What is your figure?  Mine is very high.

Without Warner I see a very average NFL team in the Cardinals, a team that would’ve been fortunate to win half its games last season.  And doubly fortunate to reach the playoffs.   Instead the Cardinals finished 10-6 in regular season and reached the second round of the playoffs.  It is a freaky team, probably more dependent on one player, Warner, than any other team in the league.

Even with Warner playing as he did, at a very high level, the other ingredients often missed the mark. 

The defense proved again it could play atrociously at times.  Even with three All-Pros.  One of them, tackle Darnell Dockett, disappeared altogether in New Orleans.  Not even a single tackle and almost no pressure on the Saints quarterback Drew Brees.  To say injuries to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Antrel Rolle led to that final loss is ridiculous.  Both played the week before in that defensive debacle of the last quarter and a half against Green Bay. 

Then there was the “improved”  running game.  Considering most opponents over-played the pass in fear of Warner, you would expect a rise in run production.  But in truth, the Cardinals’ top draft pick and most talented running back, Beanie Wells, regressed in the last part of the season and had a disappointing time in the Louisiana Dome.  The other running back, Tim Hightower, will never be more than adequate unless he puts on weight and develops more speed.  His 70-yard touchdown-run on the first play in New Orleans was a fluke, a horrible lapse on the part of the Saints defense.

And when you talk about the Cardinals in 2008 and 2009, you have to consider their lightweight schedule.  The team all but had five victories in the bag before the ’09 season began.  They so out-matched St. Louis, Seattle and Detroit that a loss in any of those games bordered on impossible.  Given that, the Cardinals were 5-6 against other opponents.  And a nice win at home over Minnesota caught the Vikings coasting, much as the Cardinals coasted in the last part of  ’08.

My assessment of Warner’s value to the Cardinal is this.  I believe he was 90 percent responsible for the team’s fine record the last two seasons.  Without him, it may’ve been “the same ol’ Cardinals” of yesteryear.  Say what you want about the greatness of Larry Fitzgerald.  But if someone doesn’t read the defenses accurately and throw the ball within Fitzgerald’s mighty range, how effective can he or any other receiver be? 

If  Warner retires, and  their is no true sign he will (unless you take to heart the camera shots of his wife Brenda in New Orleans with eyes closed in fear of her husband turning into ground meat), then seismic changes will have to occur.  Here are a few I see:

If indeed heir-apparent Matt Leinart is Warner’s replacement, expect a shift in the character of the offense.  A lot more balance, less passing and more running.  Less scoring, more reliance on field position, Ben Graham’s punting and defense than before.  Leinart would face some headwinds.  Warner’s shadow for one.  Playing without injury for another (two bad shoulder injuries already in a short career). And I wonder if he carries the passion to become a successful NFL quarterback.

If Leinart is so dubbed, look for a shake-up among the offensive coaches.  Warner coached himself, but Leinart will need help.  Ken Whisenhunt should hire an offensive coordinator and get out of the way, go back to being just the head coach.

Beanie Wells should be moved up to a new role as starter and primary ball carrier.  By alternating with Hightower, Beanie will never become the blue-chip back for which he seemed destined after leaving Ohio State.  He needs more carries, a chance to get into rhythm. 

The defense needs a shake-up.  That may involve hiring a new coordinator.  The current one, Bill Davis, was Whisenhunt’s second choice last year after firing Clancy Pendergast.  The unit has gone nowhere under the Davis regime either.  An upgrade replacement for Bryan McFadden at cornerback would be nice.  As would would be  the addition of a talented pass rusher. 

And even with Warner’s return, many of those changes should occur. Not to mention the possible  loss of key players like Karlos Dansby or Anquan Boldin.  One of the more interesting off-seasons  for the Cardinals is in store.

As for the head coach, I give Whisenhunt a grade of B.  After all, he knew the value of  Warner and didn’t tinker too much with the engine.  But Whisenhunt’s real value might better be evaluated if Warner goes, and more demands are placed on his coaching.

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