Home > NFL, Roster Roundouts > Roster Roundouts: An Arizona Cardinals Preseason Report

Roster Roundouts: An Arizona Cardinals Preseason Report

flickr.com/MPR529

flickr.com/MPR529

I’ve always been a firm believer that Matt Leinart would be the future in Arizona, but having a night to digest the Cards’ first preseason game, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s the case anymore.  Not so much that he isn’t the future in Arizona, but that, if he is, the future is not now.

It’s something that you have to watch the mundane portions of the preseason to realize: that so much of the way the Cardinals offense has evolved over the past 12 months relies on things that Warner does well to get a competitive advantage.  The Cardinals are one of the very few teams in the league (and I guess we can reasonably assume the Chiefs are as well) who will beat your third down blitz with a quick throw and run after catch.

The preference for this in a pro style offense is to make sure you have enough blockers to pick up the blitzes, and then let the quality of blocking execution decide whether or not the offense will convert.  If a quarterback gets 4.0-4.5 seconds against a blitz to convert, it’s a near certainty that the ball will be squeezed in there.  But the Cardinals don’t really approach pass protection in a conventional way since it never really worked for them anyway.  They’ll block with 6 guys a lot, but against an overload blitz, the team is reliant on Warner to get the ball not only out of his hand quickly, but to the only receiver on the field who is open enough to pick up the yards.

In other words, the system fits the skill set of a guy from the arena league, and limits that of a traditional pro-style quarterback from a cushy USC program.  None of this is a knock on Leinart as a prospect, but it puts the 2009 Cardinals between a rock and a hard place in terms of their chances at repeating as NFC West champs.  Unless the system can also make Warner resistant to a natural Kurt Warner injury season, they might find themselves in the middle of the year playing with the backup in a system that forces him out of his comfort level.

Consider this a trade off for the improbable playoff run.  The Cardinals simply were not going to make it past the first round of the playoffs without an offensive adjustment to take advantage of their many strengths.  It’s not like the Cardinals were a wide open passing offense for a majority of the 2008 season.  They did a lot of empty back formations and a lot of shotguns, and a lot of horizontal passing, but with limited success.  Warner won the job because he showed a better command of the offense than did Leinart, but he didn’t really take over games until the playoffs.

There’s no reason that, coming right out of the gate, that the Cardinals can’t channel some of that playoff magic in their passing offense.  But, save for one clutch run (reception, actually) in the NFC Championship by Tim Hightower, the man who provided the balance in the playoffs for this offense was Edgerrin James.   He’s gone.  The Cardinals will likely use a combination of Tim Hightower and Jason Wright early in the season as first round pick Beanie Wells gets acclimated to the game, but Wells is a guy who was taken to be a backfield mate of Matt Leinart, not Warner.

There’s also something to be said for the amount of development time it takes to create offensive chemistry.  But, this isn’t just about a comfort level with the interpersonal relationships between the players, it’s more about defining roles in your offense and fitting people into those roles.  If you change the quarterback and leave the offense, the new quarterback struggles.   If you change the offense, the players around him struggle, and you waste potential transition time.

Which makes this sort of a transitional year for the Cardinals.  It could have been a complete transitional year; they didn’t have to extend the contract of Warner through 2010.  The fact that they did just makes a quick start to the 2009 season an absolute necessity.  If they start 5-1 or 6-2, it makes it easy to take the foot off the pedal a little bit while still competing to win the NFC West.  If they start 3-3, the aging Cards have absolutely no competitive advantage which would suggest that they are better than they would have shown.  A 3-3 start means an 8-8 or worse finish.

Again, this isn’t about the limitations of Ken Whisenhunt as a coach: the Cards enter 2009 as one of the five most dangerous teams in football.  It’s more about what he traded to reach those heights, which was a sustainable, long term winning cycle built around Matt Leinart and a hard nosed defense.  Whisenhunt’s coaching job down the stretch last year will be remembered as one of the best jobs by a coach in history: they very nearly won the Super Bowl, beating four of the best teams in football along the way.  I’m just pointing out that the scheme that helped to create this performance hinges on the health of so many veterans and players with irreplacable skills that this same offense will eventually turn into a liability.  It’s simply an educated prediction that this inevitable occurance will happen in the next four months.  It could happen on a Saturday in January.  They could win the super bowl, followed by a week one collapse in 2010.

If you look at the defense, you can conclude this team is much closer to sustainable winning than Kansas City, Denver, or Detroit.  They have a star at every level, from Darnell Dockett to Karlos Dansby to Adrian Wilson.  The starting corners, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie and Bryant McFadden, should be strong.  The defense gives up a lot of big plays: we can’t in good faith say that Antrell Rolle is an adequate free safety, and the depth in the secondary is largely unimpressive, though 4th round CB Greg Toler should help that.  Otherwise, the defense has some power issues up the middle, and relies on the in-the-box presence of SS Adrian Wilson to solidify a finesse run defense, but it’s a scheme that seems to work for them.  Except for the big plays.

Whiz can always re-invent himself, and his offense anytime he wants to, but not without concessions.  That’s the difference between a team in rebuilding and a team in transition.  The Cardinals are not rebuilding, the backups are the future on the offensive line and in the backfield.  The sky is the limit for a team that finds itself in what SI’s Ross Tucker described as a “Two Horse Race” for the division with Seattle.  But for them to reach their potential, the milk must stay fresh well past the expiration date.  The team that takes the field in week one is probably every bit as good as you expect them to be, but the real question is which Cards team will take the field in week seven?

Cardinals Camp, NAU at Flagstaff

An average amount of camp battles to be decided in Flagstaff, most more important than the media-created Brian St. Pierre vs. Matt Leinart.

Tight End: Ben Patrick vs. Anthony Becht

Patrick tested positive for a banned substance, and will miss the first four games of this season.  So the choice becomes: 16 games of the steady veteran, or 12 games of the high upside talent?  Yeah, the odds are still against Becht to make the roster as the third tight end, but before the suspension, he was just a camp body.

Offensive Tackle: Trevor Canfield vs. Brandon Pearce

Canfield was a Guard prospect out of the university of Cincinnati who the Cardinals are trying to convert into a run blocking backup tackle.  Pearce brings the versatility to line up at both tackle spots as well as the occasional appearance at guard, but it’s tough when you’re battling for a roster spot with a hand picked draftee.  You really have to seperate from the pack.

Defensive End: Keilen Dykes vs. Rodney Leisle

Dykes is ahead of Leisle on the depth chart, who is trying to make the team after not seeing significant action in this league since being on the 2006 Saints.  Dykes has the shorter path to a roster spot.

Safety: Keith Lewis vs. Matt Ware

Remember Matt Ware, developing Eagles safety?  Well, he’s no longer a prospect, kind of like Lewis who has been a valuable special teamer in San Francisco the last two seasons, but hasn’t started since 2006.  Matt Ware probably won’t make it to September 1, but he’s on here because it might very well be his last shot in this league.

Surprise Cuts?

  • WR Jerheme Urban
  • TE Leonard Pope
  • NT Bryan Robinson
  • NT Alan Branch
  • LB Bertrand Berry
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