|Cardinals believe they can contend in NFL West|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 21 August 2008 15:49|
It's hard to be too sure of yourself when your franchise has one winning season in 23 years.
But first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt directed the Cardinals to an 8-8 record last season - not great, but above average around here.
A chance for a playoff berth was ruined by an avalanche of penalties and a pair of losses to a San Francisco team that won only three games last season.
Yet a year of experience under Whisenhunt's system has left the team believing it can contend in the NFL West.
And Matt Leinart will lead the way.
``I'm ready. I'm anxious. I'm excited,'' the quarterback said. ``I just want to play well. We're all in the same boat. We can all feel it. We have confidence as a football team. I'm just a piece of the puzzle.''
Leinart's poise and strong left arm were on display often in training camp. Entering his third NFL season, he is out to prove that he is serious about football and can be the quarterback he was touted to be after his standout career at Southern California.
``He's a lot more focused,'' Whisenhunt said. ``He has much more confidence because he knows what he's doing. There's going to be ups and downs - there always are with any position - but he's much better equipped to handle it now.''
Leinart was knocked out for the season with a broken collarbone in Game 5 last year. Kurt Warner came on to throw for 3,417 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Whisenhunt made it clear in the offseason, though, that this was Leinart's team. Warner remains in the wings, believing he should be a starter.
Of course, Leinart has two of the best receivers in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
Fitzgerald, coming off his second Pro Bowl season in four years as a pro, has a new four-year, $40 million contract with $30 million guaranteed. Boldin, though, ripped Arizona's management for failing to come through with a new deal he said they promised him.
Boldin was slowed by a hamstring injury during the preseason, but said his contract issues won't prevent from playing with his usual intense, all-out style.
Edgerrin James turned 30 during training camp but remains the workhorse after his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season and the seventh of his 10-year career. The Cardinals have been impressed with fifth-round draft pick Tim Hightower as a backup.
There has been a tight battle to replace the departed Bryant Johnson as the No. 3 receiver. Among the candidates are speedy kick returner Steve Breaston, Sean Morey, third-round draft pick Early Doucet and undrafted free agent Lance Long.
On defense, the Cardinals have shifted Antrel Rolle from cornerback to free safety, where he will play alongside Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson.
They've added depth with first-round pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback and free agent signees Travis LaBoy at defensive end, Bryan Robinson at nose tackle and Clark Haggans at linebacker.
``The scheme that we had last year early was good,'' Whisenhunt said. ``We were putting pressure on guys, we were disruptive, then we had some injuries. We lost Adrian, Chike (Okeafor) and Bert (Berry). The guys behind them didn't have experience. And we didn't have great depth on the offensive line and those guys got worn down.''
Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, who was tagged the franchise player in the offseason, will be the defensive player who has the speaker in his helmet from his coaches, allowed under a new rule.
To succeed, Arizona must clean up its act. The Cardinals led the NFL in penalties last year with 137.
They also must win on the road, something they have done only rarely since the franchise moved to Arizona in 1988. Last season, the Cardinals were 6-2 at home and 2-6 on the road.
The schedule this year is more challenging. Arizona makes five trips to the East, including a Sept. 28 date against Brett Favre and the New York Jets, and what promises to be a chilly Dec. 21 contest at New England.
Still, there is a sense that Whisenhunt is making progress in his effort to transform one of sport's biggest losers into a winner.
``Right now Seattle's the team to beat. They've been on top for a while,'' Leinart said. ``I think we're close, but we've got to go out there and prove it.''