A last place division finish. A top 3 draft pick. After an offseason full of hope and optimism, the general consensus seems to be shifting towards that the Cardinals should just forfeit all of their games this season and start looking towards 2013.
At first glance, such a dramatic shift in attitudes is understandable - after all, a team losing their starting left tackle? An offensive line that provides as much protection as a cardboard car fender? Two quarterbacks that have performed like they actually spent most of their offseason studying how to play WORSE rather than better? Those are hardly good signs for a team that expects to contend in today's NFL.
However, all is not as bleak as it seems in the land of the scorching sun. Here are 5 reasons why things (and the season) may not be as dismal as they appear:
1. The offensive line is not the only factor in protection
There's no way to spin it - the Cardinals' offensive line has looked terrible this preseason. However, there's a reason why the quarterbacks were hit more often in the Tennessee game than a traffic cone at a driving academy. It was pointed out that Whisenhunt deliberately left the offensive linemen isolated in protection to test them out and see what they were capable of. (As it turns out, apparently all most are capable of is showing better directions to the QB than a GPS, but that's beside the point.) However, in a regular season game situation, there are many things that can be done to improve protection - putting a tight end over a weak tackle, using a running back for protection, rolling a quarterback out to one side and stunting to pull an offensive lineman, etc. Very few, if any, of those things were done when Whisenhunt wanted to test out the offensive linemen in the preseason, but you can bet they'll be pulled out of the bag of tricks quite frequently during the regular season, and we may see an improvement in the protection as a result. But how will that matter if the quarterback play is likely to be terrible? Because...
2. Kolb is still Kolb - in a good way
Kevin Kolb took somewhat of a bad rap last season. Despite the appearances of his poor win-loss record, Kolb was a good enough quarterback to lead the team to several fourth-quarter leads that the defense was simply unable to hold in the final stages of the game. In addition, Kolb's statistics in relevant categories (such as averages and calculations, like QB rating) actually placed him as a middle-of-the-pack NFL quarterback, with most of his stats falling in the 15-20 range. While not impressive, it's hardly the Ryan Leaf-like performance you'd expect when you hear many talk about his quarterbacking skills. And his performance against Dallas in his final game last season combined with his 77% completion rate and scoring drives in the Tennessee game show that the decent Kolb might still be lurking inside there waiting to come out with more confidence and better protection. Of course, that all assumes Kolb is the starting quarterback and can stay healthy, but even if that's not the case...
3. Skelton is still young and developing
It was apparent that the John ("Jonathan"?) Skelton bubble burst faster than the housing bubble with his poor performance in the Tennessee game. However, Skelton was always considered to be a "project" quarterback that would take a few years to fully develop. Any expectations based on other successful rookie quarterbacks like Cam Newton or Andy Dalton were simply about as realistic as a successful Kardashian marriage. Entering his third season, apparently Skelton is reminding some of a younger Derek Anderson, which in Cardinal-speak comes across about as well as telling someone they remind them of a young Adolf Hitler. However, that might not be such a bad thing. Before he ushered in the unthinkable in Cardinal-land - making people actually MISS Matt Leinart - in Derek Anderson's third season he lead his (much less talented) team to a 10-6 record and himself to a spot in the Pro Bowl. Obviously, the hope is that Skelton will develop into a longer-term solution than Anderson was, but the point is that the tendency these days to rush to conclude a player is all he ever will be before giving them time to grow and develop can be very premature. Besides, you'd think given all the wailing that quarterback and offensive line were the only positions on the offense, but as it turns out...
4. The Cardinals are loaded with skill position players
Fitzgerald. Roberts. Doucet. Floyd. The Cardinals are deeper at WR than the pockets of an intoxicated Saudi prince. Our third best wide receiver last year in yardage (Roberts) had more yards than every other division team's #2, and even better than St. Louis' #1. Add to that the skills of Michael Floyd this year and possibly the potential of LaRon Byrd, and the Cardinals are more loaded at wide receiver than the guns at an NRA meeting. At running back, Ryan Williams is looking as explosive as before his injury, Beanie Wells ran tough in his first game back in the lineup in Tennessee after coming off of his best year yet as a Cardinal, and LaRod Stephens-Howling is still a dynamic playmaker, not to mention the surprising performance of league-leading rusher William Powell (yes, yes, caveat, caveat). When you add in the potential of a Rob Housler at tight end guided by veterans Jeff King and Todd Heap, this is the most potential any Cardinals team has had at the skill positions in a long, long time. And the talent doesn't stop there, because...
5. The defense and special teams are who we thought they were
Given the focus of talk this preseason you'd be excused for thinking that the rules have changed and NFL teams will only play offense this season, but it turns out that defense and special teams ARE still going to remain a significant part of the games. And after a lackluster start the defense seems to have found their gear, so as long as the coaches can keep their egos from becoming the size of their paychecks, this still has the potential to be a very solid group. Adrian Wilson played the Tennessee game like the opposing team threatened to steal his kids' lunch money, and the performance in the red zone showed that when their attitudes are straight, they can be the shutdown defense that everyone fantasized about during the offseason. Once they start demonstrating the various elements of Ray Horton's defense in the regular season, this could very well still become a top 10 defense. Meanwhile, draft pick Justin Bethel and his identical triplet siblings (or so it seemed) were all over the field on special teams, and combined with Patrick Peterson's and Calais Campbell's skills should make opposing kickers feel like they're trying to kick through a picket fence. Meanwhile, if they can keep "Money" Mike Adams collecting on special teams and not giving so many refunds in pass coverage, Peterson and LSH being their usual blur in returning duties and Jay Feely and Dave Zastudil providing solid kicking should again make the special teams a highlight for this season.
There's no way to sugarcoat it - the lackluster QB play and poor offensive line play could very well make it tough to score points this season, and games will unfortunately will still be decided by which team can outscore the other before time expires. However, it's still possible that all of the above will allow the Cardinals to stay competitive enough, despite lapses in those positions, to still have a successful season. So while some will undoubtedly continue to predict their demise, just don't be surprised at some point if others find those predictions greatly exaggerated.