This is the interesting thing about the NFL, you can turn everything around in one season with the right moves. The Cardinals management seemed to hit on nearly every move of the off season, aside from the unknowns of the 2013 draft class, and did so while leaving exit strategies for the 2014 season.
They traded peanuts for Carson Palmer, with the ability to keep him for basically three one year deals as they see fit, so if at any time in those first two seasons Bruce Arians loses interest in Palmer there is a cheap exit strategy.
They signed John Abraham, he of the 11 sacks on the season, to a cap friendly two year $7 million contract, bonuses included, that had little cap hit if he wasn't effective in 2013. Now, they have a bargain pass rusher who shouldn't have to expend nearly as much energy with the returns of Sam Acho, Lorenzo Alexander and Alex Okafor in year two of Todd Bowles defensive scheme.
They signed players like Karlos Dansby, Eric Winston, Antoine Cason, Yeremiah Bell, Rashard Mendenhall, and others for cheap, one year prove it deals that have worked to perfection, if you look at it in the right context.
That's where the trouble comes in for the Cardinals and questions may come about what was really accomplished at the end of this season if the Cardinals fall short of the playoffs.
Sure, 10-6 in year one is a sexy record, but missing out on the playoffs and the lack of development of key pieces because of injuries, Jonathan Cooper and Alex Okafor, or playing time because of veterans playing out of their mind -- Kevin Minter may not be the biggest Karlos Dansby fan in the world -- isn't necessarily the best preparation for those rookies to make an impact in their first real season.
The other issue comes down to money and who to bring back. As of Day 1 of the off season the Cardinals will have only 51 players on the roster, accounting for a total of just over $111 million with another $10 million in dead money.
We can all agree that signing Karlos Dansby to a cap friendly extension has to be one of the top priorities of the offseason. The problem is that priority falls behind decisions like Palmer, Fitzgerald, and making sure Patrick Peterson doesn't get out of the desert.
Is Kevin Minter ready to step in? If not, are they comfortable with Jasper Brinkley's shortcomings as a player?
Matt Shaughnessy has proven to be an invaluable depth asset with his ability to bounce from 3-4 DE to OLB and back without missing a beat and is one of the best run stoppers on the team, but he's on a one year deal, with little chance to come back at a low price based on how well he has played this year.
Can the Cardinals just expect Acho/Okafor/Alexander to step in and replace his production against the run as well as the versatility he's offered Bowles and company to this defense?
Bradley Sowell has filled in at left tackle... and Carson Palmer is not dead, but is year two of Sowell something the front office wants to see?
There are good options in free agency, Jared Veldheer, despite talking extension with the Raiders, and Anthony Collins, who has prompted the move of former Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth to guard, are the two best options, and will likely command in the range of $10 million a year.
The draft offers a multitude of promises at positions of needs for now and the future: quarterback, offensive tackles, defensive tackle/ends, tight ends, outside linebackers, conerbacks, safeties, and even kickers, but there are only so many areas they can address in one draft, and losing the multitude of impact players begs the question, is this a year of missed opportunity?
Sure, Carson Palmer has been about as expected, really good at times, really bad at times, but overall, average. The defense has played OUT OF THIS WORLD so far this year, but you will likely see five to six new starters again in 2014 -- Dockett, Dansby, Shaugnessy, Bell, and possibly Abraham back to a part time role and Powers being downgraded from starter.
You could be missing players that have played really well in certain roles on offense, Daryn Colledge hasn't been great, but he's done a nice job in pass protection of Palmer, yielding only two sacks and a ten total quarterback hits on the year.
Then there is the entire Fitzgerald dilemma. There's zero chance the Cardinals can gain equal value in a trade, maybe talent wise yes, but what he means to the fanbase and organization can't be put in terms of picks or player compensation.
His cap hit in 2014 is an insane $18 million, including $10 million in dead money the Cardinals can't get out of. In 2015 his cap number goes up to a staggering $21+ million and if the Cardinals decide to continue on with Carson Palmer as their signal caller the combination will be getting paid over $33 million between the two of them in 2015, or 1/4 of the salary cap on two players in their 30's.
This isn't to discourage, say things are going down in flames or even take away from this current year, this is asking the question: With all the good that has come from this season, with all the building the Cardinals have done, will 10-6 or 11-5 and no playoffs be the start of something wonderful, or was this season a missed opportunity with the unknowns lurking ahead?