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Arizona Cardinals have potential to be historically great in 2015

Just how great depends on two substantial factors.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

By now, the sentence is burned into the back of your mind. You heard him say it to his team after shutting out the Green Bay Packers in the first game of the 2013 preseason -- his first-ever game as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

"Potential ain’t s--t; potential will get us all fired."

Coach Bruce Arians isn’t wrong. How much potential have the Cardinals had throughout the years only to have it squandered by a missing piece, one too many injuries or otherwise? OK, not as much as other franchises, but Cardinals fans know all too well that "potential ain’t s--t."

It may not be "s--t," but potential is a start.

The Cardinals have potential to be historically great in 2015. If you’re thinking that sounds ambiguous, you’re right. It’s designed to be taken many different ways because this team has the potential to be great in a variety of ways.

In terms of team history, 2015 could be one of the best years the franchise has ever enjoyed. In terms of league history, Arizona indeed has the potential to put together an all-time great season. Does that mean it could run the table and challenge the 1972 Miami Dolphins squad, becoming just the second-ever team to finish a season undefeated? Although that is far less likely, there is greater than a zero percent chance it happens. (Quarterback Carson Palmer was undefeated in six starts last season, after all.)

Somewhere in between those two scenarios is a likely landing spot for the Arians-led Cardinals.

Naturally, it all hinges on the health of Palmer. His surgically repaired left ACL is good to go, according to the 12-year veteran:

"I’m not even thinking about my knee," Palmer told "I’m still rehabbing just to be on the safe side of things, but I don’t need to be at rehab. I’m full go in the weight room, and until it’s brought up I haven’t thought about what I’m not doing because I’m doing everything I was doing [before the injury]."

Whether his new ACL holds up remains to be seen, but having used part of his patellar tendon to recreate a new ACL -- rather than a tendon from his hamstring or another ACL from a cadaver, as was the case for his 2006 repair -- the chances are good his knee will hold up for as long as he can throw a football.

How important is Palmer to the Cardinals? Consider this: Under Arians, the Cardinals are 16-6 (.667) in games started by Palmer, and just 5-6 (.455) in games started by all other quarterbacks -- playoffs included.

And Palmer is 13-3 over his past season’s-worth of games, having completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 4,417 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The Cardinals averaged 26.4 points per game over that span.

In other words, without Palmer, the Cardinals don't stand a chance in the NFC.

Also important to the success of the 2015 Cardinals is the run defense. While it would be great to have inside linebacker Daryl Washington back at some point, the team cannot count on that happening. For now, Sean Weatherspoon and Kevin Minter are penciled into the starting lineup. Minter is solid against the run, and Weatherspoon, who hasn't played in a live game since mid-December 2013 due to injury, is a Washington-type athlete when healthy.

Losing nose tackle Dan Williams to free agency could hurt more than some think. He is an elite run defender, and his absence will be felt on some level. For now, Alameda Ta’amu should slide into the starting nose tackle spot; he and newcomer Corey Peters will share the position, however.

Standing in the way of defensive greatness is the loss of coordinator Todd Bowles. By all accounts, James Bettcher is a fantastic coach and is more than ready to lead an NFL defense. But he’s still an unknown.

His defense should look very similar to that of Bowles’ from the past two seasons -- two squads that finished in the top 10 in points allowed, led by the run-stopping prowess of Williams.

Bettcher has inherited a great defense stacked with talent at all three levels and deep enough to trade away backups who would start on other teams. But despite little change to personnel and scheme, changing coaches is still a challenge.

The players and the playbook may be the same, but how Bettcher calls a game will differ from how Bowles called games.

Bowles is notorious for blitzing on nearly every third-down play; will Bettcher follow suit, or will he be more conservative about his approach? Will he use extra safeties in nickel and dime packages as Bowles did to remain as athletic as possible, or will he trust his talented secondary and conform to the hardnosed philosophy of the NFC West, keeping an extra lineman on the field in order to counter the possibility of the spread-them-out rushing attack?

These are questions we can’t wait to have answered, and they are relevant to how great a season the Cardinals could have. If Bettcher makes the wrong move too many times, it could cost the team games.

The rookie defensive coordinator is under immense pressure this season whether he realizes it or not. The team is ready to challenge Seattle and Green Bay for the conference crown, and his defense may be all that stands in the way of Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers facing off in the NFC championship game once again.

If the Cardinals are to contend for the conference title and beyond this season, Palmer has to stay healthy and the defense must pick up where it left off under Bowles. If there is a significant drop-off for Bettcher’s defense in his first year, the Cardinals will run into a buzz saw when January rolls around.

It’s really as simple as that. Everything is there for Arizona to make a deep playoff run. The Cardinals have the coaching, the quarterback, the receivers, the stout offensive line, the stalwart defense and the rock-solid special teams group. All they need now is a bit of good fortune.

Are you ready to see potential become reality?