Now, after winning 10 games last year for only the second time since coming to the desert in 1988, the Cardinals have hit the ground running in the offseason.
In restructuring wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's contract, the Cardinals freed up nearly $10 million in cap space. As the Redbirds prepare to use that windfall to improve for 2014, an interesting question is wafting across the Valley of the Sun.
Could the Cardinals shock the football world and become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium when Super Bowl XLIX visits Glendale next February?
Stop laughing. I'm serious.
As Josh Weinfuss of ESPN reports, the Cardinals were able to lower Fitzgerald's cap hit for 2014 from $18 million to $8.6 million by converting most of his salary into an $11.75 million signing bonus.
Fitzgerald confirmed the deal via Twitter, while expressing optimism for the upcoming season:
Looking back at last year, it's not hard to see why.
The Cardinals joined their counterparts in San Francisco and Seattle last year in fielding one of the NFL's stingiest defenses. The team ranked in the top 10 in a number of statistical categories, and their mark of 84.4 yards allowed on the ground per game was best in the league.
The Cardinals offense, on the other hand, struggled with consistency. But they still ended the season 12th in total yards and 16th in points scored.
It was enough for the Cardinals to go 7-2 over their last nine games, including a Week 16 win in Seattle that was the Seahawks' only home loss in the last two years.
That's in the past, though. It's time to look to the future.
In that regard, the Fitzgerald deal is going to come in handy.
Before Fitz's re-do, the Arizona Cardinals were either just under the projected salary cap of around $126 million or just over, depending on whom you asked.
Now, according to Spotrac, the Cardinals have the most available cap space in the NFC West.
There are sure to be more moves made to free up space. As Mike Jurecki of XTRA 910 in Phoenix recently tweeted, many consider guard Daryn Colledge a likely candidate for release.
Defensive end Darnell Dockett, who has a 2014 cap number of $8.5 million, could also be asked to restructure his contract.
Of course, those savings are apt to go right back out the door, in part because the Cardinals have some free agents of their own to deal with.
|Arizona Cardinals 2014 Free Agents|
|16 unrestricted free agents|
Of that group, Dansby is easily the highest priority. The 32-year-old, who signed a one-year deal late in free agency last year, was phenomenal in 2013, leading the NFL with 114 solo tackles, chipping in 6.5 sacks and finishing the year as a top-five inside linebacker according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Outside Dansby, the remaining players are only worth bringing back if the price is right, although the dearth of available talent at offensive tackle in the NFL may spur the Redbirds to attempt to re-up Eric Winston.
The problem is, Winston is a big part of what remains Arizona's biggest bugaboo.
|Arizona Cardinals Offensive Line 2013|
|Player||Pos.||Sacks All.||Hits All.||Hurries All.||PFF Rank|
|Per Pro Football Focus|
The offensive line for the Cardinals was better in 2013 than 2012. However, that's a pretty relative statement, as it would be hard for the line to get worse after the matador campaign of two years ago.
For the season, Football Outsiders ranked the Cardinals' offensive front 17th in the NFL in run blocking in 2013, while they placed 13th against the pass. With that said, PFF wasn't as kind, ranking the Cardinals 26th in run blocking and dead last in pass protection.
If the Cardinals are going to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy in 2014, that line needs to get better still, due in large part to the man who stands behind it.
|Carson Palmer 2013|
Carson Palmer played fairly well in 2013, ending the season 19th among starting quarterbacks according to PFF. That may sound low, but Palmer finished just behind San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, and ahead of Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, who have three Super Bowl wins between them.
However, let's be blunt. It's painful to watch Carson Palmer try to run. Mobility is not his strong suit, and more than a few of his 22 interceptions were the result of pressure.
Some help in that regard will come with the return of guard Jonathan Cooper, the 2013 first-round pick who broke his leg before playing a game for the Cardinals last year.
The Cardinals aren't really in a position to address the offensive line in free agency, especially if they re-sign Dansby. The pickings are slim up front, and the prices get high quickly.
That becomes doubly true when you consider cornerback Patrick Peterson. The Pro Bowler is in the last year of his rookie contract, and recently Peterson wouldn't rule out the possibility of holding out for a new deal this summer.
That leaves May's NFL draft.
|2014 First-Round NFL Draft OL Prospects|
|Jake Matthews||T||Texas A&M||6'5"||305|
|Zack Martin||T||Notre Dame||6'4"||305|
Matthews and Robinson will all but certainly be gone by the time the Cardinals pick at No. 20, but there are a number of first-round offensive tackles who could be there, from Michigan's Taylor Lewan to Cyrus Kouandjio of Alabama.
This isn't to say that the Redbirds are locked into taking a lineman first. There are other areas of need. A running back to pair with the electric Andre Ellington. Young pass-rushers to pair with the resurgent John Abraham.
This mock draft from Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller shows how the Cardinals could accomplish many of those goals.
|Arizona Cardinals Mock Draft|
|2||52||Kyle Van Noy||OLB||BYU|
|3||84||Logan Thomas||QB||Va Tech.|
|No 7th-Round Pick|
Granted, even if the Cardinals improve markedly, they still face something of an uphill battle.
That hill, unfortunately, is the NFC West.
|NFC West 2013|
|San Francisco 49ers*||12-4||5-1|
|St. Louis Rams||7-9||1-5|
|* Made Postseason|
The Cardinals, much to their chagrin, just so happen to sit in the toughest division in the NFL, staring up at the two most complete teams in the league. All four teams in the division rank in the top eight for strength of schedule in 2014, in large part because the division spends much of the year beating the snot out of each other.
In that regard, Arizona must improve markedly. The Cardinals were 2-4 inside the division last year, winning at Seattle and at home against the Rams.
That script has to be flipped. Sweep the Rams, and win the games at home against the 49ers and Seahawks.
In many ways, the Cardinals are becoming the teams they are trying to surpass. The Seahawks and 49ers are always in games because their defenses keep them in games.
The Cardinals did that in 2013. Outside of a Week 3 shellacking in New Orleans, the Cardinals didn't lose a game by two touchdowns.
Now it's time for the offense to step up. A more consistent ground game, especially between the tackles. Palmer needs to take better care of the football. Better line play (which would go a long way toward the first two).
That's something of an oversimplification, of course, and it would be silly to sit here and call a third-place team any sort of front-runner for Super Bowl XLIX.
However, it's just as silly to dismiss the idea, because with a few tweaks the Arizona Cardinals can be even more of a factor in the NFC West than they were during their surprising playoff push in 2013.
And make no mistake.
The team that wins that division has the inside track for a trip to Glendale.