Cardinals fade fast without key pieces

Posted Sept. 27, 2010 @ 2:38 a.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

The Cardinals are 2-1 after narrowly escaping Oakland with a 24-23 win thanks to the powerfully inaccurate leg of Oakland PK Sebastian Janikowski. Arizona's other win was in Week One when it narrowly defeated the Rams, the worst team in football in 2009. However, throughout the first three weeks the Cardinals have most resembled the squad that was drubbed 41-7 by the Falcons in Week Two.

Head coach Ken Whisenhunt acted shrewdly upon his arrival in January 2007. He benched recently cut first-round pick Matt Leinart and installed Kurt Warner in the starting lineup, hired Russ Grimm to fix the protection and filled pressing needs on defense, making subtle shifts such as moving Antrel Rolle from cornerback to safety. With excellent coaching, it took a mere two years for Whisenhunt to correct the woes of an historically inept franchise and reach the Super Bowl.

But after righting the ship, the Cardinals took two steps backward this offseason when they not only lost Warner to retirement, but allowed standout MLB Karlos Dansby to defect to the Dolphins via free agency. Being able to replace FS Rolle with Kerry Rhodes softened the blow in the secondary, but the Cardinals had no solution for replacing Dansby, who quietly has been one of the NFL’s top performers, and already has made a huge impact in Miami with his combination of instincts, secure open-field tackling and big-play ability.

Throw in the trading of Anquan Boldin, who like Dansby did not fit into the Cardinals’ budget, and Arizona lost two key difference makers on each side of the ball — simply too much production to replace to remain competitive in a league that has come to lack a truly dominant franchise.

Derek Anderson does not have the accuracy, quick trigger or rapid-fire brain that allowed Warner to excel in Arizona, and the loss of Boldin has not eased his transition into the starting lineup. The Cardinals undoubtedly will be in the market for a new quarterback next season, and even with the addition of rookie ILB Daryl Washington, they need to find a new defensive leader and more youth at LB positions that are not producing enough.

• The Falcons made a big statement by heading into New Orleans and knocking off a Saints squad that may be the closest to being dominant in the NFL today.

• Few teams have much success without their starting quarterback. The Steelers are a bold exception, showing it does not matter if Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch is in the starting lineup — their defense is that good. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is in a class of his own. The aggressive, one-gap “30” front employed by LeBeau, Green Bay’s Dom Capers, Baltimore’s Greg Mattison and the Jets’ Mike Pettine is proving to be one of the most disruptive and efficient in the league.  

• The Panthers have struggled to create pressure with their front four the way they were able to do with Julius Peppers, and the offensive line did not provide a lot of time for rookie Jimmy Clausen, as Geoff Schwartz struggled to handle the edge in place of the injured Jeff Otah. The Bengals won Sunday's game in the trenches with a physical style of play, blanket coverage on Carolina’s young, underwhelming receivers and the consistent pressure created by one of the most athletic defensive lines in the league, even if it may not have shown it. The Panthers’ offense appeared stuck in neutral.

• For as much as the Eagles have been criticized for shipping out Donovan McNabb and creating a quarterback controversy, the team's QB situation is one the most enviable in the NFL and driving Philly's early-season success. The attitude, toughness and energy that Michael Vick has brought to the offense, not to mention the added element of mobility that has begun to escape Donovan McNabb in recent years, have all served to electrify an offense that seemed to be stuck in a rut under McNabb’s leadership. His legacy in Philadelphia could be teaching Vick and Kevin Kolb how to prepare like pros. Vick never applied himself to the game in Atlanta and it was the greatest reason for his sporadic performances. With more maturity and newfound structure in Philadelphia, Vick is playing the best football of his life and is making it very easy for fans to forget about No. 5.

• Through three weeks, the Lions are tied for the league lead with 11 sacks. The additions of Kyle Vanden Bosch and rookie Ndamukong Suh are already paying huge dividends.

• The new-look Redskins do not look very good. Former Eagles assistant Steve Spagnuolo's Rams earned their first victory of the season against Donovan McNabb. That came on the heels of the Redskins' overtime loss to Houston in which McNabb could not close out a 17-point lead. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan appeared visibly frustrated on the sideline throughout the course of Sunday's game. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett should have been even more frustrated by the inability of the ’Skins to get off the field on key third downs, allowing a rookie quarterback (Sam Bradford) to pick apart the defense when it mattered most.

• In a billion-dollar industry in which low-level players are rewarded like CEOs at mid-size companies and where one missed assignment could result in a pink slip, it is easy to lose sight of the fun the game was meant to be. The season has barely begun, but already the 49ers, Panthers and Giants do not appear to be having much fun. Struggles on the offensive line, and in turn at the QB position, have been a common thread for all three struggling squads.

• Despite the early success of the Texans’ ground game, featuring the NFL’s leading rusher, Arian Foster, questions still exist about Matt Schaub’s edge protection, with or without suspended OT Duane Brown. Brown's replacement, Rashad Butler, was no match for the elite quickness, burst and bend from Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware, who finished with three sacks and many more pressures as he seemed to live in the backfield in Sunday's victory for Dallas.