Commentary

Cardinals a team in turmoil? Hardly

From afar, the Cardinals might appear to be a team in turmoil. That's not the case up close, writes Mike Sando.

Originally Published: May 5, 2008
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- From afar, the Arizona Cardinals appear mired in offseason headaches.

The view is quite different up close.

Widespread reports had Anquan Boldin seeking a trade after the organization handed a four-year, $40 million contract to fellow receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Not the case, Boldin said during the team's recently concluded minicamp. Boldin described himself as happy in Arizona while vowing to produce no matter what.

Online party photos painted quarterback Matt Leinart as more Old School (the movie) than old school (the classic NFL field general).

[+] EnlargeMatt Leinart
Gene Lower/Getty ImagesMatt Leinart says he's ready to shed his party-boy image and emerge as a viable leader.

In reality, Leinart has worked overtime to improve this offseason, coach Ken Whisenhunt said. The Cardinals can't help it if there's no market for photos of quarterbacks lifting weights, breaking down video and working on their mechanics.

Delays in getting the NFL to approve Fitzgerald's new contract certainly affected the Cardinals' ability to pursue free agents, tying up significant salary-cap resources. But the Cardinals would not have re-signed linebacker Calvin Pace or No. 3 receiver Bryant Johnson at the salaries they commanded elsewhere as unrestricted free agents, general manager Rod Graves said.

These are among the reasons Arizona expects continued improvement in 2008 after posting an 8-8 record last season, up from 5-11 under Dennis Green a year earlier.

There are others.

The Cardinals, 6-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium last season, can finally claim a home-field advantage after years of weak turnout at Sun Devil Stadium. The organization hadn't won six home games in a season since 1976.

At a time when NFL teams outnumber viable quarterbacks, Leinart and Kurt Warner provide Arizona with two candidates talented enough to start.

"It's time for me to step up and lead," Leinart said.

The Cardinals scored more touchdowns last season (49) than all but four teams, and their feel for the offense should only improve in Whisenhunt's second season.

The Arizona defense, ravaged by injuries in 2007, recently added Tennessee State cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Miami (Fla.) defensive end Calais Campbell, among the top 50 overall choices in the draft. Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson and veteran pass-rushers Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry are returning from injury-shortened seasons. Nose tackle Gabe Watson also expects to be healthy in time for the season.

The offensive line lacks depth and the defense has much to prove, but the Cardinals' second winning season since 1984 is looking like a realistic goal.

"At this point, I feel like we've had a successful offseason," Graves said.

The proof will be in the won-lost record, but it's shortsighted to dwell on the Leinart photos, no matter how many headlines they command.

A more important story line involves how the team handles contract situations with Boldin, linebacker Karlos Dansby, Wilson and others.

Salary-cap ramifications virtually forced the Cardinals to tear up Fitzgerald's rookie contract with two years remaining. By paying $10 million a year to Fitzgerald well before he reached free agency, the organization set a precedent that will be difficult to maintain.

Boldin remains under contract through 2010 at less than half what Fitzgerald's new deal averages. The plan is to rework his contract sooner rather than later, although it's fair to wonder how much a team can reasonably commit to the position. Rookie third-round choice Early Doucet could provide long-term insurance at receiver if the Boldin talks fail.

"The reason why Larry's contract was an issue was because he is an outstanding player," Graves said. "He hit almost every incentive that he had in the deal. He hit almost every escalator he had in the deal. And he could only do that with an outstanding performance.

"What is the tradeoff? I tell you what, I would rather have a great player and the headache of re-signing him than to have a guy who has underachieved."

Dansby, the Cardinals' franchise player, can become an unrestricted free agent after this season if a long-term deal eludes him. Wilson, a Pro Bowl choice in 2006, is in line to become one of the game's highest-paid safeties. His contract expires following the 2009 season.

As Graves and Whisenhunt stressed over the weekend, the organization will have to prioritize. Getting every deal done at once isn't a realistic option, or an attractive one. The Cardinals haven't reached the playoffs since 1998. The career-achievement payouts can wait.

"We may have to set policy in the future as to how early we will even consider redoing contracts," Graves said. "We were at a stage several years ago where we could make those early considerations with no problems. We didn't have the type of cash outlay that we are involved with now, and quite frankly, from a talent standpoint, we were not as good.

"Now that we've improved, we've just got to find ways to manage that situation a little better. We're going to have to say no in many instances. I fully expect that at some point we're going to have to make difficult choices by letting good football players walk because we can't afford to keep everybody."

The Cardinals appear unified. Boldin, ever the professional, continues to mentor young receivers while awaiting a new deal. Dansby has followed suit, insisting his performance will not suffer amid concerns about a long-term deal.

Other players with contract concerns, notably defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, kept quiet at the post-draft camp.

Perhaps they'll have more to talk about after the season.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.