Commentary

To stay in money, Cards need to spend

Flush with unexpected success, Arizona's thrifty owners need to loosen the purse strings this offseason. Reinvesting in the team now will build a consistent winner, Seth Wickersham writes.

Originally Published: February 9, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

The joy of being an Arizona Cardinals fan stopped at approximately -- no, exactly -- 9:59 p.m. ET on Feb. 1, when Santonio Holmes slipped free with 35 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIII. After that Pittsburgh Steelers game-winning score, it's been one giant root canal for the Cardinals. As if fans need a reminder that since then:

  • Two questionable calls -- Holmes' touchdown and Kurt Warner's fumble a few plays later -- were upheld.

  • Warner, the prince of Greater Phoenix, has said he might re-sign, might retire, or -- gulp -- might play elsewhere.

  • The team's prized free agent, linebacker Karlos Dansby, has pulled a mini-LeBron by flirting with the New York Giants.

  • Perennial malcontent and Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin said that he "doesn't think" his relationship with team management can be repaired after the brass, he believes, lied to him about a contract extension.

  • Offensive coordinator Todd Haley left to become coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, and creative defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was fired.

  • Arizona's cap room appeared as big as a rhino's yawn: $41 million, most in the league. With free agent studs Albert Haynesworth, Terrell Suggs and Julius Peppers ready to be wooed, the Cardinals seemed to have plenty of room to operate. Turns out, Arizona has only 41 players under contract, and when you re-punch the calculators, the functional cap space is $20-$25 million, less than the San Francisco 49ers. And, oh yeah, Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett want raises, too.

    In a week, the Cardinals went from near-champions to the increasing likelihood that a year from now the newspapers' stories will say, "The seeds for Arizona's disappointing 5-11 season were planted in the offseason . . . "

    Fortunately, there's plenty of time to fix things. The commitment for a repeat playoff run has to start at the top, with renowned cheapskate team owners Bill and Michael Bidwill. Arizona's biggest problem is that it has more cap than cash. Rod Graves might be the only GM in the NFL who doesn't have to make major cap-related decisions. His toughest negotiation won't be with agents but rather his bosses.

    [+] EnlargeRod Graves & Michael Bidwell
    Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesCardinals GM Rod Graves (left) and team president Michael Bidwell face many offseason questions.

    Remember, these are the owners who reportedly charged players for extra socks, jock straps and T-shirts. These are the owners of one of the lowest-valued franchises. These are the owners who a year ago wouldn't budge on an incentive clause in Warner's contract that paid him $500,000 bonus for finishing the season with a 90.0 passer rating. (He finished at 89.8 after playing with an injured elbow and voluntarily removing himself for goal line situations.)

    These are the owners who have so much cap money in part because they spent only $108 million of last year's $116 million ceiling.

    If the Bidwills loosen up -- which is like asking the sun to rise from the west and Springsteen to no longer sing about the Jersey Shore and "the long road" -- the Cardinals can avert a messy offseason. Then, they should follow these steps:

    First, cut Edgerrin James. Not only would it save $5 million, but it also would rid the locker room of a whiner who hasn't averaged four yards a carry in three seasons. That would leave Tim Hightower as the go-to back. Many don't think of Hightower as a franchise back. But he doesn't have to be one. It's a passing league, and Arizona should know from signing James to a four-year, $30 million deal years ago that it's not wise to overpay for that position. You can always draft a good running back -- for instance, Brandon Jacobs was a fourth-rounder. In this year's draft, Alabama's Glenn Coffee or Michigan State's Javon Ringer could be a mid-round steal.

    NFLTA: Warner's future

    NFL.com Video

    Veteran QB Kurt Warner talks about whether he'll return to the Cards next season.

    Next, offer Dansby and Warner contracts immediately. It would send a message to the locker room that the Cardinals are serious about rewarding their leaders and making another Super Bowl run. Oh, and give Warner the dang $500,000.

    Then, offer Boldin a fair contract extension. Boldin might be unhappy, but his current deal doesn't expire until 2010, so he has little leverage. If he chooses to be a distraction, it'll only lessen his value as a free agent and hurt his ability to garner a trade -- nobody wants the next Terrell Owens. Considering that Warner's retirement decision will be affected by whether Boldin is on the team, it's important for the Cardinals' brass to attempt to make the receiver happy. If the Cardinals at least try to make Boldin a happier Cardinal, that puts the onus on him.

    Finally, make a run at Baltimore Ravens pass-rushing specialist Suggs. Aside from Tennessee Titans run-stopper Haynesworth, Suggs is free agency's most attractive defensive player. He's claimed he'll give the Ravens a "hometown discount." To which I say, yeah, sure, and Gisele just left Tom Brady for me. A few extra zeroes on a contract, and Suggs would call Phoenix his new hometown.

    Look, Cardinals fans, I know it's easy to feel depressed after the past week. But remember, Arizona is playing in football's weakest division and sports the NFC's best big-game quarterback in Warner and receiver in Larry Fitzgerald. Perhaps the most brilliant trait head coach Ken Whisenhunt has instilled in Arizona is toughness. You kept waiting in the third quarter of the Super Bowl for the Cardinals to break, and they didn't.

    If they spend their cap money wisely -- if the Bidwills actually spend it -- the Cardinals won't be a one-and-out playoff team.

    Now, they just need a few calls to go their way.

    Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

    Seth Wickersham | email

    ESPN The Magazine senior writer
    Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.