Commentary

Doubt the Arizona Cardinals at your peril

Some forecast end of run; coach Ken Whisenhunt's crew welcomes the skeptics

Originally Published: August 2, 2010
By Chris Mortensen | ESPN.com

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- There's a subtle grin and confidence that emerges when Ken Whisenhunt acknowledges all the questions about the Arizona Cardinals' quest to win their third consecutive NFC West title while many others believe it's the year of the San Francisco 49ers.

"Our team has played pretty good football when people write us off," the Cardinals' coach said. "If we respond the way we have in the past, I think we'll be pretty happy."

Then again, those Cardinals teams responded with Kurt Warner playing quarterback, Anquan Boldin playing wide receiver, Karlos Dansby playing linebacker and Antrel Rolle playing safety. They're all gone in 2010.

Yet Whisenhunt is quick to draw from his experience as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers to never push the panic button.

"With the Steelers, you lost a Rod Woodson at safety and a Carnell Lake stepped up … . You'd lose a Joey Porter but you find a James Harrison," Whisenhunt said.

"If you're a good football team, you go through those transitions and keep going. Look, when Anquan Boldin was hurt, Steve Breaston stepped in and we kept winning. Now it's time for some young guys like [defensive end] Calais Campbell, [cornerback] Greg Toler, [wide receiver] Early Doucet, [running backs] Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower to step their games up."

It's also no coincidence that Whisenhunt did not shy from bringing in two former Steelers greats, guard Alan Faneca and outside linebacker Porter, despite the perception that their better days are behind them.

"Oh, there's a lot that Joey and Alan bring -- they've been two of the better players in the league, they've played on championship teams and they've played in Pro Bowls," Whisenhunt said. "When you go through a transition with young players, they can look at [Faneca and Porter] and see that this is how you work, this is how you prepare. They're going to have a very positive impact on our young players and our team."

The glaring question mark is at quarterback. Matt Leinart is the starter, but even Whisenhunt pointed out that Derek Anderson has shown the talent few quarterbacks in the NFL possess, especially with the offensive skill talent around him headed by All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald.

"Matt learned a lot from Kurt -- I'm excited about him and I'm excited by Derek Anderson, who has been to a Pro Bowl and understands the game," Whisenhunt said. "I think everyone knows we don't shy away from competition. Go back three years ago, and I don't think anyone thought Kurt was going to be the guy but he won the battle with Matt.

"That's what our preseason is all about. What kind of team are we going to be? Will we run the ball more with Beanie and Hightower? Can we still throw the ball special with the receivers we have? I think we're all waiting to see what this team is all about and who's going to step up."

Whisenhunt did offer a vote of confidence for Leinart, even if there is a reality that Anderson is capable of overtaking the job at some stage.

"I think Matt's really matured," the coach said. "I think what he's been through has made him stronger."

Leinart himself conceded Anderson is a worthwhile competitor but won't panic on his bad days.

"I know DA can really throw it and has a big arm, but I just spent three years battling a Hall of Fame quarterback," Leinart said.

"I know this really is my job for the first time but I'm not assuming anything. People can say what they want but I'm also not looking over my shoulder no matter what. One of the things I learned from Kurt is that he had days and games where he struggled but he'd bounce back. Trust me, I learned a lot [from Warner] and I'm here every day to just do my job and lead this team that has a lot of talent around me."

Other observations from Cardinals camp:

  • Whisenhunt conceded he's "had a number of discussions" with Warner after his January retirement but never really believed the quarterback would pull a Brett Favre and come back for another season.

  • While Leinart will have to play well to keep Anderson on the sidelines, the No. 3 quarterback battle is another camp story because undrafted free agent Max Hall (BYU) has been very impressive and could beat out fifth-rounder Fordham QB John Skelton, who shows a strong arm. Why is it noteworthy? The Cardinals believe Hall has some Warner-like abilities despite being undersized.

  • Hightower and Wells both seem strong at running back; Wells looks a little lighter, and his big-play ability is very evident.

  • Of all the defensive players teammates and coaches say could have a Pro Bowl, breakout year is 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell, a third-year defensive end who emerged as a force last season.

  • Fitzgerald's Twitter following is so large (more than 500,000) that VP media relations director Mark Dalton utilized the receiver's outreach on the social network when the team began its season-ticket push.

    ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen will file reports from all the training camps and send updates on the road via Twitter (@mortreport).