ST. LOUIS — In plotting a path back to the top of the NFC West, the Cardinals know they must go west, through San Francisco, and northwest, through Seattle.
That’s only part of the journey, however, because St. Louis must be dealt with and, judged objectively, the Rams are closer to the top of the division than the Cardinals.
They beat the Cardinals twice a year ago (by 14 points each time) and had the best record within the division (4-1-1).
They have a general manager, Les Snead, who seems to know what he’s doing, and a coach, Jeff Fisher, with a track record of success.
“When Coach Fisher arrived (2012), it really seemed like everything changed,” said quarterback Sam Bradford, entering his fourth year. “The attitude changed, the culture in this building changed. I definitely feel like it’s going in the right direction.”
The Cardinals might be headed in the right direction, too, but they are a year behind the Rams when it comes to altering course.
The Cardinals made drastic changes this year, hiring a new coach and a new general manager who appear to be working in concert.
That’s not a coincidence. Team president Michael Bidwill saw what was working in San Francisco, Seattle and apparently in St. Louis and copied it.
What those franchises have are owners who let their football people run that side of the operation, and staying out of the way will be Bidwill’s biggest challenge in the coming years.
Fisher showed his wisdom in January 2012 when he was deciding between taking the Rams and Dolphins job. The Rams had an owner, Stan Kroenke, willing to spend money and a promising young quarterback, Bradford.
Fisher also knew the Rams had the second overall pick in the 2012 draft. They didn’t need a quarterback, so they passed on the chance to take Robert Griffin III, trading that pick to the Redskins for first-round picks in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and a second-round pick in 2012.
If Snead continues to use those selections wisely, the Rams could follow the 49ers and Seahawks as the latest NFC West team to become a playoff contender.
“It’s difficult to make all the changes that you want (immediately),” Fisher said. “You just don’t have the resources to do it. It takes time.”
Like the Rams of a year ago, the Cardinals underwent a drastic roster makeover in the first year under general manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians.
Of the 53 players, 26 weren’t with Arizona a year ago, including quarterback Carson Palmer.
Unlike the Rams, the Cardinals had some elite players already in place, such as receiver Larry Fitzgerald, end Calais Campbell and cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Since taking the job in January, Arians has insisted the Cardinals won’t stipulate that either the Seahawks or 49ers will win the division.
“I share the opinion of Bruce,” Fisher said. “Everybody just has to line up and play, and we’ll see what happens. I would expect the Cardinals to be much improved over last year with the additions, not only on defense, but with Carson under center. So it’s going to be a tough road.”
That road runs outside the division, too. The Rams won four of six division games a year ago but just three others.
In 2013, they have great reason for hope. This is the first time Bradford has been in the same offense for consecutive seasons, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of that.
“My first three years were a little rough, having to learn a new system every year,” Bradford said.
The Cardinals know that feeling. Several offensive players, including Palmer and Fitzgerald, talked often this preseason of the complexity of Arians’ system. They think they have it down now, but they also haven’t played a game that counted.
That will change today, and Arians isn’t about to lower his expectations.
“I have no patience,” Arians said. “You can ask those guys (players). I have no patience. Those days of building for the future in the NFL, I seem them as gone. It’s win now. Too many teams have done it; I’ve been around teams that have done it and there’s no reason why you couldn’t get it done.”