PHOENIX — The Cardinals know better than most how quickly fortunes can turn in the NFL. They’ve gone boom and bust over the past six seasons, discovering that success is difficult to attain and even harder to sustain.
This season, they have a new coach, a new general manager, a new starting quarterback and are competing in a division, the NFC West, that hardly anyone thinks they can win.
Perfect, said defensive end Darnell Dockett.
“You always want to be in that position,” he said. “Right now, I look at it like nobody is on top. We don’t really focus on what everybody thinks of us. It’s what we think of ourselves, more than anything.”
The organization spent the off-season remaking itself in the image of the 49ers, who have won the past two division titles, and the Seahawks, who went 11-5 last season and made the playoffs.
The Cardinals hired a young general manager, Steve Keim, and a coach, Bruce Arians, who promise to work in concert in acquiring players.
Keim was allowed to expand his scouting staff. Arians has 21 assistants, four more than his predecessor, Ken Whisenhunt.
Together, Keim and Arians razed and rebuilt. Six of the top 15 highest-paid players were cut, including quarterback Kevin Kolb and starting safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes.
There are six new starters on defense and four on offense, including Carson Palmer, expected to be the seventh quarterback to start for the Cardinals since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season.
It’s no wonder the Cardinals are predicted by most prognosticators to finish last in the NFC West. Seattle and San Francisco have stable front offices, proven coaches and young stars at quarterback. The Rams are viewed as an improving franchise.
The Cardinals remain undaunted.
“There is no question in our minds that we can win this division,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “We believe in ourselves, the coaching staff we have and the players in this locker room.”
It’s also a team that’s gone 5-11 in two of the past three seasons, including last year. The Cardinals lost nine consecutive games after winning their first four, and that led to the firings of Whisenhunt, who won more games than any other coach in franchise history, and general manager Rod Graves, who had been with the team for 16 years.
“I wouldn’t say I was worried, more interested in what was going to happen,” Fitzgerald said. “I was eager to see how the pieces were going to fall and the direction we were going to move in.
“Obviously, we had a tumultuous year last year, but there are so many new things. It’s a step in the right direction, and it’s going to have to equate to wins.”
To win, the Cardinals must figure out a way to gain yards and score points, something they have not done with consistency the past three years.
Whisenhunt and Graves were fired mainly because they couldn’t find a competent successor to Warner.
Arians was hired partly because he’s viewed as an offensive guru, but he’s also had the luxury of working with high draft picks such as Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck.
The shelves of the quarterback market were bare in both free agency and the draft last spring, so the team opted to trade for Palmer, who spent the past two seasons with the Raiders.
His skills seem to fit Arians’ offense, which features deep combination routes by receivers. To throw those, a quarterback needs a strong arm and the willingness to stay in the pocket.
Palmer, 33, can do that, Arians said. And after playing in Cincinnati and Oakland, Palmer seems rejuvenated playing for an offensive-minded coach.
“I’m very excited,” Palmer said. “When I first came in, you’re not sure; you haven’t met guys, you haven’t seen guys on the field. Until you get in seven-on-seven sets and have a chance to go back and talk to guys and study with them, you get to see how ‘football bright’ people are.
“We have smart football players on offense. Combine that with athleticism, speed and experience, I’m as excited, as optimistic as ever.”
Both Arians (Steelers) and Palmer (Bengals) spent several years playing in the AFC North, which is known as a tough, physical division. They see similarities in the NFC West.
The quarterbacks in the Cardinals’ division, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, have different styles, but the defenses rank with the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens, Palmer said.
“There’s two really, really good defenses in this division that everybody knows about,” said Palmer, referring to the 49ers and Seahawks. “I think our defense is really, really good, and I think St. Louis is really, really good. These four defenses could very easily be in the top 10 in the NFL at the end of the year.”
The Cardinals defense carried the team as much as it could in 2012. The Cardinals had just 11 touchdown passes and finished near the bottom of the NFL in most significant offensive categories.
Palmer and Arians are supposed to change that.
“As a defense, we’re excited we can get first downs now,” Peterson said. “To have Carson as a quarterback, it gives us the ability to sustain drives, get points out of turnovers.
“That’s a huge complement to our defense.”