A new beginning doesn’t necessarily bring a new result, and yet that’s exactly what the Cardinals will be counting on when they open their 31st season in Arizona on Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
Not only do they have a new head coach in Steve Wilks and a new starting quarterback in Sam Bradford, but the Cardinals will also be unveiling a new 4-3 defense under new coordinator Al Holcomb, introducing a new power running game featuring David Johnson under new coordinator Mike McCoy and they’ll be playing their first home game in their friendly confines since they changed its name to State Farm Stadium.
Everything is so different because of the franchise’s freshly minted concept on how to make a return to the playoffs that even Larry Fitzgerald insists he doesn’t really know what his role will be until kickoff at 1:25 p.m.
“Anytime you have some changes, it makes you sharpen your resolve a bit,” the 15-year wide receiver said. “It makes you focus. … You knew what to expect and now, you don’t. I don’t have any idea on Sunday what my role is going to be, if I’m going to get any balls (thrown his way). All this stuff is brand new, so it’s exciting.”
Previewing Cardinals vs. Redskins and playing over/unders
To be clear, the Cardinals are going to utilize Larry Legend just as much as they have the past three seasons when he averaged more than 100 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards to vault into third place in both categories on the NFL’s all-time list. But he is telling the truth when he says his role is somewhat undefined, if only for the fact that Wilks and McCoy have shown a penchant for moving all of their receivers around.
Depending on the down and distance and the flow of the game, there will be times when Chad Williams lines up in one spot and then slides to another. Ditto with rookie Christian Kirk and deep threat J.J. Nelson. They’ll play inside and outside, just like Fitzgerald and perhaps even Trent Sherfield, one of four undrafted rookie free agents to make the squad.
Take away Fitzgerald’s 1,234 career catches, and the rest of the Cardinals’ receivers – they recently worked out two veteran free agents – have just 77 NFL receptions between them, topped by Nelson’s 74. The four other wideouts have only four years of combined experience, but that’s not a bad thing according to Fitzgerald and McCoy.
“There’s a reason why they’re here,” said McCoy, the former head coach of the Chargers and two-time offensive coordinator for the Broncos. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in them, and that’s what we told the players. … We’re going to give everyone an opportunity, and I think all the young players are very fortunate to have the head coach they do because he told them all, ‘I’m going to give you a chance, you’re going to create your own role on the team, but you’ve got to make sure you make the most of it,’ and I think our roster shows that today.”
It does, and as much as a veteran like Fitzgerald dearly misses fellow former playmakers like Anquan Boldin, John Brown, Jaron Brown and yes, even Michael Floyd, he openly says, “These guys have earned this opportunity.”
“This stuff wasn’t just handed to them,” Fitzgerald added. “They’re in this position because they earned the right, they worked their tail off to put themselves in this position and they deserve every right to be able to go out there and showcase their God-given talents.”
It all goes back to Wilks’ promise that the best players will play and the best players will make the team. It’s why Bradford beat out rookie first-round pick Josh Rosen for the starting job at quarterback. Rosen, the 10th overall pick out of UCLA, clearly represents the franchise’s future, but Bradford represents the here and now.
One of the league’s most accurate passers, Bradford feels fortunate just to get another shot after a series of injuries almost ended his career.
“I think at this point, you just realize how special each game is,” he said. “It truly is a blessing to be out there every Sunday, every time that you get on the field with your teammates after having gone through some of the injuries that I have.”
On Sunday, the Cardinals will not only take the bubble wrap off Bradford and his troublesome left knee, they also will show what their real offense will look like in the regular season after basically hiding most of everything during the preseason. Asked what he expects to see out of the offense, Wilks didn’t mince words.
“Hopefully touchdowns. Hopefully moving the chains. Hopefully converting on third down. Hopefully scoring in the red zone and not kicking field goals,” he said.
The Cardinals’ defense, meanwhile, figures to have its hands full with Washington’s array of offensive weapons, from mobile and mostly turnover-free quarterback Alex Smith, to veteran running back Adrian Peterson, who spent much of last season with the Cardinals until he injured his neck, to their dangerous duo of tight ends in Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis.
In his only game against Arizona, in 2014, Reed caught eight passes for 92 yards. Davis has had several big games against the Cardinals, scoring nine career touchdowns to date.
“They’re athletic. They’re like wide receivers,” Holcomb said. “Vernon Davis and Jordan Reed, those guys can get vertical. They have good speed and good quickness off the ball. It allows them to play fast and they’re good pass catchers and good blockers, as well.”
Redskins coach Jay Gruden, who is 0-4 in season openers, has equal worries about the Cardinals’ collection of playmaking defensive backs, from perennial All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson to safeties Antoine Bethea, Tre Boston and do-everything Budda Baker, who is expected to play in multiple roles on the back end.
“The corners have great vision. The safeties have great vision on the quarterback. They’re very, very good and have an excellent, excellent blitz plan. They really do,” Gruden said. “They attack protections and they figure out ways to get home. They’re sound in their coverages and their fire zones and their blitz coverages, and then they play their cores and their three-deeps and all that stuff. They’re very sound in what they do.”
It all starts up front, however, along the Cardinals’ defensive line and it is there, according to General Manager Steve Keim, where there is one player most of all that he can’t wait to watch in the season opener.
“I want to see if Robert Nkemdiche can transition from the type of camp he had prior to the (foot) injury to the start of the regular season,” Keim told the team’s flagship radio station, Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “… It’s time for him to step up, there’s no doubt about it. We have expectations, he has expectations, but talk is cheap and it’s time to do it on the field.
“He’s a guy to me that has all the physical traits you look for, but the fact that he hasn’t done it has been a real concern. He’s healthy, he’s ready to go this week, so I’m hopeful he’s going to have a big game on Sunday.”
If he does, that will also be something new.
Reach McManaman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Tuesday afternoon between 3-6 on 1580-AM The Fanatic with Roc and Manuch and every Wednesday afternoon between 1-3 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.