GLENDALE, Ariz. — Four times since moving to Arizona have the Cardinals had a playoff team. Unfortunately, only three times have the Cardinals actually had a team in the playoffs.
Forget what the brackets say this year; the Cardinals were a playoff team.
They may not be in the tournament, as Larry Fitzgerald called it, or the dance, as Bruce Arians refers to it as, but there’s little doubt that in 2013 the Cardinals are one of the 12 best teams the NFL has to offer.
That their season ended Sunday in Week 17 is a shame. It’s not a crime, mind you, and there is no reason for the NFL to look into changing its postseason format. But it is a shame that we have been robbed of the opportunity to see what the best team the franchise has had since moving to Arizona could do in the playoffs.
“It doesn’t feel good, but it doesn’t diminish what we were able to accomplish as a unit, as a team,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said of winning 10 games but missing the playoffs. “Coach (Bruce) Arians hit it on the head; he said it’s just the beginning. This team, what we’re trying to accomplish, it’s just a start.”
The key for the Cardinals now is to have whatever momentum they may have built carry over to next season. In 2011, the team won seven of its last nine games but finished the following season 5-11. There’s no doubt injuries played a role in the miserable campaign, but that’s kind of how the NFL works.
Things can change from season to season, sometimes dramatically. The harsh reality is the Arizona Cardinals, as we learned to know them, are dead. They’ll be a different bird in 2014.
But different does not mean worse.
“I think we will have a firm belief going into OTAs that this works, the system works, the way we practice, the way we work training camp,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “All the way through they know it works now, and they know the process. We should be able to take it and build upon it.
“You never know what’s going to happen next year with injuries and everything else, you know, but we should be able to build and have a heck of an offseason from this.”
And that’s just it. Once the sting of losing to the 49ers wears off and the disappointment from seeing inferior teams in the postseason while they sit at home goes away, it will be up to the organization to keep the Cardinals moving in the right direction.
“There’s a lot of wins in our future and that’s the only thing you feel good about today and tonight,” quarterback Carson Palmer said after the game.
The good news is that with Palmer, for the first time in a while, the Cardinals are not entering the offseason looking for a new quarterback. The team has not had the same Week 1 starter in back-to-back years since Kurt Warner in 2008 and 2009, and that type of continuity cannot be understated.
Stability at the most important position allows the focus to turn elsewhere, and given what Keim accomplished in his first season as a general manager, it’s reasonable to have some faith in him going into his second.
“This team is probably four or five pieces away from dominating different teams,” defensive lineman Darnell Dockett said.
Who are those pieces? Who knows. Will the Cardinals improve enough to the point where they will be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium? Not likely, but it’s possible.
And that’s just it. One year ago, like now, the Cardinals were coming off a season-ending loss to the San Francisco 49ers. But unlike one year ago, the feeling is more of disappointment than relief.
“I want to win the Super Bowl every time I’m on the field, but compared to the last couple years, this is amazing,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “This is a great year. You have to enjoy the ride. That’s what it’s all about.”
That the ride couldn’t continue was more about bad luck than the Cardinals being a bad team. When the dust settles on 2013 people will see the top rushing defense in the NFL, a solid secondary and an offense that found its way over the course of the season. The result was a team that won seven of its final nine games.
Just think, only a few years ago seven wins over the course of the entire season were enough to win the NFC West. Times have certainly changed, for both the division and Arizona’s football team.
“We set the standard on the last half of the season, and going into next season that’s what our standard is,” center Lyle Sendlein said.
That’s what playoff teams do.