The season begins Sunday with a new head coach, a new general manager, a new quarterback and new hope for the Arizona Cardinals. After a disappointing season which saw Arizona start 4-0 and then lose 11 of its final 12 games -- costing coach Ken Whisenhunt his job -- Arizona made massive changes to the front office, coaching staff and roster.
All the changes have given fans hope after some lean years, but in a division considered by many to be the toughest in the NFL, can the Cardinals be good enough to contend for a playoff spot?
They will be better at quarterback, even though Carson Palmer is only a stopgap at this point in his career and has never won a playoff game. They will be better at running back where LaRod Stephens-Howling led the team in rushing last year. They should be improved on the offensive line even with first-round pick Johnathan Cooper out for the year.
Questions remain at wide receiver -- where there is so little depth that Patrick Peterson may catch 30-40 balls this season as the fourth wideout -- on the defensive line -- where there are high hopes the ageless John Abraham coming over from Atlanta can provide a consistent pass rush -- and in the secondary, where the team is replacing both starting safeties.
The suspension to star linebacker Daryl Washington will hurt for the first four games, and a tough schedule will make things challenging.
How quickly can a team that has turned over half of its roster since last season come together? Especially when no one in the organization is preaching patience, but a "win now" mentality. It's always difficult to gauge teams that have had a complete overhaul like Arizona has. Could anyone have predicted the Colts season last year? No chance.
So let's be realistic and instead of predicting an exact record, let's give a range that should fit this year's Cardinals team. And that range will be six-to-nine wins.
If things go according to plan, Palmer resurrects his career in the desert, Mendenhall stays healthy, the Honey Badger has a major impact in creating turnovers and the O-line holds up, Arizona at the very best can go 9-7. I just don't see this team being able to do any better than nine wins -- not in this division and not with its schedule.
Now if things don't go well: Palmer is the same quarterback that he was in Cincinnati and Oakland -- the same one that put up numbers and turnovers and lots of losses; Levi Brown continues to be a turnstile; Mendenhall breaks down; Rob Housler doesn't turn into the threat Bruce Arians believes he can be; and the defense struggles to adjust to a new system and can't get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In that scenario, Arizona is likely a 6-10 team at worst. Last year they won 5 games, and no matter how bad they are, they can't be as bad as they were last year. I just don't see it. So 6-10 is the basement and 9-6 is the ceiling.
More than likely, Arizona wins seven or eight games. They are good at home, they are upgraded at several positions, they have a quality coaching staff and they got rid of some dead wood that needed to be removed. Arians wants to win now and that should be applauded. No coach or owner has a five-year plan anymore to get better. No one has the patience or the time. Too much money is being spent on rosters, which can be turned over in the blink of an eye like Arizona's was.
So, expectations for everyone are to win now. The Cardinals should and will be better. But they are not a worst-to-first threat. Not now. They will be more competitive than last year. But they are not a playoff team. Not yet.