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Despite losing season, Cardinals confident they are not far off

FILE - In this Oct. 30, 2016, file photo, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians watches the action in the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C. Halfway through their season, the Cardinals are one of the league’s biggest disappointments. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone, File)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Bruce Arians was sitting at the table waiting to be interviewed when he took a look at his phone and noticed a couple Green Bay Packers coaches were in town at a different golf course.

Arians, who was at the TPC Scottsdale to help promote the Arians Family Foundation and its work with CASA at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, did not seem happy about them being elsewhere.

The Packers coaches, undoubtedly, were not excited to be golfing. A couple weeks ago they were preparing for the NFC Championship Game and on the doorstep of Super Bowl LI. Now, they are in offseason mode.

Arians has been in offseason mode for a while now, with the Cardinals finishing 7-8-1 and out of the playoffs.

“I knew losing sucks, but now you really know, you know,” he said. “I never did it as a head coach and I don’t like it.

“But you have to go back and re-evaluate on everything you do, every speech you gave. I think one thing was taken for granted how good a veteran team we had because they came to work every day — you never could complain about the work.”

It does not take much in-depth analysis to understand where things went wrong for the Cardinals in 2016. With made field goals against the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks they would have had two more wins, and with better luck in the injury department — they had 32 players miss a combined 159 games, with the team using eight different starting offensive line combinations — piecing together a team every week would not have been as much of a struggle.

Yet to some degree, it makes little sense to just assume the team would have been preparing for the Super Bowl right now had those kicks gone through the uprights or the team stayed completely healthy. Even the best teams suffer through mistakes on the field and deal with injuries, and being able to withstand and press through them is what allows them to rise to the top.

In 2015, when the Cardinals finished 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game, they were able to do that. Not long after falling short of the Super Bowl, the Cardinals made it very clear that they felt the only thing they were lacking was a pass rush, which was a need they went out and filled.

Given that this year’s club finished with a worse record, it would stand to reason that they have significantly more holes to fill. But asked what area needs to be addressed in the coming months, Arians turned his attention inward.

“Really to sign our own guys,” he said. “If we can get our own guys back and not have to teach a lot of new guys things.”

Arians went on to say better health would help, especially on special teams, where he would also like to add someone who can return kicks and punts.

“There’s not a glaring need like there was last year,” he added.

That may be tough to believe, though if a good many of the team’s 20-plus free agents find new homes, some needs may emerge. But if you go ahead with the idea that the Cardinals don’t have much work to do if they want to get back in the playoffs, then you believe what happened in 2016 was more of anomaly than anything else.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Arians said. “Finishing the season the way we did, beating Seattle in Seattle and ending on a two-game winning streak, to beat a playoff team at the end of the year with what we were playing with and who we were playing with, I think it speaks volumes about the leadership in our locker room.”

The Cardinals ranked ninth in yards and sixth in points-per-game this past season, and defensively finished second and 14th in those categories, respectfully.  They had a running back who led the league in total yards from scrimmage and touchdowns, as well as a pair of double-digit sack players who helped Arizona lead the league there, too.

But as everyone should know, what happened one season does not necessarily translate to the next. That’s football, and it’s why teams can one year be in a division’s basement and the next sit at the top.

Arizona’s climb isn’t quite as steep.

“Because we have a lot of guys that the game means a lot to them and winning means a lot,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said of why such confidence still remains even after a losing season. “We created a culture around here in Arizona now; we have a lot of expectations to live up to, and we believe we have the guys to get it done.

“We just have to go out there and make sure we execute the game plans to the full potential on Sundays.”

Peterson is well aware of the fact that the team could undergo some change this offseason, and though he said he’s chatted with some of the team’s more notable free agents and let them know how much he and the team want them back, he understands it is up to GM Steve Keim, Arians and owner Michael Bidwill to make the decisions.

Arians said this time of year and the opportunity to put together a new team is exciting, with the caveat that the process will be much smoother if veterans Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald put off retirement and return for another season.

Fitzgerald is returning for next season, but even with that in mind, he was confident prior to the report the Cardinals would be in good shape even if he and Palmer did not come back.

“Regardless if we come back next year there is still so much talent on this team,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know if there’s a team that has better personnel than us in the National Football League, to be quite honest with you.

“With Coach Arians and the offensive staff he’s put together, and the defense — we were top-10 defense, top-10 offense — I mean, you can’t ask for anybody that’s more potent.”

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