Mailbag: Realistic expectations for Cardinals

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Clint from Mesa, Ariz., writes: As a Cards fan of over 20 years, I admittedly have spent the last few months wondering if 2008-2009 was an aberration or not. I'm a logical person and I truly believe this time that the Cards have turned the corner.

Here's why:

  • The new physical training program that John Lott runs is putting guys in a position to not wear down late, not get injured, and be able to beat opponents off the ball, especially late in the season.

  • The fact that Ken Whisenhunt will play who deserves to play and not just lean on his stars helps share the burden. Examples: a rejuvenated Edgerrin James and a dominant Darnell Dockett in the playoffs.

  • Lastly, there's just a sense of unquestionable trust and authority around the coaching staff with this regime that hasn't been here with any coaching staff I can remember. Even the local media seems to give the staff some wiggle room when it comes to questioning decisions.

All of that really seems to be the formula for continued success and all are components I've never seen here. What are your thoughts?

Mike Sando: I think you raise good points, but that doesn't mean you should be surprised or even disappointed if the Cardinals fail to advance deep into the playoffs this season. Arizona could conceivably have a better team this season and still fall short of the Super Bowl.

In other words, we should not necessarily view last season as an aberration even if the Cardinals fail to meet your expectations in 2009. Lots of things must happen for a team to enjoy a special season. Ken Whisenhunt knows this and I think that helps explain why he had a hard time getting over the Super Bowl defeat. He knows how hard it is to reach that game.

The point about John Lott holds up to a degree. He was the strength coach in 2007 when Matt Leinart lasted five games, Chike Okeafor missed the entire season and the injuries affected the Cardinals to a more significant degree. I wouldn't blame Lott for those injuries any more than I would give him full credit for the team's unusual health in 2008. Players are going to suffer injuries even if a team's strength coach is doing a fantastic job.

GWperformer from Graham, Wash., writes: Hi Sando, I appreciate your coverage of the NFC West. I would like your insight on the Hawks' safety situation. I, like many a Hawk fan, cringe at the thought of seeing Brian Russell back in the starting lineup. Is there a chance that Jamar Adams could take over at strong safety, allowing Grant to move to free safety? Could Adams or Courtney Greene be an option at free safety? Or is it possible that Russell isn't as bad as he seemed last year, and could benefit from a new defensive coordinator and defensive system?

Mike Sando: Thanks, GW. I think the harsh criticism directed toward Russell is overdone. I tend to cringe when people overanalyze play in the secondary without knowing each player's responsibilities within a certain call.

If Russell were truly as bad as his harshest critics would have us believe, I think he would be out of the league. As it is, no one on the roster has even beaten him out.

If I were the Seahawks, I would much rather have Russell in the secondary than Michael Boulware and sometimes even Ken Hamlin, based on the big plays Seattle allowed on known busted coverages when those two were playing together.

Let's see how the defense functions under the new staff before making definitive judgments. Quite a few Seattle players struggled last season.

Jason from Phoenix writes: I was wondering if you have seen Chris Wells play in any mini-camps or OTA's yet? I am wondering if the Cardinals will start him over Tim Hightower. Also, if they start him, will he be in a featured role? Or, will they still go to Hightower for short yardage and goal-line opportunities over Wells?

Looking at Wells' size and speed and a few games at Ohio State, I think he should take over the ground game completely. Hightower did not have the vision to be a featured back. He seemed to run into his own players too much to be given the ball unless it is for only 2-3 yards. Any thoughts?

Mike Sando: NFL rules relating to graduation dates and reporting times prevented Wells from participating in minicamps or organized team activities. I expect him to start. I also expect Hightower to play and I could see him handling situational roles such a short-yardage. He was effective in that role at times last season.

Mike from Richmond, Va., writes: Now that Mark Sanchez has signed with the Jets, how soon do you think other first-round picks are going to be signing -- now that they have a contract to measure against, that is?

Mike Sando: Quarterback contracts are different. The fact that Matthew Stafford signed before the draft probably made it easier for Sanchez to strike a deal. I do not think the quarterback deals will necessarily affect timelines for other first-round choices. Most of them will probably sign after mid-July.

Marcus from Seattle writes: Sando, thanks for the hard work. John Clayton recently appeared on NFL Live and reported that the injury concerns for the Seahawks have now lifted off Hasselbeck, and now the concern is about Walter Jones' health. Is his injury going to affect his performance in 2009 while only playing left tackle? It seems he has surgery every offseason, but continues to mow through the competition [with the exception of DeMarcus Ware on Thanksgiving last year]. Also, how is Patrick Kerney rehabbing and when is he expected back? Any input on this would be much appreciated. Thanks!
Mike Sando: I suspect John was saying the Seahawks aren't concerned so much about Hasselbeck at this point, at which point Jones' health becomes the larger concern. Jones' knee seems to be doing well. However, after so much down time, conditioning will presumably be an issue for a while. The Seahawks expect him to be OK for training camp. I won't be surprised if they play it conservatively with him, however.

As for Kerney, the expectation is that he'll be ready to go for training camp.

Brad from New York writes: Would you agree that the Cards week 1 matchup with the 49ers could potentially determine the 2009 NFC West Champ? It was huge for the Cards to win in San Francisco last year, setting the stage for other division road wins in Seattl
e and St. Louis. Let's be honest, in a less than stellar division, momentum like this can be very beneficial.

Mike Sando: I think a 49ers victory would be bigger than a Cardinals victory, given the venue. The 49ers would be rolling into a Week 2 matchup with Seattle if they could knock off Arizona at University of Phoenix Stadium. It's still far too early to declare the 49ers-Cardinals winner a favorite to win the division. If the 49ers win the opener and then lose at home to the Seahawks, what is gained?

Josh from Richmond, Calif., writes: After observing the OTAs and minicamps, which teams of the NFC West from your perspective has: 1) The most enthusiasm about their outlook for the season; 2) The least enthusiasm about their outlook for the season; 3) The best work ethic in practice; 4) The worst work ethic in practice, and; 5) The overall early edge? I know you can only put so much stock into these camps when the season is three months out, but its good to keep a thermometer on the situation. Thanks!

Mike Sando: All these teams are fired up about their prospects. Jason Brown of the Rams sounded like he had joined a 12-4 team, not a 2-14 team. Work ethics in practice vary by player and I would never be able to make an accurate judgment based on watching a few practices.

Ben from Seattle writes: Hey Sando! Just curious as to your thoughts on what the Hawks need to do most to improve on their pass coverage, especially the deep ball. More pressure by the front four? Better play by our secondary? Or perhaps implementing better schemes that don't expose us to one-on-one situations as much? I am tired of cringing every time a ball goes up in the air, thinking, 'Oh, no, here comes a big play.' Love all your work for out NFC West!

Mike Sando: Thanks, Ben. The Seahawks definitely need more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They need to do a better job playing the ball when they are in position to make plays. And they need to improve the scheme. The talent is good enough, particularly with Ken Lucas onboard.

Jericho from Lodi, Calif., writes: Hey Mike, I have been a die-hard 49ers fan since birth. I have followed them always whether they have a winning season or a losing season. I was wondering whether the 49ers should pursue Greg Ellis, or should they wait til the next offseason to pursue a pass rusher such as Julius Peppers or Shawne Merriman?

Mike Sando: Adding Ellis at a bargain price could help the 49ers' depth. If the price is higher than that, then the 49ers might be best off waiting until next offseason.

Drew from Issaquah, Wash., writes: Hey, Mike. I was wondering why the strategy for NFL teams to sign draft picks is to sign the latter-round players first.

Mike Sando: The higher the stakes, the more there is to negotiate. The more there is to negotiate, the longer the process takes.

John from Scottsdale writes: Mike, how big of a factor do you think Russ Grimm is in the Cardinals' relative success? I always hear people refer to him as a sort of offensive line guru but I never see him interview. Also, why haven't I heard him mentioned more as a head coaching candidate? Wasn't he supposedly pretty close to the Pittsburgh job back in 2007?

Mike Sando: Grimm is a big factor for Arizona. The team kept the same five starting offensive linemen all last season even though Deuce Lutui always wasn't consistent early in the season and Lyle Sendlein was battling a shoulder injury. That probably reflects the way Grimm values continuity on the line. I would expect Grimm's influence to grow as the Cardinals strive for more balance.