The primary offseason storyline in the NFC West is pretty simple.
How far might the Cardinals fall without Kurt Warner?
General manager Rod Graves and coach Ken Whisenhunt struck optimistic notes about their prospects for 2010 during a recent interview with flagship station KTAR 620. Whisenhunt said the team needs to upgrade its defensive depth, particularly up front. He held up Will Davis as an example of promising young depth at outside linebacker. He pointed to Greg Toler's emergence at cornerback as significant. Graves said the team is always looking for depth at linebacker and along the offensive line, identifying those positions as areas where the team could "pounce" on players if the opportunities present themselves.
Whisenhunt in particular expressed confidence in Matt Leinart, noting that Leinart nearly beat out Warner for the starting job heading into the 2008 season.
"Kurt was pretty good at that time and Matt held his own against him," Whisenhunt said.
According to Whisenhunt, Leinart has subsequently shown progress in practice. I haven't watched those practices, but we've seen what Leinart has done in games and the results haven't always been compelling. On the other hand, perceptions about Leinart would be different, probably, if the Titans hadn't rallied with a 99-yard scoring drive to beat Arizona during the regular season.
Leinart started that game and led a second-half touchdown drive that I found significant.
The wrap-up item I put together met some resistance on the blog, but I'll stand by what I said at the time: "Matt Leinart took a significant step forward as Kurt Warner's successor with a strong showing against the Titans. ... The go-ahead 80-yard touchdown drive Leinart led in the third quarter stands as a signature drive for him this season. Whisenhunt stuck up for Leinart after the quarterback failed to generate points during the second half against the Rams last week. Leinart validated Whisenhunt's defense of him by meeting the challenge Sunday. It was important for Leinart to earn the confidence Whisenhunt had shown in him. The Cardinals now know they can compete in a tough road game against a hot team with Leinart under center. That makes Leinart credible. It removes pressure, perhaps giving him a better chance to succeed."
Leinart wasn't as good at other times during the season. Questions about his abilities are reasonable. I think it's fair to suggest Warner was worth at least two or three victories for Arizona relative to what Leinart might provide. If that's the case, it's reasonable to think the Cardinals could go from the 9-7 or 10-6 range into the 7-9 or 8-8 range.