The Arizona Cardinals were flying high. With home wins over Seattle, Philadelphia and Miami and a road victory in New England to open the 2012 season, the Cardinals entered a Thursday night game at the Edward Jones Dome at 4-0.
The Rams defeated Arizona 17-3 and the Cardinals’ season eventually spiraled out of control. Arizona would win just one of its last 12 games, finishing 5-11.
Blame for the Cardinals’ season-ending collapse can be shared. The offensive line struggled, surrendering a league-worst 58 sacks, and the ground game was nearly as ineffective, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.
Add to that some really ugly play at quarterback, where four different passers — Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer — combined for four touchdowns and 18 interceptions in the season’s final 12 games.
The offseason in the desert provided a major overhaul, with Steve Keim taking over as general manager and longtime NFL offensive coordinator Bruce Arians added as the new head coach. The team cut or elected not to re-sign six players who started at least 10 games a year ago, parting with players who took 38.2 percent of the team’s snaps.
“Every year is a new year in the NFL and this is a new team,’’ Arians said by phone on Wednesday. “We’ve got 26 new players on our roster and a new coaching staff. ... We’re talking more about winning than losing and about going forward and never looking backwards.’’
Arians joins the Cardinals after playing a major role in one of 2012’s best stories. He became the first interim to win the NFL Coach of the Year award after leading the Indianapolis Colts to a 9-3 record while filling in as head coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia.
“Last year was an unbelievable fairy tale ride for all of us, and the biggest part of the fairy tale was seeing Chuck get well and come back for that last game,’’ said Arians. Being a head coach is “extremely exciting for me. It’s something I never thought would happen. ... If it wasn’t for Chuck’s illness, I don’t think it would have happened.’’
And why’s that?
“After you win a couple of Super Bowls as a coordinator, you usually get an interview and it never happened,’’ he pointed out. “But I got the opportunity to talk to a couple of teams because of Chuck’s illness. That opened the door and Mr. Bidwill (Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill) gave me the honor of becoming a head coach.’’
Making a change at quarterback was a vital offseason move for the Cardinals, who acquired 33-year-old Carson Palmer in a trade with Oakland and later signed him to a three-year, $26 million deal.
Palmer, who stands 6 feet 5 and weighs 235 pounds, is not the same quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy in 2002 or became Cincinnati’s choice as the top overall selection in the 2003 draft.
But the two-time Pro Bowl selection can still make plays. With the Raiders a year ago, he completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 4,018 yards, with 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
“He’s a great leader, he’s a really smart guy and obviously he can still throw the ball. He’s just a great quarterback and we’re going to have to be on our game,’’ said Rams safety Matt Giordano, a teammate of Palmer’s last year in Oakland. “Hopefully I can get in and get a blitz called.’’
Acquired for just a sixth-round draft pick — he cost Oakland a No. 1 and a No. 2 just two years earlier — Palmer is a perfect fit for the aggressive, down-the-field passing game that Arians favors.
“I think it’s been really good for both of us, learning from each other,’’ said Palmer, who has a chance to become the first to throw for 4,000 yards with three different NFL clubs. “Bruce has been running this system for a very long time and had a lot of success at a bunch of different stops along the way. Right now, we’re still learning each other, still getting comfortable.’’
Arians added: “He fits (the system) beautifully. He’s a gym rat. He can still make all the throws. He’s athletic enough to move around in the pocket. ... Playing against him all those years in Cincinnati, I knew how tough he was, and you want a tough leader with grit to lead your football team. It took about 24 hours and he had this football team in the palm of his hands.
“He’s as pretty a deep-ball throw as I’ve ever seen.’’
Those words are music to the ears of Arizona receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts. One of the game’s best, Fitzgerald was limited by Arizona’s quarterback play a year ago when he finished with 71 catches for 798 yards and a career-low four touchdowns. But now, for the first time since Kurt Warner retired following the 2009 campaign, Fitzgerald has a legitimate quarterback to work with.
“He’s phenomenal,’’ Palmer said of Fitzgerald, who averaged 86.6 catches for 1,202 yards and 9.2 touchdowns through the first eight years of his pro career career. “He makes amazing catches, he runs great routes, he plays extremely physical and he runs really well with the ball after the catch. And he has a bunch of young guys (on this team) who want to be like him... His actions speak louder than words because he’s always grinding, he’s running routes, he’s working at his craft (and) staying after practice to catch balls.”
Giving Palmer enough time to get the ball to Fitzgerald and Co. will be key for the Cardinals. Left tackle Levi Brown is back after missing all of 2012 with a torn triceps and veteran Eric Winston was signed to play right tackle. But Arizona lost its top draft pick, guard Jonathan Cooper when the No. 8 overall pick suffered a broken leg in the preseason.
The ground game is keyed by former University of Illinois standout Rashard Mendenhall, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, who had just 182 with Pittsburgh a year ago in his return from an ACL injury suffered late in the 2011 season. Injuries have also limited the team’s other main back, Ryan Williams.
Defensively, the Cardinals are solid, even without star inside linebacker Daryl Washington (four-game suspension). A year ago, Arizona allowed two or fewer touchdowns in 12 of 16 games.
Calais Campbell, Dan Williams and Darnell Dockett are strong up front and linebacker Karlos Dansby is back after after spending the last three seasons with Miami. Cornerback/kick returner Patrick Peterson has also been getting some work at receiver. Free agent safety Yeremiah Bell is another player to watch in the Arizona secondary.“I think (the Cardinals) definitely made improvements to their defense,’’ Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said. “Their front is pretty much the same, but some of the guys they’ve added in the back end really help that group. And then, with a new D-coordinator (Todd Bowles), you’ve got to expect the unexpected. Obviously we’re going to study what they’ve shown on tape during the preseason, but going into Week 1, we’ve got to be prepared to see anything and expect them to pull out all their tricks.’’