NFC North: Clancy Pendergast
The Arizona Cardinals suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons from 1999-2006. They managed an 8-8 record last season, improved one game in 2008 and will play for the NFL championship Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII.
That journey should provide a series of lessons for all NFL teams, not the least of which are our four Black and Blues. What can Minnesota, Chicago, Green Bay and Detroit learn from the Cardinals? Let's take a look:
Vikings: The value of a veteran quarterback. Yes, Kurt Warner is a former MVP and certainly not your average free agent quarterback. But that's exactly how the Cardinals acquired him, signing him off the free agent scrap heap in 2005. Warner hasn't had a perfect season, and ironically he played one of his worst games Dec. 14 against the Vikings. But it's difficult to overstate his value in setting a calm but highly focused tone for the playoff run. His 5-for-5 performance in the winning drive of the NFC Championship Game is exactly why most coaches prefer an experienced hand with the game on the line.
Bears: Receivers can make a difference. It's hard to imagine where the Cardinals would be without the receiving trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Fitzgerald has been the primary postseason target, but Boldin and Breaston did their share to help Arizona clinch the NFC West. My colleague Mike Sando has documented the Cardinals' increased reliance on the running game, but I would argue the running game benefits from the attention drawn by Fitzgerald and friends. Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo clearly doesn't believe in high-priced receivers, but the Cardinals are proving their value in 2009.
Packers: Sometimes it's preferable to keep opponents guessing about your defensive front. The Cardinals use a 4-3 base, but occasionally defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will mix in a 3-4 look based on personnel. It's a twist that coach Ken Whisenhunt brought from Pittsburgh and one that poses a significant gameplanning problem for opposing offenses. The Packers plan to use a 3-4 in 2009, but new coordinator Dom Capers -- another coach with Pittsburgh roots -- could keep the 4-3 in storage for the right occasions.
Lions: Even the most cursed history eventually turns around. In the 60 years after winning the NFL Championship in 1947, the Cardinals franchise won exactly one playoff game before this season. The Lions ended the 50-year curse of Bobby Layne with an historic 0-16 season, meaning there is nowhere to go but up. If the Cardinals can overcome decades of bad karma, so can the Lions.