Take away the first seven games of last season, and the Arizona Cardinals were another miracle story for first-year head coach Bruce Arians.
Arizona went 7-2 over the final nine games, and the offense, a complex system that Arians installed after being hired in January 2013, was finally understood and, as cliché as it sounds, began clicking on all cylinders.
It's just gotten better during this season's training camp.
Quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald have said it. Arians has repeated it. The Cardinals are “light years” ahead of where they were last year at this time. It's obvious in the route running, which is crisper, and the formations, which aren't discussed by receivers pre-snap.
A major difference is the Cardinals have the pieces in place to make a serious run at the NFC West title, no matter how hard Seattle and San Francisco fans are laughing right now.
Despite it being a preseason game with no preparation and basic sets, the Cardinals gave a glimpse of how well-oiled the offense is against the Houston Texans on Saturday. Even Arians, usually one to temper expectations, talked about how well it executed.
With more time, the offense will only get better.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. The entire defensive line returned this season -- the same line of Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams and Calais Campbell that finished last season ranked No. 1 in the NFL. With a year under its belt in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' single-gap scheme, the trio has been ironing out wrinkles during training camp and adding minor variations to the system. But what could make this line more dangerous than a year ago is the depth. When he's healthy, nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu will back up Williams again, and draft picks Kareem Martin and Ed Stinson will get some quality time backing up Campbell and Dockett, while veteran Frostee Rucker is still playing at a high level.
2. Arians has long preached that he can't teach speed. But he can sign it. The Cardinals saw that speed was a major deficiency in their offense in 2013, and they set out this offseason to change it. Add Ted Ginn and John Brown, and they now have two of the faster receivers in the league. That means more deep throws over the top and more opportunities to spread out the defense and allow Fitzgerald to work inside. Ginn is poised for a breakout year as a receiver, and Brown, a rookie out of Division II Pittsburg State, has been turning heads all camp.
3. While their defensive line counterparts were atop the league's rankings last season, the secondary was sitting at 14th. But that's about to change this season. Arizona basically vacuum sealed its secondary through free agency and the draft. Patrick Peterson will have free-agent addition Antonio Cromartie across from him at corner, and whenever Tyrann Mathieu returns from injury at free safety, he will be playing alongside either Tony Jefferson or rookie Deone Bucannon at strong safety. Arizona could have three Pro Bowlers roaming the secondary, which Peterson already has dubbed the "No Fly Zone."
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. On paper and especially in theory, the offensive line's issues were supposed to be solved this offseason with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer and return of left guard Jonathan Cooper. But Cooper has struggled all camp and at times has been replaced by Earl Watford. Center Lyle Sendlein is out with a calf injury but should return in a week with hopes it doesn't linger. But the right side of the line has looked the strongest. Paul Fanaika has been consistent enough to win the job at right guard, and right tackle Bobby Massie returns to the starting lineup after a one-year hiatus.
2. The tight end room, which was once a high point for the Cardinals this offseason, became an area of concern when Jake Ballard decided to retire. Arizona went from two strong run-blockers starting -- Ballard and John Carlson -- to being forced to start Rob Housler, who hasn't lived up to expectations. It's just a matter of time until rookie Troy Niklas gets up to speed after missing most of the offseason workouts with injuries. As their fourth tight end, the Cardinals have promoted Darren Fells, a former basketball player who's never played in an NFL game.
3. The biggest surprise on last season's defense -- actually, on the whole team -- was linebacker John Abraham. But Abraham isn't in camp for reasons not yet disclosed by the team. He was arrested in late June on a charge of DUI. In what shape he returns will be the difference between another Pro Bowl season and possibly the end of his career. But his impact on the defense will be noticeable. Arizona struggled with an edge pass rush last season until he was inserted into the starting lineup, and the result was 11.5 sacks.
Two words: John Brown. The rookie wide receiver has proved in training camp that he was worth a third-round pick. His speed is natural, as is his passion for the game. The Cardinals already had a stout wide receiver corps featuring Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Ginn. Brown has the fourth spot all but locked.
Veteran linebacker Larry Foote was said by Arians to be just a two-down linebacker when he was signed. That's changed. He's shown that even at 34 he can still be a three-down 'backer alongside his young compatriot Kevin Minter.
The battle at safety is strong, but the product will be great depth. Jefferson is making it hard for the coaches to bench him in favor of Bucannon, and Rashad Johnson is playing like he was through the first few games of 2013, before Mathieu entered the starting lineup.
Veteran kicker Jay Feely may be coming up on the end of his tenure in Arizona. Rookie Chandler Catanzaro has been kicking well, and Arians said if the field goals are even that he will take the better one on kickoffs, which Catanzaro has been thus far.