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Cardinals made right moves for right reasons

1/31/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

TAMPA, Fla. -- An ego-driven coaching staff might have left Edgerrin James on the sideline as punishment after the veteran running back complained rather loudly about his diminished role.

The Arizona Cardinals went back to James, a player the current staff inherited, at the expense of their own draft choice, rookie Tim Hightower.

A stubborn coaching staff might have backed quarterback Matt Leinart well into the regular season after publicly committing to the 2006 first-round choice months earlier.

The Cardinals? They made a last-minute decision to start 37-year-old veteran Kurt Warner once they thought Warner might give them a better chance to start the season quickly.

An impulsive staff might have rushed talented cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into the lineup as an immediate upgrade instead of waiting until midseason, when the rookie had more seasoning.

An undisciplined staff might have shaken up the offensive line when right guard Deuce Lutui lacked consistency early in the season. The Cardinals valued continuity enough to stick with their same five starters, a move that has paid off during Arizona's run to Super Bowl XLIII.

"Sometimes dollars, sometimes draft picks will dictate [decisions]," Warner said. "Sometimes even not knowing something about a young guy will dictate the decision that is being made, even though deep in their heart or in the back of their mind they think the other guy should be getting the job."

Warner was with the New York Giants in 2004 when the organization named rookie first-round choice Eli Manning to start ahead of him. The Giants, 5-4 with Warner starting, lost six of their final seven games and failed to win in the postseason until three years later.

The Cardinals could have made a case for developing Leinart this season. While Warner had led the NFL in touchdown passes over the second half of the 2007 season, the coaching staff wanted him to become more careful in avoiding turnovers. That's why Leinart headed into the exhibition season as the starter. The job went to Warner only after Leinart faltered and Warner showed a willingness to alter his approach.

"The compliment to this coaching staff is that they have tried to make every decision based on what they think is best for this football team," Warner said this week. "I think that is something in this day and age that is to be complimented because I don't think everybody goes about it that way."

James appears less enthusiastic.

"You want to play," James said. "This year I worked extremely hard in the offseason, and I had a chance to pass up some of the greatest players of all time [on the all-time rushing list]."

Though he is back in the lineup, he wasn't ready to talk about returning to the Cardinals next season. The decision to start Hightower ahead of him for much of the season might never sit well with him.

"It's tough when you have a guy like Edge who has played a lot and is really helping his team win," left tackle Mike Gandy said. "He is a really high-profile player, so he is going to take a lot of the brunt for things that weren't necessarily his fault. It was tough. In the end, everything kind of worked its way out."

If Ken Whisenhunt and staff had wanted to punish James for requesting a trade during the season, they could have stuck with their four-receiver offense featuring Hightower and J.J. Arrington as the primary backs. They even could have named James inactive. But the Cardinals realized their offense needed more balance, and they knew James was best suited for a more conventional offense. So they went back to him.

"We have said all along that we're going to need Edge, especially in the playoffs, and that has come true because he has been a big part of the reason why we have had success," Whisenhunt said.

The Cardinals' open-mindedness on offense has helped them find winning combinations. Instead of preaching their offensive system and sticking with it to a fault, the Cardinals have proved adaptable.

When injuries struck at tight end, Arizona signed tight end Stephen Spach off the street and liked him enough to release Jer
ame Tuman
, one of the players Whisenhunt had brought to Arizona from Pittsburgh.

When a knee injury ended Spach's season during a divisional playoff game at Carolina and a hamstring injury slowed receiver Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals suddenly became more reliant on personnel groups with two tight ends -- all while getting even more big-play production from Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the passing game.

"One great thing this coaching staff has done is say, 'Who gives us the best chance to win?'" Warner said. "You can use my situation. You can look at the Edge situation where he started, then they put in Tim and they weren't afraid to say, 'OK, maybe Edge is the best guy for us right now,' and go back to Edge.

"I just think they have done a tremendous job of doing that a number of times and I think it's been key to the things we have accomplished and the success we have had as a team."