Cardinals a team on the rise

In 1994, six seasons after he relocated his itinerant franchise from the banks of the Mississippi River to the desert, owner Bill Bidwill changed the name of the team from the Phoenix Cardinals to the Arizona Cardinals.

Little more than a footnote, for sure, except for this interesting factoid: The switch shook up the NFL directory, catapulting the Cardinals right to the front of the league's alphabetical order.

Thirteen years later, ranking atop the NFL roll call is still the only area in which the Cardinals have ever been No. 1 since they departed St. Louis following the 1987 season. In fact, during the Cardinals' two decades in the Valley of the Sun, they have mostly suffered through a dreary eclipse, finishing last in their division nine times, while qualifying only once for the playoffs.

But that long drought might be about to end.

With a new and inspiring coach, a state-of-the-art stadium, a young quarterback around whom to build for the future, an oasis of proven playmakers on offense and a defense with legitimate potential for improvement, Arizona might be ready for a change.

Granted, what the Cardinals always change, it seems, is the head coach, with the club now working on its eighth different sideline boss since moving to Phoenix. Not since their days in St. Louis, when the venerable Jim Hanifan was in charge for most of the final six years there, have the Cardinals employed a head coach who survived more than four seasons.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, however, figures to settle in for a while. With a degree in civil engineering, the former NFL tight end knows a little about building things from the ground up. At least on the offensive side, where quarterback Matt Leinart won three of his final four starts as a rookie in 2006, there is a foundation from which Whisenhunt can start. And by retaining creative defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, the Cardinals, whose scheme is constructed around Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson, will have a sense of continuity.

"We're not going to change the world," acknowledged Whisenhunt, speaking at the NFL combine a few weeks ago. "That's not the goal, guys, let's face it. But I think we can change enough things, and pretty quickly, to make good progress in a short time. I know we can change some attitudes. And I think, from talking to most of the [veterans], they're anxious to get started."

Everything in Arizona starts with an offense that features Leinart, wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and aging tailback Edgerrin James. It is a nucleus good enough for Arizona to have statistically rated 18th in the league in total offense in 2006, despite a running game that was No. 30. James is hardly the kind of downhill runner Whisenhunt prefers. But if offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who came with Whisenhunt from Pittsburgh, can upgrade a blocking unit that has long been the Cardinals' most glaring weakness, perhaps the running attack will be productive enough to complement the passing game.

Arizona has been savvy in free agency to date, adding solid players such as Rod Hood and Terrence Holt in the secondary. What the Cardinals need is for young veterans like cornerback Antrel Rolle, tackle Darnell Dockett and linebacker Karlos Dansby to step up their games. And for Wilson, arguably the league's best unknown secondary player over the past four seasons, to keep performing at a Pro Bowl level.

"There's always going to be a natural excitement when [a new coach] comes in," Wilson acknowledged. "We're kind of riding that natural high right now. But I think the excitement here will last. [Whisenhunt] comes from a winner. He has been a winner. And when you talk to him, you come away feeling like he's got it figured out, and he knows how to move this thing forward."

Progress will not come easily, though, in an NFC West where the three other entries also figure to be better. Arizona lost five games in 2006 by seven points or fewer, including three losses by a field goal or less, but the Cardinals still face a tough road if they are to register real progress.

If quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is beyond his shoulder problems of a year ago, Seattle still has sufficient talent to challenge again for a Super Bowl berth. St. Louis continues to add impressive pieces to an offense that already ranked as one of the NFL's most explosive units. And buoyed by a wild spending spree in free agency, San Francisco also should rank among the franchises capable of plenty of upward mobility in 2007.

Here is a look, in fact, at four franchises besides Arizona that should ascend this season:

" Carolina: Despite the considerable heat on coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney to win big in 2007 after an 8-8 record in '06, the Panthers have made virtually no significant changes in the offseason. Then again, there is already sufficient talent on hand with which to win, particularly if the Panthers get back injured players suach as middle linebacker Dan Morgan. The bloom is off quarterback Jake Delhomme, who must overcome his maddening stretches of inconsistency, but having wide receiver Steve Smith around is a ready antidote. If the Panthers can handle New Orleans, they are still good enough to win the division.

" New York Jets: It would be fair to suggest that the Great Surge Forward for the Jets actually came in 2006, when New York surprised everyone by finishing 10-6 and earning a wild-card berth. But the best still lies ahead for the youthful duet of general manager Mike Tannenbaum and coach Eric Mangini. This isn't the most talented team and, truth be told, a lot of skeptics want to see if quarterback Chad Pennington's 2006 performance was a fluke. But the Jets have a plan and the players performed hard for Mangini in 2006. The division, especially with the moves made by New England in the offseason, will be competitive. But the addition of tailback Thomas Jones is a terrific move, and Mangini has enough smoke and mirrors on defense to make things work.

" San Francisco: Finally out of salary-cap jail, the 49ers have spent this offseason as if all the extra money is burning a hole in their corporate pockets. But veteran additions will permit coach Mike Nolan to finish the transition to the 3-4 defense that he prefers, and the secondary should be much improved with the presence of big-money free agents Nate Clements and Michael Lewis. Frank Gore emerged in 2006 as a premier tailback and quarterback Alex Smith made positive strides. No reason the improvement won't continue in 2007.

" Seattle: Sure, the Seahawks won their division in 2006, but this should be a team far better than 9-7 and an early playoff exit. And it will be in 2007. If the surgery to fix the labrum damage in quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's shoulder is successful, he can return to his 2005 form. Tailback Shaun Alexander can't be as beat up as he was in 2006 for a second year in a row. Former Atlanta head coach Jim Mora figures to remedy a secondary that quietly ranked as one of the NFL's most disappointing units a year ago.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.