Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (left) signs a helmet for receiver Early Doucet as the Cards head into what could be a tumultuous offseason.
Change is inevitable in the NFL. Each year, the roster shifts.
But as the Cardinals finished up their 2009 season Sunday morning with exit physicals and a final team meeting, the possibility of massive change loomed.
Despite back-to-back NFC West championships and a recent Super Bowl appearance – or maybe because of those things – the Cards have several crucial decisions to sort through this offseason, all of which will shape the team for 2010.
Add in the probability of the end of the collective bargaining agreement and no salary cap heading into free agency, and the variables for such decisions only increase.
"Based off what is going on with the cap and so many things circulating with the CBA, it's hard to say if this team will stay together," Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson said. "We might have to start over. It might be a rebuilding year for us because we have so many guys where, contract-wise, it's just not working."
With a disappointing playoff loss less than 24 hours in the rear view mirror, Wilson and many of his teammates were clearly still feeling the pain Sunday, perhaps coloring the concern. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he believes the foundation has been laid for the future, and brushed aside the idea there should be worry for this offseason.
"We've fought through a number of things, a number of perceptions, a number of issues to have success for two years," Whisenhunt said. "I see us moving forward with positive things. I think it is getting easier to escape some of the perceptions of the organization and making decisions with our personnel and drafts and free agents -- we've obviously done a good job with that."
There are some realities with which to deal, however.
First is the possible retirement of quarterback Kurt Warner, the linchpin of the offense. Warner will make a decision soon, but his status greatly influences the direction of 2010.
The Cards also have 13 significant contributors scheduled to become free agents: linebacker Karlos Dansby, nose tackle Bryan Robinson, linebacker Chike Okeafor, linebacker Bertrand Berry, tackle Mike Gandy, kicker Neil Rackers, tight end Anthony Becht, fullback Dan Kreider, safety Matt Ware, tight end Ben Patrick, guard Deuce Lutui, center Lyle Sendlein and wide receiver Steve Breaston.
Some free agents will be restricted, but many are not.
The Cards also must determine their path for wide receiver Anquan Boldin (one year left on a contract) and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (two years). Boldin could be traded. Dockett wants a new deal and doesn't want it to come in after 2010. Whisenhunt said, in Dockett's case, "it's important we look at trying to get something done, something taken care of (because) that's what good teams do."
"I just want what I deserve," Dockett said. "I'm not asking for favors. I want what I deserve, I want what the top guys get. The numbers don't lie. I am with an organization that may see it different."
The Cards must also figure out what to do with safety Antrel Rolle, whose rookie contract – worth more than $12 million in salary and bonuses in 2010 – was constructed to force a new deal or force free agency.
Rolle echoed the sentiments of many of the players: He wants to return, but is unsure of what the front office wants.
"I am hoping the team stays together as much as possible," Rolle said. "We have built something great and that's hard to accomplish after being part of a losing organization for so long. I am hoping we can keep it together, but if not, I am happy with my time here. It would hurt because I want to be with the Cardinals and play with my guys, but this is a business."
Lutui, who will be a restricted free agent if the NFL has an uncapped season, said continuity is crucial. That has helped the offensive line.
"I grew up (in Arizona) and, with the O-line, you haven't seen it, period," Lutui said. "Having (offensive line coach) Russ Grimm establish that, we've done wonders. We've broken records for people, we've set NFL records. It would be good to keep that. But I've been a Cardinal fan for forever and I can see the ins and outs of this program."
Whisenhunt – who deflected a question about his own contract status and possible extension – is making an effort on continuity by retaining his coaching staff. That could change if someone like Grimm gets a head coaching job, but otherwise, the Cards should stay steady there.
Wilson said it was too early to really gauge what the Cardinals accomplished in 2009, but it was clear Whisenhunt and Warner took satisfaction in what the Cards had done.
"It's tough to go to the Super Bowl every year," Warner said. "It's tough to win your division two years in a row. Some of the things we did were great accomplishments. You have to understand if you don't bring your best performance at playoff time, you're going to get beat. It doesn't mean you've had a lousy season."
If the Cardinals can maneuver through an offseason that figures to have less free-agent movement than normal because of the CBA issues, it doesn't have to be about rebuilding.
"If we keep the right people," Breaston said, "we can make another push next year."
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