Running back Beanie Wells scores a touchdown on the Cards' first offensive possession of the 2011 season -- but the scores came too infrequently early on.
Center Lyle Sendlein often would listen to teammate Daryn Colledge this season about the guard's experiences in Green Bay, since Colledge played through the Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers transition.
The Packers' offense stumbled at times. Sacks came too often. Then, just about the time the Packers visited University of Phoenix Stadium for a playoff game following the 2009 season, "they were firing on all cylinders," Sendlein said.
"That's where we expect to be next year," Sendlein added.
Whether it's fair to expect a team that still searching for its quarterback answer to turn into anything close to where the Packers found themselves in 2010 may be a stretch. Improvement is crucial, though, for a team that felt good about winning seven of its last nine despite a constant struggle all season to be an offense on which to count on.
"We know as an offense," quarterback John Skelton said, "we have to get better."
It started well, which at the time seemed to bode well. The Cardinals' first drive of the season went for a touchdown, starting at the Cards' own 46-yard line and ending with Beanie Wells' seven-yard run for a score. The next week, a first-quarter interception set up a short (37 yards) drive for another early touchdown.
But the Cardinals didn't score a first-quarter touchdown after than until the final game of the season against Seattle, far too long a drought. The Cards only scored 36 first-quarter points all season, putting them in a near constant hole.
The flip side, of course, was the often strong finishes, especially once the defense became stout. In the fourth quarter and overtime, the Cards outscored opponents by 54 points. The big plays would pop up – 22 total on the season of more than 40 yards – and the Cards did gain 4.2 yards per rush attempt, but it didn't happen enough. During the Cards' 7-2 closing kick to the season, the most points they scored in a game was 23.
Skelton's passing rating in the first quarter was 30.8. Kevin Kolb's was 76.8, not spectacular but indicative to slightly better starts. Skelton's famine-then-feast output frequently looked like the Cards had actually swapped quarterbacks in a game, given his proclivity to come through seemingly every time as the game clock entered the final quarter.
"We didn't play consistent enough offensively," Whisenhunt said. "If you just looked at us as a fourth quarter or overtime team offensively, you'd say, 'Boy, you guys don't have to do anything. You've got a pretty good squad.' But that's not the case in the first and second quarters of a lot of these games."
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald referred to the "ebb and flow" of the offense, although the Cards would like a little more flow (Fitzgerald would too, although it's interesting to note that, since Kolb and Skelton played virtually eight games each, Fitzgerald's stats with each were about the same – 38-658-2 with Kolb and 41-730-5 with Skelton).
Sendlein sees the need for basic improvements: Protect the quarterback better, earn more first downs, and while points are important, Sendlein wants fewer three-and-outs just to put the defense in the better position. The Cards were 29th in third-down conversions.
"That's where we failed a lot this year," Sendlein said.
The Cards will have at least one change in the offensive coaching staff, after quarterbacks coach Chris Miller was let go this week, and more changes would be in store if the Cardinals indeed bring back former offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
An offseason of work, however, may be enough in itself to settle down either Kolb or Skelton and lead to the kind of steady play Colledge's unit in Green Bay began to churn out.
"I have a lot of confidence with some of the pieces we (already) have in place," Whisenhunt said, "we'll be a much better offense next year."