Quarterback Carson Palmer talks to the media Sunday as the Cardinals met for a final time in the 2014 season.
As Michael Bidwill walked through the visiting locker room at Bank of America Stadium Saturday night, individually thanking players for their season, Patrick Peterson yelled out to the Cardinals' team president.
"Hey Mike," Peterson said, smiling. "Bring back my guys."
That's always the question when a season ends – which guys do the Cardinals choose to bring back, and which guys want to come back. It's the inevitable sea change of an offseason, the one the Cards began Sunday morning with a final team meeting and the beginning of exit interviews with coach Bruce Arians.
"There is a ton of hope," said quarterback Carson Palmer, on schedule right now rehabbing his torn ACL. "I'm very anxious to see. We
have a lot of free agents and we have free agents coming in, all the different facets of the offseason. What (General Manager) Steve (Keim) and his guys are capable of doing, it's exciting. We'll sit and wait and see what happens."
The season fizzled at the end after quarterback injuries doomed the offense and the Cardinals couldn't get past the Carolina Panthers in the Wild Card playoff game, losing 27-16. Arians, however, only saw a team that won 11 games and 21 total over the past two seasons – easily the most in a two-year span since the franchise moved to Arizona.
"We did a great job these last two years building a foundation," safety Tyrann Mathieu said.
How the Cardinals build on that will be the job of Keim, who has long pointed to the offseason of 2015 as a key point for the franchise. It's not hard to see why.
There are decisions to be made on veterans. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald ($23.6 salary cap number for 2015 as of now) and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett ($9.8 million cap number and coming off a torn ACL) both could be asked to take pay cuts.
Key free agents abound, starting with cornerback Antonio Cromartie and including linebacker Larry Foote, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and linebacker Sam Acho.
Arians basically said he wanted everyone back, but it's an easy thing to say as a coach. It is Keim who must balance the salary cap and
figure out the specifics.
"There's always turnover – players, coaches, everything – but that will come back and make us stronger for next year," Arians said. "Normally, when a season comes to an end, I'm ready for a break, but I can honestly say I can't wait to start this next one."
One wild card in the equation: Linebacker Daryl Washington can't be reinstated from his suspension until May, and the Cardinals have to decide if they want to bring him back knowing he is facing another suspension for his assault conviction last year.
Washington's situation is crucial. The defense clearly missed his presence this season, but his baggage is not minor.
"That's something that Michael and Steve and I will sit down and talk about, his future," Arians said. "He still has a lot of protocols to pass to get reinstated. Obviously, the football player, we would love to have him back."
As for the coaching staff, Arians said he did not anticipate making any changes. That doesn't mean he might not be forced into one if defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is offered and accepts one of the many head coaching jobs he will interview for, but Arians said he's still hoping Bowles stays.
The quarterback shouldn't change either. Arians, as he did when Palmer first was hurt, reiterated Palmer could play "another two or three years." Palmer's rehab is on schedule, and he'll begin light jogging this week.
"It's a long way off, and I know guys aren't looking forward to it (right now), but I am, going to OTAs and mandatory mini and all those things," Palmer said.
Arians recalled the way he started up practice back in training camp almost immediately after Dockett went down with his ACL tear. It was a message – "cold," Arians acknowledged – that the game doesn't stop with an injury. It was a reality that the Cardinals worked with well for the majority of the season and why the Cards got back to the postseason for the first time in five seasons.
That's what made Arians proud, and why, even though change is always going to come, hurt lingers for this current squad.
"I've been on teams when they lost their quarterbacks or they lost Darnell Dockett, they tanked it," Arians said. "You couldn't get them to work."
That wasn't a problem for this version of the Cardinals, one that defensive end Calais Campbell called the closest team of which he had been a part.
"This is a team," Campbell said, "I'll remember forever."
The Cardinals clean lockers and meet the media for the final time in the 2014 season