Defensive end Antonio Smith, who as a free agent may not return to the Cards next season, signs a jersey for teammate Aaron Francisco.
The Cardinals said goodbye Tuesday.
Players took exit physicals, signed autographs on each other?s helmets and collected their luggage after their week in Tampa, knowing that, as a group, it was the last time they would be together.
?We?re not going to keep this team together,? quarterback Kurt Warner said. ?That?s a given in this business. It is a part of the special season we have had.?
But that doesn?t mean the players aren?t thinking about what could be ? as a unit ? in 2009.
On the day the Steelers held their victory parade in Pittsburgh, the Cards were speaking of their Super Bowl loss as motivation ? both for on the field next season, and the desire to keep the bulk of the roster intact, despite many free agents and even more personnel questions.
?We?ve got the opportunity to be great next year if we keep everybody together,? said linebacker Karlos Dansby, one of the key players who may not return. ?Everybody wants to come back. We have some unfinished business. We planted the seed in Florida. Hopefully next year we can go back and reap the fruit.?
Getting to Miami and Super Bowl XLIV is a long way off. Whisenhunt talked about the problem ? a very good problem, but still a problem ? of getting no down time after the postseason run. Immediately, the coaches have to evaluate the current roster and then start on evaluating potential pro free agents to sign.
The scouting combine is also in a couple of weeks.
The players who could leave as free agents didn?t sound anxious to do so, although that is easy to do when salary numbers are not yet in play. Dansby said he wanted to come back, as did Warner and defensive end Antonio Smith.
Smith called this season ?a magical year? and said the Cards? success meant players want to stay put.
?If you are in Super Bowls and changing the world ? because that is exactly what I think happened with this team, because, man, we almost converted the nation into Cardinals fans just on the story we built for ourselves ? it is hard on you to let go of that,? Smith said.
The Cardinals will be challenged by history. Of the last 10 Super Bowl-losing teams before Arizona, eight failed to make the playoffs the following season, and the other two won a total of one playoff game.
The Cards are also a team that got hot at the right time, which may make it easier to forget about some of their deficiencies.
?We still have some things we have to get better with,? safety Adrian Wilson said. ?It?s not all good right now. We did go 9-7. It?s not all good. We didn?t go 16-0.?
Defensive end Bertrand Berry, himself a free agent, praised the chemistry in the locker room and believes the Cards should avoid trying to make a big-name splash in the free-agent market.
?I don?t really see the need for significant changes,? Berry said. ?If it ain?t broke, don?t fix it.?
The roster isn?t the only place that figures to morph by the offseason. Whisenhunt wouldn?t comment on whether the Cards had given permission for the Chiefs to interview offensive coordinator Todd Haley for their head coaching job ? the Kansas City Star reported that the Chiefs had indeed gotten that permission and would interview Haley ? but the coach did say he hoped his coaching staff would remain intact.
The Cards, with all their assistants under contract, are not obligated to let one leave unless it is for a head coaching job.
?Whenever you have attention like we have gotten, everyone benefits,? Whisenhunt said. ?Any consideration for improving their stations is well merited. It?s hard, because you want them to have opportunities and be successful, but you also don?t want them to lose what you?ve got going here.?
Stability is a big reason for the team?s success this season, Whisenhunt believes. In the NFL, of course, stability is always relative. That?s why the Cards knew what was ending in the locker room.
?Our story for the season was a great story,? Whisenhunt said. ?I think we were fortunate we were in a position where it was told on a national stage.?