Quarterback John Skelton (19) gets to face the Seahawks Sunday.
The last time John Skelton walked off the field at University of Phoenix Stadium he had firmly secured his reputation as a late-game quarterback.
What he hadn't secured, however, was the Cardinals' starting job. After five come-from-behind wins in 2011 and an overtime victory to close out last season against the Seattle Seahawks, Skelton was, for the most part, still the unsung, unheralded backup to Kevin Kolb.
What a difference a summer makes.
When Skelton returns to the field Sunday against those same Seahawks, he'll be the Cardinals' starter, the product of an intense offseason quarterback competition that lasted all five preseason games.
"From my first start last year when Kevin first went down to my last start against Seattle, I could see the progression of me getting better, me making smarter decisions as a quarterback, making smarter reads," Skelton said. "And my biggest goal going into the offseason was to continue that progression."
It seems to be a theme around the Cardinals.
After winning seven of their last nine, the Cardinals are using the second half of last season as a spring board in 2012, from the quarterbacks to the running game to the defense.
Sunday will be Ryan Williams' regular season debut. The second-year running back ruptured his patella tendon during a preseason game in 2011 and missed all of last season. Beanie Wells, who is listed as questionable, is also recovering from offseason knee surgery.
But much of that late success last season could be attributed to the defense finding its rhythm in a new system.
With a year in Ray Horton's scheme under their cleats, the defense wants to pick up where it left off when it finished last season with 20 sacks in its last six games. It'll start the season against Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, the third rookie signal-caller they'll face in Week 1 in as many years.
"I think the extra preseason game really helped us focus, correct some things that were wrong and this was really probably one of our bet weeks of practice we've had in a long time," Horton said.
Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch is questionable for Sunday with a back injury that kept him out of practice Monday. Wide receiver Golden Tate will miss the game with a knee injury he suffered on Aug. 30.
If being the season opener didn't make Sunday important enough for the Cardinals, it'll also play into the NFC West standings. For the third time in four years, they will open the season against a divisional opponent.
"It puts a lot more emphasis on it for sure," tight end Todd Heap said. "You can't glide into the season on a game like this. There's a lot riding on it. We know we have to start fast and they're coming in kind of on top right now. We got to come out quickly."
For five of the last eight years the Seahawks hung NFC West title banners from the rafters, but last year saw the re-emergence of San Francisco. The 49ers' success last season – they lost in the NFC Championship – has made them the trendy pick to play in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans come February.
According to the experts, the road to an NFC West crown will go past Alcatraz and over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Besides fresh paint on the fields and new shoulder pads, the start of another NFL season brings renewed optimism to all 32 teams, as coach Ken Whisenhunt pointed out this week.
"We're all sitting at 0-0 right now," he said. "San Francisco, I have a lot of respect for what they did last year. They have a good football team. I think we had a little bit of success against them when we played them at home. We've been pretty good in our division over the years that I've been here.
"A lot of it is going to be played out on the field, and I'm comfortable with doing that."