Linebacker Karlos Dansby (left) and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett walk off the field Sunday for the last time in the 2009 season.
NEW ORLEANS – The Cardinals were battered and beaten up, and trying to process something new.
These Cards had failed to make the playoffs before. But after their remarkable run of the season before, they hadn't known the feeling of reaching the postseason yet losing before reaching the Super Bowl.
Then came Saturday's 45-14 loss to the Saints. Then came the hurt.
"My first three years, a win or a loss, that didn't matter to some guys," defensive lineman Darnell Dockett said, before glancing around the locker room. "Winning matters to us."
There was plenty of real hurt scattered around. Defensive end Calais Campbell worked to take off the cast on his broken left thumb. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wore a brace on his left knee, hobbling around on crutches, possible surgery in his future. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin no longer had to worry about his bad ankle, since there were no more games for which to rehab it. Kicker Neil Rackers limped around, his bad right groin having given out again.
Yet the pain went deeper than that. It cuts when the belief that a championship can be had is stolen away, and the Cards had carried that belief around since losing last season's Super Bowl. This was about a run to redemption, and suddenly the Saints had taken that away.
Arguing it should have been otherwise would be fruitless. The Cards did have key injuries, did miss some important tackles, did make inopportune turnovers. Yet the Saints looked like a team with a Super Bowl shine, especially with the ability to host next week's NFC Championship game in front of 70,000 black-clad fans.
Toppling the Saints would have been difficult, even if the Cards hadn't been – as it seemed – running on fumes.
"Sometimes you have those days," quarterback Kurt Warner said, "and today was one of those days for us."
The Cards wanted to be talking about facing either the Cowboys or the Vikings, not reflection on a season.
"I can't call it a great season because obviously a great season is reaching your ultimate goal as a team," running back Tim Hightower said. "But this season was blessed. We learned how to stick together, we learned what team football means. He had to rely on a lot of different guys. I don't think there was one standout guy this year. It's been a team effort."
Reflection the Cards embraced more than fortune-telling.
The offseason has the potential to bring with it major upheaval. Figuring out who will man next year's attempt at a third straight NFC West title will be hard enough for general manager Rod Graves and the Cards' front office, much less the players who can only react to the decision-makers.
Free-agent-to-be Karlos Dansby didn't want to talk about his future – "This is about right now, this moment. We just took a tough loss. (My future) is on the backburner," he said – and Warner, predictably, punted his retirement talk. Boldin said he wouldn't ask for a trade, but that doesn't mean one couldn't happen.
"It's too early," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "I'm still a little sore about this loss to worry about what we are going to do next season."
Coach Ken Whisenhunt spoke of the pride he had for his team and Dockett said it was Whisenhunt who set the tone all season, acting the same after a win or a loss.
"We fought, and at the end of the day that's all you can be concerned about," Dockett said.
It doesn't dull the pain, however. Championship windows don't stay open forever. Certain roster cores only get so many opportunities.
"It's not over for us," Hightower said. "There is a bright future for this team."
The Cards hope that's true, because the present was extinguished Saturday.
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