It took five years of trying, but the Cardinals defense finally played the way Ken Whisenhunt envisioned. Now it's up to Whisenhunt to fix an offense that's been the main reason the team has finished out of the playoffs for the past two seasons.
The defense showed great improvement under Ray Horton, the third defensive coordinator under Whisenhunt in his five years in Arizona. The Cardinals led the league in third-down percentage and were second in red-zone defense.
That unit must concentrate on giving up fewer big plays, but by the end of the season, it was forming into a dominating group.
The offense, meanwhile, hasn't produced since Kurt Warner retired at the end of the 2009 season. The quarterback play has been inconsistent, and improving that will be the top focus of the offseason.
Whisenhunt's first step was to fire quarterbacks coach Chris Miller, who spent three seasons in Arizona. He was also looking at altering other parts of his offensive staff and expressed interest in re-hiring former offensive coordinator and Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley to run the offense.
The biggest task for whoever runs the offense next year will be fixing what's wrong at quarterback. The Cardinals will bring back Kevin Kolb, who will get a 7 million option bonus this spring, because they can't afford not to. John Skelton doesn't appear ready to step in, and it's doubtful the Cardinals would release Kolb and explore other options.
Kolb will be 28 when next season starts. While he missed seven games this season because of injuries, the Cardinals think those were freak occurrences and that Kolb's toughness should not be questioned.
Kolb is likely to enter the offseason as the starter, but Skelton made up some ground by going 5-2 in his starts this season.
"One thing that's always been consistent is we're going to play the best player, the player who gives us a chance to win," Whisenhunt said. "So every position is open to competition. That's the way we've always been. As far as how those guys (quarterbacks) stack up or where they are, that's all part of the evaluations we do in the offseason. I'm excited about all three of our quarterbacks."
-- Quarterbacks coach Chris Miller was the first, and perhaps only, coach to take the fall for the lack of production on offense over the last two seasons. Miller was fired this week with a year left on his contract.
Miller didn't get much to work with. Last year, he tutored Derek Anderson, Max Hall and John Skelton. This year, it was Kevin Kolb, Skelton and Rich Bartel. Kolb missed seven games because of injuries. Miller was a better coach in 2009, when he worked with Kurt Warner.
-- RB Ryan Williams, who sustained a torn patellar tendon in training camp, is starting to run and do some light cutting. Williams doesn't think he will be ready to participate in minicamps in the spring, but he does expect to be 100 percent by training camp in the summer.
-- Defensive coordinator Ray Horton interviewed for the Rams head coaching job the week after the season ended. The interview could not have gone better, Horton said.
"It was a five-hour interview, and after it was over they called my agent and said, 'We were blown away by him, and he couldn't have been better,'" Horton said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I told my coaches this: 'Take the emotional part out of watching this film. Yeah, I know so-and-so is a good player. Yeah, he dresses well, has a nice family, this and that. Either the player is right or wrong in what we're watching, or the scheme is wrong.'" -- Defensive coordinator Ray Horton on conducting postseason evaluations.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The first priority is re-signing defensive end Calais Campbell, the team's best defensive player in 2011. Campbell, 25, just completed his fourth season and is due to become a free agent. The team likely will use the franchise tag on him if no deal is reached.
Re-signing cornerback Richard Marshall should be a priority, too. He is good enough to start at corner, and his ability to fill in at safety allowed the team to survive the foot injury by Kerry Rhodes.
When it comes to the draft, adding talent on the offensive line is a must. The Cardinals haven't drafted an offensive lineman since 2008, and since taking Levi Brown fifth overall in 2007, they haven't drafted one above the fifth round. It's not surprising the starting unit needs an upgrade and there is a lack of depth.
The Cardinals sent their second-round pick to the Eagles in the trade for Kevin Kolb, which makes it more difficult to address all of their needs.