From 30,000 feet, it seems there is some strange energy around the Cardinals.
There's the ongoing Kyler Murray contract/contentment (or lack thereof, for both) situation, plus two years punctuated by late-season disappointment. The potential has been visible, but Arizona can't seem to find a way to finish. One increasingly important Cardinal isn't running from this reality.
"For us, we're trying to get back to way past what we did last year," safety Budda Baker said this week, via the Arizona Republic. "We're taking it one day at a time, one week at a time, and if we can do that, we'll win. You guys saw us do that the first eight, nine games last year and I felt like guys possibly might have gotten comfortable. A lot of headlines, a lot of wins, and all that type of stuff.
"But it's up to us as professionals just to ignore the noise and just take it one week at a time. We believe we're a great football team and this year I think we're going to be a way better team than last year."
Arizona looked like one of the best -- if not the best -- teams in the NFL for much of the 2021 season. Starting a campaign 10-2 will place such expectations on a club, but a familiar back-end falter led the Cardinals to a first-round postseason exit with little more than a whimper.
All of the goodwill built up by Arizona's hot start had evaporated by the time the final seconds ticked off the clock in the Cardinals' 34-11 loss to the division-rival Rams, a team they'd largely dominated back in Week 4. Those same Rams went on to win Super Bowl LVI, while the Cardinals were left only to plan for 2022.
In retrospect, the Rams served as the Cardinals' best measuring stick for where they stood last season. That Week 4 win was a statement to the rest of the league, but their Week 14 home loss to Los Angeles on national television was the beginning of their downfall. A week later, the lowly Detroit Lions smoked the Cardinals, 30-12, and Arizona returned home only to watch Santa Claus place coal in their stocking with a 22-16 loss to Indianapolis on Christmas.
Arizona entered the postseason losing four of its final five regular-season games. The wild-card result was no surprise, but what has happened since has kept the Cardinals in the news cycle.
Chandler Jones left for Las Vegas, Murray launched an offseason of drama by scrubbing his Instagram of Cardinals references, and DeAndre Hopkins received a six-game suspension for a performance-enhancing drugs violation.
Arizona is going to need a leader to help the Cardinals navigate this treacherous terrain in 2022. With Jones and veteran interior lineman Corey Peters now gone, it's time for Baker, a two-time All-Pro, to step into a more prominent role.
"Yeah, I definitely feel like it's of course on my plate a lot," Baker said. "A lot of guys feel that. Me being a defensive player, I definitely want to control what I can control and that's the defense, that's how they approach each and every play. Whether it's a D-lineman, a linebacker or a DB, I'm getting on guys. Guys are able to get on me as well."
Baker has proven with his performance he's worthy of such expectation. The four-time Pro Bowl safety will have to serve as an experienced voice in Arizona's defense and emphasize the importance of, as Baker said, not getting comfortable.
The Cardinals can start the season 12-0 in 2022, but they'll still need to avoid the same pitfalls they've encountered in the last two seasons. It will be up to players like Baker to ensure it doesn't happen again.
"He's played at a Pro Bowl, All-Pro level since I've been here and just watching him develop as a leader and emerge as that guy when you lose a Fitz receiver (Larry Fitzgerald), you lose a Patrick Peterson and now you lose Chandler, he's definitely embraced that role," Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said of Baker. "The way he works, the way he takes care of himself, the way he handles his business, for those young guys it's a great role model for them to look to."'