TEMPE, Arizona — A season of what might have been ended in inglorious fashion for the Arizona Cardinals.
Several injuries, especially at quarterback, took their toll on a team that got off to a 9-1 start only to lose five of its last seven.
"I don't look at 'what if?'," coach Bruce Arians said at his season ending news conference on Sunday. "'What if?' will drive you crazy. I look at what can be, and what can be is a great football team with a few new pieces next year, but the core is here now."
There's a strong possibility that the team's future will not include Larry Fitzgerald.
The eight-time Pro Bowl receiver would count a whopping $23.6 million on the Cardinals' salary cap next season under his existing contract. He is due an $8 million roster bonus in March, so it should be clear by then whether he remains on the only NFL team he has known.
While general manager Steve Keim has insisted Fitzgerald's salary is "baked in" to the team's current budget, conventional wisdom is that Fitzgerald will have to take a pay cut to remain in Arizona.
Add in the fact that Fitzgerald isn't thrilled with his role as a slot receiver after all those big years as a wideout, and his record-setting career with the Cardinals could be over.
"Obviously everybody in this locker room wants Larry back," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "All the fans want Larry back, but there are some business things that I'm sure will happen and need to happen, and I hope he is back."
Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett's future with the organization also is uncertain due to money concerns. His existing contract would count $9.8 million on next year's cap.
Here are some things to take from the Arizona season.
INJURIES: Dockett missed the entire season after injuring his knee in training camp. Outside linebacker John Abraham sustained a season-ending concussion in the opener. Punter Dave Zastudil was lost with a groin injury. Fitzgerald, defensive end Calais Campbell, safety Tyrann Mathieu and outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy all missed time with injuries.
Before all that, inside linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
The most significant injuries were to Palmer and his backup Drew Stanton. Palmer was 6-0 as a starter before tearing an ACL and going down for the season. Stanton, 5-3 as a starter, missed the final three games with a sprained knee that might require surgery. That left the job to Ryan Lindley, signed off the San Diego practice squad after Arizona initially released him at the end of preseason.
Lindley struggled mightily and was at the controls Saturday when the Cardinals managed just 78 yards, an NFL record for playoff futility.
"I think it's pretty scary, just looking at our roster," Mathieu said, "if we were healthy, how good we could have been, how far we could have gone."
NO QUIT: Through all the injury issues, Arians said, he saw no quit in his team, even as things got worse and worse.
"I've been on teams when they lost their quarterbacks or they lost Darnell Dockett, they tanked it," Arians said. "You couldn't get them to work. They just put in their time. These guys played to win the game every week, all the way to last night."
ONE-YEAR WONDERS: Cornerback Antonio Cromartie is a free agent again after his one-year contract with Arizona expired. Inside linebacker Larry Foote, who became the team's inspirational defensive leader in his first season in the desert, might call it quits after 13 years in the NFL.
BOWLES GONE?: Arizona could have to replace highly thought of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, a candidate for head coaching jobs across the league.
Arians said that Chicago, Atlanta and the New York Jets had formally asked to interview Bowles.
"I think everyone will interview him," Arians said.
BACK TO WORK: Cardinals players all talked about how bright the future is for this franchise. Palmer talked about how he couldn't wait until offseason workouts begin.
After 10 wins in his first year in Arizona and tying the franchise record with 11 this season, Arians said he's ready to get back to work right now.
"Normally, when a season comes to an end, I'm ready for a break," he said. "I can honestly say I can't wait to start this next one, knowing the quality of people we have in that room and the team we can build around them."
Online: AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org
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