PHOENIX -- They swirled out of the desert like some unexpected dust storm, dispatching the likes of Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia in one of the most improbable runs to the Super Bowl in NFL history.
Now the Arizona Cardinals, who came within 35 seconds of a league championship, are faced with proving they were no one-year wonder.
"No matter whether it's in Phoenix or around the country," coach Ken Whisenhunt said, "there's going to be skepticism of us as a team."
One remarkable January will not erase the legacy of a franchise that defined pro football futility for decades. The fact that Arizona was routed by Minnesota and New England late in the regular season didn't help its long-term reputation, Super Bowl or no Super Bowl.
"I think the only thing that's going to help erase that is sustained success," Whisenhunt said.
So much rides on the ageless arm of quarterback Kurt Warner, who had a Pro Bowl regular season, then stepped it up with a far more impressive postseason. In those four games, he completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,147 yards and 11 touchdowns, with three interceptions.
At 38, with a new two-year, $23 million contract, he is riding a 31-game starting streak.
"And they haven't been easy games," Whisenhunt said. "A lot of times they've been games when he's taken some shots or gotten roughed up."
Warner's leadership, so crucial to Arizona's success, came in words and by example.
"I have a great deal of respect for Kurt's toughness," Whisenhunt said, "and I think that's an important part of instilling a mentality with our team."
Warner believes the players learned from last year's success that detailed preparation and hard work pays off.
"We're going to be able to do a lot of things on the football field, we know that," he said, "but now we know how to prepare, now we know how to go into games and win tough games and win on the road and do all the things that we hadn't done in the past."
Two seasons ago, Warner played several games with a dislocated elbow on his non-throwing arm. Last season, he played despite a sore hip that required arthroscopic surgery in the offseason.
It's been a whirlwind offseason that saw him tour to promote the new best-seller he wrote with his wife Brenda, "First Things First: The Rules of Being a Warner."
It's hard to imagine that a year ago Warner didn't even have the starting job. He and Matt Leinart were in a tight competition that wasn't decided until the week before the season opener.
Warner gained more and more trust in Larry Fitzgerald, realizing that the receiver's phenomenal athletic ability allowed him to take chances with passes that the quarterback wouldn't normally take.
Fitzgerald, fellow Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston each passed 1,000 yards receiving. Boldin did it despite carrying a season-long grudge.
Boldin wants a new contract, and has asked, to no avail, to be traded. The Cardinals say they want to re-sign him, but have others ahead of him in line.
Boldin sat out the June minicamp with what he said was a sore hamstring and didn't show up for the voluntary workouts.
Asked whether he thought Boldin would show up for Wednesday's start of training camp in Flagstaff, Whisenhunt said "I hope so."
"We haven't seen Anquan in a little while, but the one thing I know about Anquan is he wants to play," Whisenhunt said. "He wants to perform well and he likes his teammates. I'm hoping when we start training camp it will be a lot more normal than it was last year."
He was referring to Boldin's tirade against the team's management the second day of camp. The receiver went on to have a good year, despite a horrendous facial injury from a nasty hit against the New York Jets, but always maintained he hadn't changed his opinion.
The camp will be important for Arizona's first-round draft pick Beanie Wells, who missed the voluntary workouts because his class at Ohio State had not graduated. Wells is being counted on to improve one of the worst running games in the NFL. The team released veteran Edgerrin James in this summer, and for now Wells will split time with second-year back Tim Hightower.
Whisenhunt lost his patience with an inconsistent defense that made big plays but also gave them up, particularly in the Steelers' final Super Bowl drive. The coach fired coordinator Clancy Pendergast and promoted Bill Davis into the job. Davis was defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers in 2005-06.
"I just felt like we weren't consistent enough and we were giving up too many points in the red zone and we were giving up too many points per game a number of years consecutively," Whisenhunt said.
The Cardinals' No. 1 goal in the offseason was re-signing safety Adrian Wilson, the team's hard-hitting defensive leader. Wilson signed a five-year, $39 million deal, with $18.5 million guaranteed.
Big-play linebacker Karlos Dansby didn't get the contract extension he wanted and is the team's franchise player for the second year in a row, earning about $9 million.
The biggest personnel change comes at cornerback, where ex-Steeler Bryant McFadden takes over for Rod Hood. Arizona lost defensive end Antonio Smith. Second-year pro Calais Campbell will get a chance to fill that role.
Volatile offensive coordinator Todd Haley left to become head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Whisenhunt decided to split Haley's duties with his top aide Russ Grimm (run game) and Mike Miller (pass game).
At least for now, Whisenhunt will call the plays, as he did two years ago in his first season with Arizona.
"I'll call the ones that work," he joked. "Russ and Mike will call the others."