LANDOVER, Md. -- Let the prognosticating begin.
With Sunday's 20-15 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Arizona Cardinals were officially eliminated from playoff contention. After two straight postseason appearances in 2014 and '15, the Cardinals will spend a second straight January on their couches.
That means, in two weeks, Arizona will enter one of the most important offseasons in recent franchise history.
But first, the prognosticating. It'll begin at the top and flow downhill. Will coach Bruce Arians return for a sixth season? Will quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald retire? Will Arizona try to keep the band -- one that includes future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson -- together for, yet, another run at a Super Bowl? What will the Cardinals do with their high-cap value assets? Which position will go through a major overhaul? And, most importantly, who will they draft?
The answers to those questions will decide whether the Cardinals can return to a 10-win season or split the first six years of Arians' tenure in the desert into the best of times and the worst of times.
There are few debates that can be settled as quickly as this one: Do the Cardinals still need a quarterback with the long-term future? After Sunday's ugly performance by Blaine Gabbert, the answer is a resounding yes. But where the Cardinals will find that quarterback is to be determined.
Free agency may be a telling factor in how the franchise will approach next season. If the Cardinals continue to sign veterans like they did for 2017, then a retool will likely be in place instead of a reboot.
But will a retool be enough to contend in 2018? It wasn't this season.
The Cardinals have 17 players who are scheduled to become free agents after this season, including Gabbert, quarterback Drew Stanton, running back Kerwynn Williams, wide receiver John Brown, defensive tackle Frostee Rucker, cornerbacks Justin Bethel and Tramon Williams, and safety Tyvon Branch.
Depending on how Arizona approaches their pending free agents, next year's team could look drastically different than the one that's won a combined 13 games in two seasons, up until this point.
There are five positions that the Cardinals need to address in the offseason, whether through free agency or the draft: Quarterback, wide receiver, inside linebacker, cornerback and offensive line.
The 2018 offseason could be looked back at similarly to the 2004 offseason, when Arizona drafted Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett, Karlos Dansby and Antonio Smith, while signing Bertrand Berry and Shaun King in free agency, setting itself up for an eventual run to the Super Bowl four years later.
That is the type of impact this offseason can have on the franchise, with the added possibility of solidifying the future at quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback.
Even if Palmer and Fitzgerald return, signing or drafting an instant impact type of player at both of those positions will be in the best interest of the franchise beyond this year -- which is how the Cardinals need to start thinking sooner rather than later. And with the cornerback position opposite of Patrick Peterson a revolving door since Arizona didn't re-sign Jerraud Powers, finding a long-term solution there could be the type of addition that turns a very good defense into a great defense.
Then there's Arians.
He'll be the lynchpin of the Cardinals' entire offseason.
If he returns, then Arizona will approach free agency and the draft to find players that suit his offense. But, therein also lies a problem for the organization: If Arians decides to return next season, how much longer will he coach? That piece of information can be critical to the long-term success of Arizona, because if Arians only coaches for the remainder of his contract -- either on his own terms or the team's -- then a new coach in 2019 could potentially change, well, everything.
So, how will the Cardinals proceed this offseason? Will they build around the short-term future with Arians or, potentially, the long-term future without Arians?
It's a decision that will not only impact the franchise in 2018, but well into the future, making this one of the most important offseasons in franchise history.