Postcard from camp: Cardinals
The Cardinals entered training camp with renewed vigor and determination
Quarterback Kurt Warner has had hip problems, but he says they're not serious
The defense, with linebacker Darnell Dockett, will carry a heavier load this season
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about the Cardinals' camp.
Setting the scene
At this time last year, the Cardinals were fortunate to draw 5,000 fans for an entire week at training camp. Now they get that many (and sometimes more) in a single day at Northern Arizona University.
Such are the spoils when you're coming off a season in which you advance to the Super Bowl. Apathy becomes excitement. Fans line the boundaries of the practice fields and cheer the most routine accomplishments and call out to players as if they are rock stars.
1. The players are more composed than their fans. It's hard to put into words, but there is a quiet confidence among the group. Instead of acting like it's a fait accompli that they will return to the Super Bowl, the players approach each day with the mindset of working hard to get better and building on the lessons they learned during their playoff run.
Their commitment was obvious from the start. To wit: For the first time since coach Ken Whisenhunt was hired in 2007, every player passed his pre-camp conditioning test. "In the past, you might have a couple of guys where you would fudge it so they'd pass," Whisenhunt said. "But there was no need this year. It wasn't even close."
2. Arizona is determined to have the defense carry more of the load this year. The unit surrendered 27 or more points in six games last year, including five of 35+ and three of 47+. Not surprisingly, the Cardinals lost each of those games, despite having an offense that ranked third in scoring.
Whisenhunt changed coordinators in the offseason, replacing Clancy Pendergast with linebackers coach Bill Davis. While much of the terminology will remain the same, Davis says he wants to tweak the hybrid scheme to fit the players' strengths rather than make them adjust to the system. He's emphasizing improvement in three areas: points allowed, red-zone efficiency and third-down stops.
In 2008, the Cardinals ranked 28th in points allowed (26.6 per game) and red-zone touchdowns allowed (63.6 percent) and tied for 21st in third-down percentage (41.9). If the unit can improve, even marginally, in those areas, Davis and Whisenhunt believe it could be a huge boon because they expect the offense to continue to put up points.
The key could be limiting big plays. Arizona surrendered 59 plays of 20 or more yards last season, trying for 10th most. It also allowed opponents to convert on third-and-long 30.7 percent of the time, 10th-highest in the league. Improve in those areas and, the staff believes, more wins will follow. For Whisenhunt it's all about consistency.
3. Contract disputes from the offseason have not carried over to training camp. Linebacker Karlos Dansby, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett still would like more money, but all claim to be focused on football and helping the Cardinals win a championship. In fact, Boldin regularly spends an hour or more after practice signing autographs and taking pictures with fans.
New face, new place
Cornerback Bryant McFadden comes over from Pittsburgh as a free agent. He's expected to start at right cornerback, opposite second-year talent Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. (The corners aren't expected to flip-flop sides of the fields depending on the formation, as was the case last year.)
McFadden is regarded as a tough, physical player. The hope is that his presence will rub off on the secondary, which in previous seasons was viewed as soft, the exception being strong safety Adrian Wilson.
The Cardinals used their first-round pick on Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, who had a reputation for being injury prone. In his first practice with the Cardinals he sustained an ankle injury and has not returned to the field, although Whisenhunt says the sprain is not serious. No one in the Cardinals is buying the "fragile" label that some have stamped on Wells. Players contend that it was a freak play, with two players rolling on his leg from behind.
Regardless, the team has big hopes for Wells and released Edgerrin James. Arizona ranked last in the league in rushing in '08, and the hope is that Wells and second-year pro Tim Hightower can complement a passing attack that had three 1,000-yard receivers last season.
It was hard to miss 6-foot-4, 285-pound defensive tackle Darnell Dockett -- who wants to go by "Nine-O" (his jersey number) instead of his given name -- pacing the linemen during post-practice sprints. He was running with such purpose you'd have sworn the team was dangling a mega-contract on a stick in front of him.
Dockett is one of the team's hardest workers, though that sometimes gets lost because of his outspokenness (check out his Twitter page, @ddockett), dreadlocks and tattoos. It's not uncommon for him to be the first in the weight room, and on some days last season he would go to the performance center and train for two hours after the Cardinals' practice. He wasn't this dedicated early in his career, but Cardinals officials knock on wood when acknowledging an increased maturity about the former Florida State standout, who's entering his sixth season.
By the way, did you know that Dockett's 13 sacks over the last two seasons is only 1.5 fewer than Washington's Albert Haynesworth? Dockett is working hard to make sure people take notice moving forward.
1. Quarterback Kurt Warner and receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston get a lot of attention, but a key to the offense's success is the line, which did not miss a start to injury last season and returns in tact. The unit is extremely close, eating together, training together and studying together. It's enough to nearly bring a smile to the face of line coach Russ Grimm.
2. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley departed to take the head job at Kansas City, and it remains to be seen how the unit will look with Whisenhunt calling the plays. Grimm is overseeing the run game, and wide receivers coach Mike Miller is handling the passing game; but Whisenhunt will be the one who'll have to make it work.
He believes in balance but says he'll adjust his playcalling to his personnel. If you don't believe him, think back to the 2005 season when he was Pittsburgh's coordinator. Everyone thought the Steelers would play smashmouth football in the postseason, but Whisenhunt used the pass early in games to set up the run. In fact, Ben Roethlisberger threw for seven touchdowns in their first three playoff games (after tossing just 17 in the regular season) and Pittsburgh went on to beat Seattle in the Super Bowl.
3. Warner has a hip that's giving him problems, but he says it's not bad enough to sideline him from a game. Among other injury news, wideout Early Doucet sprained his left shoulder making a beautiful diving catch Monday morning and is expected to be out at least a week. McFadden also missed practice because of a sore ankle.
4. QB Matt Leinart, the 10th pick of the 2006 draft, is not being handed the backup job. Whisenhunt says he is competing with veteran backup Brian St. Pierre. How the mighty have fallen.
5. This team has a lot of talent and excellent coaches. I initially was concerned about a post Super Bowl letdown, but not after watching how they go about their work. They've got a good mix of youth and experience, and leaders who won't tolerate distractions. Look for them to repeat as division champs and make a run in the playoffs, provided Warner stays healthy.
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