You can still buy Pat Tillman's jersey wherever official Cardinals merchandise is sold, meaning that while he's decked out in camouflage this fall, scores of Arizona fans will keep the memory of number 40 alive. And why not? By giving up his million-dollar contract and starting strong safety position in the hope of becoming an Army Ranger, Tillman not only qualified for super-patriot status but also ducked out of Dodge at the optimal time.
With realignment shifting the Cardinals to the NFC West, home of the pass-happy 49ers and Seahawks—and domain of the Rams' aerial circus—the secondary will face as much pressure as any other in football. "In our division we'd better have some guys who can cover," says coach Dave McGinnis, whose team quietly won five of its final eight games last season to finish 7-9. "We're in a division with teams that are three or four years into their development, and we're going to have to grow up, fast."
So while most football fans are more aware of who's not in the Arizona secondary—a year before Tillman bolted, perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams went to St. Louis in a draft-day trade—the Cardinals are counting on this revamped unit to make a name for itself. "We just want to be one of the best, if not the best, secondaries in the league," says free safety Kwamie Lassiter, the defensive backfield's lone returning starter. "At the end of the year we'll see what's what."
Lassiter, who had nine interceptions in 2001, enjoys turnovers more than turnover: Last March, while Arizona fans were busy reviving themselves after penurious owner Bill Bidwill authorized a five-year, $23 million contract for free-agent cornerback Duane Starks, Lassiter was livid over how the ensuing payroll adjustments affected the rest of the starting secondary. "I was mad as hell, because there was nothing wrong with Corey Chavous," Lassiter says of Starks's predecessor, a free agent who Arizona chose not to re-sign and is now with the Vikings. The cash commitment to Starks, a standout for the Ravens for the past four seasons, also hastened the departure of the other starting cornerback, Tom Knight, who's now with the Patriots; left David Barrett, an inexperienced third-year player, as the starter opposite Starks; and cost Lassiter the long-term contract he'd been seeking.
Says Lassiter, who accepted a one-year, $3.34 million deal after the team designated him as its franchise player, "I tell Starks all the time, 'You're the reason I don't have a contract.' "
Starks replies, "You know they've got plenty of money. They're just trying to use me as an excuse."
While Lassiter stews about his future—"If it comes to the end of the season and they haven't worked out something long-term," he says, "why even bother talking to me?"—he's hell-bent on enhancing the present. As McGinnis acknowledges, the Cardinals lack a premier pass rusher, meaning the defensive backs will have to hang tough against aerial opportunists. In an attempt to build chemistry and trust, Lassiter plans to be more forceful about compelling his fellow defensive backs to spend quality time together off the field.
"When we went to the playoffs in '98, we were a real close team," Lassiter says. "I think we have to get that camaraderie back. Thursday nights are supposed to be our nights out, and unless it's an emergency, I want everybody there."
Logic suggests that Starks could use the company, because during the games he's likely to be the loneliest man on the field. But the 5'10", 172-pounder doesn't buy into the notion that teams will throw away from him and try to exploit Barrett. "No, because I'm a small guy," Starks says, "and people always like to pick on a small guy."
If the secondary has a bully, it's strong safely Adrian Wilson, a third-round pick last year. The 6'3", 207-pounder is a fast, big-hitting smack talker. "I expect to be one of the best in the league," Wilson says. "Nothing against Pat, but I'm sick of talking about his decision. Hopefully I can give people something to talk about."