It was a trying start to the 2011 season for the Arizona Cardinals -- posting a dismal 1-6 record out of the gate. So for general manager Rod Graves and head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the team's resiliency and fortitude en route to a 7-2 finish on the year was truly an extraordinary feat.
Whisenhunt and Graves were both guests on Arizona Sports 620's Doug and Wolf as a part of Newsmakers week and they expressed the significance of finishing last season strong.
"It really is quite remarkable what our players did, what our coaches did, the way our organization stuck together, Rod and Michael [Bidwell] and everybody supporting each other," Whisenhunt said. "It is not easy when you start out like we did. To come back and finish it the way we did speaks a lot about the quality of the people in this organization and it really excites you about going forward."
Graves praised coach Whisenhunt and his staff for their ability to keep the team focused on the task at hand and motivated to work hard to improve.
"The thing that really jumped off the page to me is how Ken and our coaching staff stuck to the things that they believed in, to the things that they believed would work for our football team," Graves stated.
To change or not to change: When a team is struggling the way the Cardinals did at the start of the year, coaches are generally questioned about adjustments. For coach Whisenhunt, he was always looking for ways his team could improve on the field, but would never change the preparation and fundamental approach towards coaching his players.
"I think the core operating beliefs that you have -- how you practice, how you prepare, what you ask of your players, what you ask of your coaches -- that can't change, that doesn't change," Whisenhunt explained.
However, tweaks to the Cardinals' playbook were open for discussion.
"You may change a scheme, you may change a defense, you may change how you're doing your kick-off coverage but you don't change the core philosophy of how you prepare and how you work," Whisenhunt said.
Offseason preparation: It may only be the middle of February, but it is a very busy time in the office for both Graves and Whisenhunt. There is a tremendous amount of groundwork and research that goes into the planning stages for roster construction.
"We're focused on preparing for free agency and also taking a good look at what we'll have to do to get our own players re-signed and we're also preparing for the Combine coming up next week," Graves told Doug and Wolf. "We have been in meetings talking about potential free agents around the league and just lining those guys up relative to our team and having good, fruitful discussions about how we can possibly upgrade ourselves."
Improved defense: When defensive coordinator Ray Horton got off to a slow start with his troops last year, some questioned Whisenhunt's decision to bring him on board.
By the end of the season, those questions and concerns were erased -- as Horton and his defense finally hit their stride, which was extremely gratifying for Whisenhunt.
"I think with Ray [Horton], you knew Ray was going to be good in that role," Whisenhunt said. "I'd coached with Ray, we'd been on a team together for a number of years and I felt like he had a very good feel for what he wanted to do defensively and how he communicated that to the players is what's important."
As Horton and his players got acclimated with each other, the communication improved and expectations became clear.
"It's got to be a consistent message, you've got to have the demeanor that you believe in what you're doing and you've got to consistently hold them to the standard of how they do it," Whisenhunt said.
The Cardinals' goal of improving their defense has long been on their list of priorities. Whisenhunt is confident in Horton and the staff he has assembled to continue to build off last season's late momentum.
"We were a lot more disciplined," Whisenhunt stated. "We played our gaps, we played our schemes very well and that's the most important thing to being a great defense."
Draft philosophy: As a general manager, Graves often adheres to the same strategy in the war room on draft day.
"It always has to adjust according to what's on the board but we've always taken the approach of the best player available," Graves said.
The Cardinals benefited from that strategy last year when they compiled an impressive draft class.
"Last year that was our approach and we took [cornerback] Patrick Peterson and we're proud of that and whenever we've stuck to that approach we've had a successful draft," Graves explained. "We think last year's group probably could end up being one of our best draft classes in sometime."
Looking ahead: Whisenhunt is encouraged by the way his young players responded to a year of ups and downs.
"We've got so many young players who understand now because of going through a 1-6 session and going to 7-2 understand what it takes to be successful and I don't think you ever lose sight of that." Whisenhunt stated.
He believes those guys will represent his core of players for years to come and he trusts with them in tow, the Cardinals' future is indeed a bright one.
"Our fans have been really good in supporting us and we feel committed everyday to producing that product that our fans get excited about," Whisenhunt said.