Man, this Kool-Aid tastes good.
OK, I’m not exactly gulping it down, but when it comes to football teams in the Valley, I can’t remember going into a season where I’m as optimistic about both the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Arizona Cardinals.
The main reasons for the optimism? There are many, but it’s hard not to buy into head coaches Todd Graham of ASU and Bruce Arians of the Cardinals.
Graham enters his second year at ASU (I know, I know, the Graham bashers are chuckling at the very thought of him entering the second year anywhere) and the Sun Devils have a legitimate shot to win the Pac-12 South and a trip to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1996 season.
Arizona State is coming off an impressive 8-5 debut season under the native Texan and because of their strong finish and commitment to discipline, there are expectations placed squarely on Sparky’s shoulders. Maybe some of the players have read the press clippings. Saturday, at the annual scrimmage at Camp Tontozona, Graham was displeased with the play of his defense.
“We’re not the defending Super Bowl champs, but that’s the kind of the way we acted, and I was very disappointed in that,” he said.
That’s another big difference in the ASU program under Graham — he’ll knock his own players down a peg when they’re getting too high.
In 2011, I sat at ASU media day in Tempe and listened to quarterback Brock Osweiler and receiver Gerell Robinson talk about how Pasadena and the Rose Bowl weren’t on the team’s goal list. No, they were gunning for New Orleans — the site of that season’s BCS Championship Game. I rolled my eyes, and I wasn’t alone in doing it.
Where exactly was that belief coming from? Was it the fact that the Devils closed out 2010 with wins over mediocre UCLA and Arizona to finish 6-6? Wherever the over-confidence originated, it was not realized. Dennis Erickson’s Sun Devils started 5-1 and completely collapsed (especially defensively) in their last five games, including an embarrassing loss to Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. That game would be Erickson’s last as ASU’s head coach.
This season, the Sun Devils have a huge sign at the Bill Kajikawa Practice Facility that says “One Purpose. National Champions.” The sign is also adorned with the 2014 Vizio BCS Championship Game logo.
I’m not rolling my eyes anymore.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not counting on the Sun Devils winning a BCS Championship this year. But the team’s trajectory continues to be up and to the right. Considering where the Devils were 20 months ago, the fact that they’re among the favorites in the Pac-12 South is a testament to what Graham has instilled.
And it’s not all Graham. He’s got some players to work with as well. Reigning Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton is back and will team with junior linebacker Carl Bradford to form the most feared pass-rushing duo in the nation. On offense, quarterback Taylor Kelly and running back Marion Grice are poised for big seasons and Arizona State has significantly upgraded the wide receiver position — an area where a lack of playmakers hampered the team in 2012.
Over in Glendale, the Cardinals, like the Sun Devils a year before them, are facing a major overhaul of the football team from top to bottom.
Steve Keim, a 14-year employee of the front office, was elevated to the position of general manager after Rod Graves and head coach Ken Whisenhunt were fired. Keim brought in Bruce Arians, a 60-year-old who has spent a long time waiting for a chance to guide his own team. He got a taste of it last year in Indianapolis when Colts head coach Chuck Pagano took a leave to battle leukemia.
All Arians did was steer the Colts, a team that won two games the previous season, to the playoffs with a roster littered with rookies.
Arians is a breath of fresh air coming off the Ken Whisenhunt era of Cardinals football. He says what’s on his mind, whether it’s admonishing a veteran kicker for missing a short field goal in a preseason game or giving a perennial Pro Bowl receiver a tongue lashing for missing a block in practice.
You’re probably reading this and muttering that I’m way too optimistic about a team that won five games in 2012 and plays in what most experts believe is the toughest division in football.
But I’m not the only one who feels this way.
“Last year when they put the rankings out, the Colts were 32nd with no chance to win two games,” Arians himself told Dan Bickley and myself on our show Monday. “A bunch of young rookies and 58 new players — well, we proceeded to win 11, got in the playoffs and should have won that game.
“Every year is such a new thing, to crown people before the season — why play the season?”
Arians has lived what he’s talking about, and history has his back as well. In each of the last ten seasons in the NFL, at least one team has elevated from last place the previous year to win their division.
Again, I’m not saying that the Cardinals are a lock to do this. What I am saying is that unlike the last three years, there is a reason to be excited about the product the Cards will put on the field each week for the next four months. Keim’s roster overhaul plus Arians’ coaching ability give the Cardinals a chance to be one of those worst-to-first stories in 2013.
And yes, if you’re asking, I would like another glass of Kool-Aid. I’ll sip it judiciously.
I can’t help the fact that I am really impressed with what I’ve seen from both football teams in town. This should be one fun football season.