With added leadership, Cardinals press forward following ‘expected losses’

Mar 27, 2017, 11:20 AM | Updated: 3:39 pm
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians argues a call that went to the Carolina Panthers with sid...
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians argues a call that went to the Carolina Panthers with side judge Alan Eck during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. The Panthers won 30-20. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
(AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Bruce Arians was unable to participate in his charity golf tournament.

Over the weekend, many athletes and celebrities descended upon Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino to take part in the Fourth Annual Arians Family Foundation Golf Classic, which supports CASA.

Wearing a sling on his right arm after needing surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff suffered when Larry Fitzgerald aggressively hugged him following a Week 16 win in Seattle, the avid golfer laughed off the idea.

“That’s a bummer,” he said, before his wife Christine chimed in that her husband is always on the golf course when he can be.

“I’ll be riding around checking on them, making sure there’s no sandbagging going on,” Bruce added.

In terms of disappointments Arians is facing these days, you would think the loss of his ability to golf (for now, at least) probably ranks near the bottom. Over the last few weeks the Cardinals have parted with a plethora of free agents, including starters in Calais Campbell, Tony Jefferson, Marcus Cooper, D.J. Swearinger and Kevin Minter.

Yet while the losses may hurt, according to the coach, they were not a surprise.

“The losses were expected,” he said. “I told everybody at the Combine, quit saying we don’t have a corner opposite Patrick (Peterson) because I knew Coop was going to get paid, because he had a great year, but Steve’s (Keim) done a great job of loading our roster knowing what’s ahead.

“We knew that when Calais hit, this was probably going to be really hard to sign him — along with Tony, Tony had such a good year and the price got out of hand to where we couldn’t afford to put that much money in our secondary when we have other needs to fill. We couldn’t sign one and lose five.”

Arians went on to praise the additions his team has made, citing linebacker Karlos Dansby, kicker Phil Dawson and safety Antoine Bethea.

While all known commodities, all three come to the Cardinals seemingly in the final stages of their careers. Dansby is 35 and entering his 14th NFL season, while Dawson is 42 and Bethea 32.

“With today’s sports science these guys are younger than they’ve ever been, and going strong,” he said. “But they bring a leadership to the locker room that I think was needed.”

Needed, but not necessarily lacking in 2016.

Arians said part of the problem last season was that players who would normally fill leadership roles, like safety Tyrann Mathieu, found that difficult because they were having their own on-field struggles with consistency or health.

“Now with ‘Toine and ‘Los, I think that defensive huddle will be even better than it was.”

Leadership, however, cannot be measured. There is no statistic for it, and no way to know how many wins will be added to the total because it has supposedly been improved.

What can be measured is the production Arizona has parted with, and last season Campbell, Jefferson, Cooper, Swearinger and Minter combined for 378 total tackles, 15.5 sacks and eight interceptions.

Campbell, in particular, is a big loss — both in terms of his stature as well as the fact that he was the second-longest tenured player on the roster behind only Larry Fitzgerald.

“We all know Calais is a special player, and I love Calais,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “I love how hard he played for me, as a coordinator, and how hard he’s played for this organization, the fans and this franchise.

“We’ve got some good young guys that we’re excited about. Rodney Gunter — Rodney’s going to have a great year, we anticipate him having a great year, and Robert (Nkemdiche), we know Robert’s going to come a long way this year and he’s going to be an impactful player and he’s going to do some things people aren’t anticipating him to do this year, so we’re excited about it.”

Last year, in Gunter’s second, he notched 1.5 sacks and 18 tackles; Nkemdiche, a rookie, contributed three total tackles.

Arians said Gunter made great strides in 2016 and just needs more opportunities, while Nkemdiche had bad luck with an ankle injury suffered in training camp that lingered all season.

Along with Campbell, Bettcher said he will miss the passion Jefferson and Swearinger displayed, but is confident in the experience and versatility Bethea brings to the table.

“He’s going to make an impact, and our fans are going to be excited about Antoine Bethea and he’s going to make a lot of plays for us,” he said.

The same likely holds true for Dansby, who last season posted 114 total tackles and one sack for the Cincinnati Bengals. This will be the linebacker’s third stint in Arizona, and if it is anything like his second one — when he posted 122 tackles, 6.5 sacks and four interceptions — the Cardinals will be in good shape.

Bettcher said there is no question Dansby has plenty left in the tank.

“His intangibles, his awareness; he’s seen it all,” the defensive coordinator said. “There really isn’t anything the game he hasn’t seen, and what he’s going to bring to this defense, from a leadership standpoint, is really, probably something that’s immeasurable.”

Whether or not the additional leadership will make the Cardinals a better team remains to be seen, but what we do know is it has made them an older one, at least in some areas.

It makes sense.

With offensive stars Carson Palmer and Fitzgerald possibly entering their final seasons their retirements would in theory close the book on this version of the Cardinals. If the goal is to make one final push for a Super Bowl, a player’s age — assuming there is no significant drop in play from 2016 — is really not an issue.

But the way Arians sees it, any thought that the team’s offseason means they feel like the championship window is closing is off base.

“These guys, they’re not one-year stoppers,” he said.

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With added leadership, Cardinals press forward following ‘expected losses’