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Cardinals believe experience, leadership are keys to 2017 success

Defensive lineman Frostee Rucker chats with tackle D.J. Humphries during a training camp practice July 25. (Photo by Vince Marotta/Arizona Sports)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Leadership is one of those things coaches and players like to talk about when things don’t go right.

Things did not go right for the Arizona Cardinals in 2016.

Picked by many to be Super Bowl contenders — if not favorites — the team struggled to a 7-8-1 record, losing five games by seven points or less and tying in another.

The reasons for their struggles are many, and if you pointed to special teams, the offensive line, inconsistent receivers and QB play as well as injuries, you would not be wrong.

Leadership also came up as an issue, not in that the Cardinals did not have any, but that some of the team’s younger players did not get up to speed quick enough in order to help the cause.

Enter the offseason, in which the Cardinals made many moves, including the additions of veterans Antoine Bethea, Karlos Dansby and Phil Dawson.

Entering this season, the trio accounts for 42 seasons of NFL experience and they, along with the team’s other older players, will carry a lot of responsibility.

“We talk about it all the time, this is not my team,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “This is the veterans’ team. We’ll be as good as they want to be, and we’ll always have a veteran and they’re in charge.

“It’s not the coaches’ job to get the young players ready, it’s their job.”

That is why having more experience is not seen as a bad thing for a team that still believes it can make a deep postseason run.

“Coach made a point [Friday] night to say we have a vet in every position group,” QB Carson Palmer said. “There’s an elder statesman in every group.”

Palmer, who is entering his 15th season, pointed to how much time teammates spend apart in their respective position groups, saying it is imperative for younger players to have someone to follow.

“Whether it be the way he takes notes, the way he watches film, the way he warms up for practice and games — there are so many facets that these young guys need to learn because they all come from so many different places,” he said. “Different schools, different trains of thought, different workout programs.

“There is so much that goes into it until you get here, so having an older guy in each room is huge for guys.”

The concept makes sense and sounds good, though it’s fair to wonder if there truly are tangible benefits to leadership. After all, it is usually only brought up when things go awry, which gives the impression that it could be a crutch, an excuse.

But to the players, an absence of leadership is noticeable.

“I think that’s the biggest thing,” Bethea, a newcomer to the team, said. “When you have leadership in the locker room, things just run smoothly. But then when you sometimes struggle with that leadership role, in certain cases, you can definitely see it.”

Arizona having a great 2015 season was not necessarily due to having great leadership, just as their underachieving 2016 campaign is not a sure sign they lacked it.

“I feel like we’ve always had some really good leadership on the team,” cornerback Justin Bethel said, citing some of the players who departed in free agency but adding they still have, on the defense, players like Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch.

“Just thinking back last year, I’m not sure about every position group, but I trust in what [Arians] and Steve (Keim) and Michael (Bidwill) come up with and I think that was a point of emphasis,” Palmer said. “They talked about it, obviously, and I trust what they see putting this team together, so I believe in it.”

It is important to note that a player does not have to be a long-tenured veteran in order to be a leader, but at the same time, there are specific things a only a player with many years of experience can offer.

“When you talk about veterans, guys can talk about what they’ve been through the most,” linebacker Chandler Jones said. “I feel like you get a better example that way.”

Jones, who is going into his sixth season, noted that he is the oldest player in his position group, which is weird but offers him a chance to take a larger role as a leader.

Dawson, who is the most experienced player on the Cardinals’ roster, is used to the concept and ready to guide whoever he needs to.

“Every week is a brand new week that is full of things competing for your focus,” he said. “So, having perspective, I think, is crucial. It starts that 10-minute window you have in the locker room after a game for the head coach to kind of set the tone, what’s the messaging is going to be.

“And then it’s our job as leaders to piggyback off of that and make sure the guys follow in line and so that following week, a story doesn’t become a bigger story than it needs to be. And when guys are down and frustrated, provide a little perspective and maybe some experiences you’ve been through in the past.”

It’s about creating an example, and as receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, leadership is essential.

“You set the tone every single day,” he said. “If I come out and I’m dragging and I’m not doing what I need to be doing, I’m not accountable, (rookie) Chad (Williams) is watching every single thing I’m doing.

“I’m late to a meeting, Chad’s watching every single thing I’m doing. That festers down, so I have to be on my P’s and Q’s every single day, I have to be alert, I have to be attentive in meetings asking questions. If I’m doing that, then he has no problem.”

Williams, indeed, has no problem. In fact, he is happy to follow Fitzgerald’s lead.

“That’s wildly important, man, that’s so important I can’t even imagine how to explain it,” he said of the future Hall of Famer’s advice. “Larry’s a great guy — he has the answer to everything. It’s like having two coaches in the room, Coach (Darryl) Drake and with Larry on your side, I sit right in front of him in meetings so anything I need to know, I just turn around and ask, and he tells me.”

Williams said the team’s many leaders all want to see everyone prosper as they work toward the same goal of winning a Super Bowl.

“There’s no selfishness on this team, I can honestly say that,” he said.

That runs contrary to some stories Williams has heard of other places, where veterans are less inclined to help because in the NFL, younger players are often added to take the older players’ jobs.

Of the 90 players currently in training camp, 53 have two or fewer NFL seasons already under their belt. On the other hand, six Cardinals have at least 10 seasons on their resumes, with another three reaching double digits in 2017.

The knowledge they bring is immeasurable, whereas their ages are just numbers.

“In football years I think it’s perceived once you get to 35 you’re old,” Palmer said, “but if you can still put it on every day and play and work out and train and prepare mentally, I look at it as being experienced and mature.”

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