ARIZONA CARDINALS

Cardinals camp a different place in COVID-era NFL preseason

Aug 21, 2020, 4:19 PM | Updated: Aug 22, 2020, 10:51 am

Arizona Cardinals' head coach Kliff Kingsbury watches his players during an NFL football training c...

Arizona Cardinals' head coach Kliff Kingsbury watches his players during an NFL football training camp Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

Welcome to a football bunker. The Cardinals look right at home.

There are no fans in attendance. Fake noise fills up State Farm Stadium. It feels comforting. It sounds like football.

Mask-wearing media are allowed to stand on the sideline but they are sworn to secrecy, unable to report most of what they see. Teams are putting the clamps on reporters, hiding as much information as possible from the outside world.

It’s understandable. There is nothing coming in from enemy camps so teams are jealously guarding what they have and what they are putting out into the Twittersphere, including benign stuff like depth chart material.

Oh, and Kyler Murray wears a black jersey so no one will touch him. It has already been determined: The first time he’ll get hit is on Sept. 13, in the season opener at San Francisco.

The NFL is a very different place in the preseason of a pandemic. There are no exhibition games. No recent tape on upcoming opponents. The first time Valley football fans will see the Cardinals in action, it’ll be for keeps.

This must be a stressful time for many old-school types in the NFL, the men who will work 20 hours a day if there’s enough film to watch. This year will be a test of their conviction and their methodology. A head coach in 2020 better be secure in his own preparation, in what he sees from his own team. Because that’s all he sees. Everything and everyone else is hidden from view.

It’s better like this, without all the excess information and spying, without all the meaningless football.

Clearly, you don’t have to attend practice to be excited about NFL season in Arizona. Their offense should be a monster, capable of averaging four touchdowns a game. With Larry Fitzgerald and DeAndre Hopkins, they have the surest hands of any offense in the NFL. With Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds, they have a pair of hungry, electric running backs.

But here’s what else I noticed:

Fitzgerald is showing off his sculpted midsection. He looks fast, like he’s in excellent shape. Entering his 17th season, Fitzgerald is clearly motivated by the addition of another great wide receiver in the building.

Hopkins might be something of a practice diva, checking out on occasion, unwilling to go hard when it doesn’t count. But he always shows up on Sunday, and you can feel the difference when he’s on the field, when he lines up opposite Fitzgerald.

Hopkins elicits a certain swagger with every step he takes. And it looks like he and the Cardinals’ quarterback have an instant rapport.

Murray has gained additional muscle. He weighs almost as much as Lamar Jackson. He seems more comfortable with everything, from leadership to recognizing defenses. He might follow the career arc of Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, each of whom won MVP awards in their second season. At the very least, the game should feel much slower than it did when he was a rookie.

There are just as many questions on defense as there are exclamation points on offense. There is just as much novelty on defense as there is familiarity on offense. We already know which unit might carry the heavy side of the piano in 2020.

The X factor is head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who had an excellent rookie season. He proved he can delegate, trusting his assistants and giving them room to breathe. He proved he will listen to players and coaches alike, even changing his scheme when necessary. He settled in after a shaky start that had him wondering about his long-term employment in the NFL.

But Kingsbury spent most of his coaching career in college. He knows how to prepare a team for an opening game without any rehearsals or preseason games. He’s young and versatile, not old and inflexible. He seems very comfortable inside all the weirdness.

That will be very important in 2020. Kingsbury has all the tools on offense he could ever ask for. He won’t be prisoner to paranoia, and his chill demeanor won’t stress out his players. He trusts that his defensive players will remember how to tackle when the games begin. Unlike some of his peers, he won’t feel threatened by Hopkins’ practice habits. And he knows how to adapt, which might be the most important trait a head coach can possess inside a pandemic, when no one knows what’s coming or what’s around the next corner.

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