GLENDALE, Ariz. — You could see this story arc developing in July.
Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel was supposed to be ready for the start of training camp following offseason foot surgery, but a setback landed him on the PUP list. Coach Bruce Arians needed a way to hasten Bethel’s return and along came third-round draft pick Brandon Williams, a guy with just one year of experience at the position, but a guy with obvious athletic ability, limb length and Bethel-like speed.
Less than two weeks into camp, Arians consulted the coach’s handbook of motivational tactics and threw down the gauntlet for all to hear.
“It’s Brandon’s job right now,” he said. “You can’t win it if you’re not practicing.”
Bethel is practicing now, so the narrative has changed. When asked Monday if there was enough time left before the season opener (three weeks) for Bethel to reclaim the starting role that was supposed to be his, Arians nodded.
“There’s no doubt,” he said. “There’s plenty of time.
“With him coming back this summer, and looking as good as he looked yesterday, that will be a nice battle going on the rest of the way.”
Bethel has only been practicing for two days. He still has to show that his foot has fully healed and he still has to prove that he stayed buried in the playbook and the film room during his absence.
When the Cardinals signed him to a three-year, $15 million extension in December that included $9 million in guaranteed money, they didn’t do so lightly. They did so with the idea he would start opposite Patrick Peterson, especially with Jerraud Powers having departed in free agency.
A sixth-round pick out of Presbyterian in 2012, Bethel excelled immediately on special teams where he has made the Pro Bowl each of the last three seasons. It has taken more time for him to develop at corner, but last season’s four starts (including playoffs) provided the training ground to launch the next phase of his career.
“I watched a lot of the plays, especially the big plays I gave up last season,” Bethel said. “Most of the big plays I gave up is because I saw the receiver relax and so I relaxed and then the quarterback gets free and he’s running free — little techniques that I was doing that were not helping me out. I’m trying to refine my game in that area.”
Arians liked what he saw from Bethel last season. He believes Bethel has all the physical tools to play the position, but he needs to believe that Bethel has mastered the mental side of the game.
“Just the bravado that goes with a corner — going out and jumping in somebody’s face and covering him; getting beat and shaking it off,” Arians said. “He struggled last year thinking he let the team down if somebody caught a pass on him. It bothered him. They’re going to catch passes on you because they’re going to throw a hell of a lot of them at you. Just come back and battle.”
Arians dropped a bombshell in his daily press conference on Monday when he told reporters that the 60-yard reception Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers completed to Jeff Janis on 4th-and-20 to keep the Packers’ drive alive and set up a game-tying Hail Mary pass in the playoffs last season was not Bethel’s fault, but somebody else’s due to a blown coverage.
“He got blamed for it, but he wasn’t even in that coverage,” Arians said.
Even so, Bethel understands that he will garner a lot of attention from opposing offenses.
“After last year, being target practice for guys, knowing that they were going to come at me, I think that really did help me,” he said. “When you’re playing (opposite) a five-time (Pro Bowler) like Pat, they’re going to throw at you and you’ve got to realize they are going to make plays on you. You just have to come back and make the plays that you can when they come to you and not be so worried about what happened.”
Bethel was keenly aware of the motivational message Arians was sending during the first three weeks of training camp, but he was also listening to the messages his body was sending him.
“This isn’t something I can rush,” he said of his foot injury. “If I’m hurting I’m hurting. If I can’t play I can’t play. You don’t want to rush it back and seriously re-injure it to where I couldn’t even play in the season. It’s been nice being able to take my time and still go out there and do what I need to do; try to be in shape for when I do come back.”
Like Arians, Bethel believes there is enough time to reclaim the starting job — if he ever really lost it.
“All this time I had off, it gave me time to watch a lot of film and study things and see techniques. Now it’s just going out there and implementing it,” he said. “I think I’ll be able to show what I need to show in that amount of time. Hopefully, they see what they need to see.”