Though playoffs are no longer an option, for Cardinals, ‘nothing changes’

Dec 13, 2016, 6:15 AM | Updated: 11:31 am
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) looks to pass, during the first half of an NFL foot...
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) looks to pass, during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Technically, the Arizona Cardinals can still make the playoffs.

Realistically, their season will end when the clock strikes all zeros on their Week 17 game with the Los Angeles Rams.

A season that began with such promise and dreams of a Super Bowl will end with with a thud, and perhaps as many losses as the team had in 2015 and 2015 combined.

There is no history to be made, no memorable run to embark on. There is the last three games.

“Nothing changes,” head coach Bruce Arians said Monday. “We’re not going to put young guys in the game to see if they can play. We’re playing to win, not evaluate for the future.”

Following the team’s last-second 26-23 loss to the Dolphins in Miami Sunday, a defeat that dropped their record to 5-7-1, Arians made it clear to his team that the playoffs were not really an option at this point.

“Just being real,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect anything other than disappointment, but are you going to sugarcoat it? 8-7-1 might get you in, but probably not.”

In order for the Cardinals to make the playoffs for the third straight year, they will have to win their remaining three games at home against the New Orleans Saints and then on the road vs. the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams and get a considerable amount of help from around the league.

All season long throughout their struggles, there was an outward confidence that things would get better, that at some point the Cardinals would pull out of their funk and start playing the kind of football that was once expected of them.

But for whatever reason — injuries, inconsistency, bad breaks, poor play, coaching — it never happened. And if it does now, it will most likely be too little, too late.

That is their reality. That is what their season has come to.

“It’s tough; you know, we scratch our heads a lot. When we look at the film, we’re a play away, an inch away at times,” defensive lineman Frostee Rucker said. “It’s frustrating, but the guys never backed down to the challenge and we continued to fight.

“Even though the record doesn’t show it, we have a lot of high-character guys here that go to work and do what they’re supposed to do. It’s just unfortunate our record isn’t showing how hard we work.”

Indeed, the Cardinals rarely seemed to quit. They fell behind in most of their games this season, and in the majority had opportunities late to pull out a win. But unlike previous seasons, when they excelled in close games, this season has been all about missed chances.

For the first time since Arians took over in 2013, he does not have the postseason carrot to dangle in front of his players. How will the players respond?

“You talk about it early, but you respect the process and you come to work,” Arians said. “I’ve been on a 3-13 team and a 7-9 team. You come to work every week. If you see guys cashing it in, you need to get rid of them.”

The mindset the team is taking now is not one that says they have nothing to play for. However, motivation may come from different areas now.

For center A.Q. Shipley, the goal is to let their play over the final three weeks speak for itself.

“We’ve got to go out and we’ve got to finish, play our hardest — just like we’ve been doing — we’ve got to be a little smarter in some areas, fundamentally and mentally, but play our hardest,” he said. “Hopefully pull out three wins to finish the season and close the season on a high note and let the chips fall where they fall.”

Defensive lineman Calais Campbell feels an obligation to keep playing hard.

“It’s better when you have something to play for like going to the playoffs and the Super Bowl and all that stuff, but in the end, we get to play football for a living. This is something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid, so I’m going to continue to play football, the game I love, as best I can, and enjoy it.”

Meanwhile, cornerback Patrick Peterson understands there are still goals that can be reached.

“We’ve got a lot of football left,” he said. “I have a lot to play for, this team has a lot to play for, as far as defensively, we still want to be the number one defense in the league, and we want to continue putting good film on tape. So that’s what it’s all about. We have too much pride in this locker room just to go out and start planning the offseason vacations now.”

Peterson said the message of not quitting, that there was still plenty to play for, was delivered and received following the loss to the Dolphins, and no matter what their record is, the next few weeks will help towards the front office’s evaluation of the roster.

Arians said the effort and speed in which players play in the games and practice will show if they truly have a passion for the game, and with so many impending free agents on the roster, many futures may be hanging in the balance.

That, in theory, should be motivation enough for a player to put forth effort and not mail in these final three weeks. It’s not like none of the team’s players have failed to reach the postseason before.

“As a professional, you want to continue being a pro,” Peterson said. “That’s how I was raised, I believe those are the type of guys we have in this locker room.

“The older guys showed me the way — Larry (Fitzgerald), Adrian (Wilson), Dock (Darnell Dockett) — older guys that I was here with, showed me that and that’s something that stayed with me and hopefully that can continue trickling down to my other teammates.”

After an offseason that saw the team add a Pro Bowl pass rusher and return virtually every key player from a roster that reached last season’s NFC Championship Game, most felt the Cardinals were one of the best teams in the NFL, let alone the NFC. Things went fine in training camp, and although they struggled in preseason games, those issues were passed off as nothing to worry about since a veteran team would be ready to go when the games started to count.

Even after a 1-3 start to the season, there was a belief that their superior talent would ultimately win out and all of those problems would be a mere footnote in what was sure to be a wonderful story.

Now, barring a minor miracle, that will not be the case.

“It’s very tough, with the expectations we had for ourselves,” Campbell said. “I feel like, as a team, we knew we could have done a lot better, but the season’s been just tough breaks, things not bouncing our way. You want to win every game — we work hard for it — but I’m proud to be a part of the team.

“Everybody in here, everybody in this locker room I know worked hard and gave their best effort, just things didn’t go our way this year.”

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Though playoffs are no longer an option, for Cardinals, ‘nothing changes’