TEMPE, Ariz. — Veterans in the Cardinals locker room don’t describe Calais Campbell as a vocal leader, but don’t be mistaken.
“You don’t have to be mic’d up on NFL Network to be a leader,” veteran defensive end Frostee Rucker said. “It’s not always about who’s breakin’ it down and giving speeches. It’s about how you play and how you conduct yourself on and off the field.
“Calais is a good guy on and off the field and one who is big in the community. That’s leadership, too.”
It’s not that Campbell is unwilling or unable to talk. He’s no wallflower. But the vocal-leader role is currently taken on the defensive line by larger-than-life personality, Darnell Dockett, a 10th-year pro.
“Dockett does such a good job with it that I don’t even try to be a vocal leader,” Campbell said. “I know that Dock and Karlos Dansby are always going to be the ones who will say the right thing at the right time to get me hyped.”
Campbell, a sixth-year pro, might have to assume that mantle soon. Dockett’s production dropped each of the past three seasons before a slight resurgence the first half of this season. His cap hit will be $8.75 million next season (and $9.8 million in 2015, the last year of his deal), so it’s quite possible this could be his last year in a Cardinals uniform.
From a P.R. standpoint, Campbell would make a better leader than Dockett because of his public persona. He’s articulate, he’s always approachable, often putting his arm around reporters and team staff, and he is one of the more active Cardinals in the community (he was the Cardinals’ 2011 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year).
It would be foolish to discount the two players’ upbringings when measuring them in that light. When he was 13, Dockett came home on Fourth of July weekend to find his mother, Cheryl Hambrick, murdered, execution style, with blood spattered all over the walls and furniture. He lost his father to pancreatic cancer four months later.
Campbell grew up in a tightly-knit family of eight siblings, where the memories include filming comedy sketch routines with brothers Jared, Ray, Severin and Ciarre.
“My family has always been close and always supported me,” Campbell said. “That means a lot in life.”
None of this would matter if Campbell hadn’t emerged as one of the Cardinals’ elite players this season. After a slow start that he and first-year defensive coordinator Todd Bowles attribute to adjusting to a new scheme, the team’s 2008, second-round pick just might be the best player on a defensive unit chock full of stars, including linebacker Daryl Washington and cornerback Patrick Peterson.
He’s second on the team in sacks with 3.5 (Dockett has four, three against New Orleans) and fourth in tackles (26), has a forced fumble and a safety and has been stout at the point of attack.
“He’s finally figured where he fits in the scheme and fundamentally, he has been doing a lot of the right things,” Bowles said. “When he’s doing things the right way, as big as he is, he can be a force.”
One area that Bowles highlights is hand placement.
“As a taller guy (6-8), just getting hands up quick or using your shoulders to your hands,” Bowles explained. “He’s like a long boxer. When he sticks his jab out there he’s effective. If he lets a smaller fighter get into his body he’s not as effective.”
Campbell rattled off a litany of small adjustments that he has made, joking that they are too boring or difficult to explain. But the fact that he is reacting without too much thinking is the biggest change from the early season to now.
“That helps you a lot,” he said.
Campbell’s continued progression could be a key factor in Dockett’s future with the club. More importantly, it will be a key factor in the Cardinals’ fortunes.
“He’s elevated his game, and Todd is doing a great job putting Calais in position to make plays and use his strengths — setting up matchups the right way,” Rucker said. “Once you start making plays it all builds and he’s playing with a lot of confidence.
“With his age and where he is as far as development, a guy like that can play as long as he wants to, like 14-15 years. What’s his ceiling? It’s going to be amazing to see what it is.”