GLENDALE, Ariz. — A very different feel filled University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday.
A year ago, the Cardinals were settling into their new training camp home after relocating their preseason training from Flagstaff. More than that, though, expectations were low for a team with a first-year head coach, a new general manager and a turned-over roster.
This year, coming off a 10-6 campaign, expectations hardly could be more different.
"We’re eager to get back to work," veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "This is a solid team with the makings of becoming a great team. That’s where our goals and aspirations are at."
The Cardinals officially opened camp in Glendale, getting to work on coach Bruce Arians’ second season, one in which players, pundits and fans alike expect the Cardinals to contend even in the stacked NFC West.
"I don’t put a lot of stick in any (predictions)," Arians said. "It can all change with one injury or two. But right now, I agree with them. I think we’re a quality football team that plays in a very tough division, and we have to win the division."
Camp technically started Friday with a brief conditioning test, but it truly got going with a walkthrough Saturday morning and a practice in the afternoon. Arians, though, as he enters his 18th season in the NFL, sounded downright nostalgic for the days before the league’s collective bargaining agreement limited teams to one practice per day.
"It’s really hard to call this camp anymore," Arians said. "There’s no physical grind to this like there used to be. It’s all mental."
In that regard, Arians said the Cardinals task leading up to their Sept. 8th opener is to eliminate mental mistakes and position themselves to capitalize on what’s considered a supremely talented roster.
Last year’s roster contained much of the same talent, but little was expected of the group after a 5-11 season in 2012 and enormous roster turnover, including at quarterback, where the Cardinals had still yet to find any stability since Kurt Warner’s retirement.
Far more is settled now, with quarterback Carson Palmer more comfortable and familiar with an offense that took him and others a good deal of time to learn. The offense’s familiarity on day one of camp made feeling its way through early practices a year ago seem like a distant memory.
"We’re light years ahead of where we were last year," Fitzgerald said. "We went through our first walk through today, and it was pretty nice not having the coaches yelling at us and harping on small details because most of the guys understood what we were doing."
That’s the big difference this season as camp begins: Understanding. Players on both sides of the ball know the system. They know their coaches. They know what they are expected to do.
As many questions as the Cardinals must answer before the season arrives, this camp is as much about getting in sync and making good on their apparent potential.
"If we just get on the same page, this team could be amazing this year," second-year linebacker Kevin Minter said. "All this talent, it would be a shame for us to not come together and just be able to perform."