TEMPE, Ariz. – It’s hard to learn much about football players when they’re practicing in helmets and shorts.
“I know how they play soccer right now,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said after the final day of minicamp on Thursday. “But football is a noise-level game, and the noise level scares some guys; other guys love it. That’s what we’ve got to find.”
The rookies will spend plenty more time at the Cardinals’ headquarters in Tempe, and the veterans will gather informally to work on their timing and chemistry, but the Cardinals won’t convene again en masse until training camp begins in late July in Glendale.
That’s when the position battles will play out. That’s when we’ll get a better feel for the offensive and defensive schemes, as well as the abilities of the personnel. Here are five things we learned during OTAs and minicamp, and five key questions that linger.
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
Arians is creative in his approach: From the outset, Arians’ beefed-up staff (24 coaches) split the squad into two practices to maximize reps for the expected starters and key reserves, as well as the rookies and players well down the depth chart. The format also allowed for more hands-on instruction.
“I’ve always thought that small classrooms make for better teaching,” said Arians, who will get a good indication of which rookies might be able to contribute immediately.
There are other, smaller indicators of a new approach, as well. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald informed the media on Thursday that there is an accountability board in the Cardinals’ locker room that lists the mental errors each player makes each day.
“It’s not (accountability) to me; it’s to the guy sitting next to you in the room,” Arians said, noting that peer pressure will have a major impact on players correcting mistakes. “If you’re up there too much, we’ve got a problem.”
Position flexibility will be vital: Most coaches preach flexibility on the offensive line, where normally just seven players dress on Sundays. In the event of injuries, linemen have to be able to fill in for one another. But Arians is demanding flexibility from others players, including wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
“As a human being, you’re a bit of a creature of habit,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve played the same position since I was a junior in high school, and I’ve gotten good at it. I think we all resist change to a certain degree, especially if you’ve had a little bit of success, but as I’ve gone through these offseason workouts, I’ve definitely become more receptive to it. Coach Arians has a wealth of knowledge and an understanding of schemes.”
For Arians, the idea of shuffling Fitzgerald around is simple.
“Do you want 100 (catches)? If you want 100 balls, move around,” he said. “If they know where you are at, it’s easier to take you out of your game. Reggie (Wayne) bought in right away last year (in Indianapolis), and Larry is buying in now. It’s hard because when you are a veteran of their stature, you don’t like making mistakes. You get embarrassed. You have to put that behind you.”
“You pick up the paper and this guy blew an ACL, this guy blew an Achilles,” Arians said. “You’re just hoping and praying that that’s not going to happen to your football team.”
On a related note, Arians does not have the team stretch together, leaving that up to players before practice begins.
“Horn blows, we’re going,” he said.
The systems are largely in place: The Cardinals used every work day allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. Arians said nearly the entire offensive and defensive systems have been installed, and the team’s rookies have received an enormous amount of work and coaching.
But that doesn’t mean the players can relax for the next six weeks.
“It’s very important to progress forward from here to training camp, not go backwards or stay where we’re at,” Arians said. “We can’t come back and start over.”
The indoor facility will pay dividends: It won’t be ready until later this summer, but the Cardinals’ climate-controlled bubble is under construction (word is the team may even try to sell naming rights), and the players are very excited about it.
“No doubt,” center Lyle Sendlein said with a roll of his eyes.
Players rarely complain about the heat. It’s not the football way. But it was 112 degrees for Wednesday’s practice with virtually no wind, making for a very uncomfortable setting.
“It’s not as bad as it’s going to be,” Sendlein said, noting the persistent triple-digit temperatures that come with September and October practices. An indoor facility just might keep the players fresher this fall.
FIVE KEY QUESTIONS
Is Carson Palmer the answer? Fitzgerald raves about Palmer’s abilities and insists he and Palmer are developing chemistry. The quarterbacks and receivers will gather over the next six weeks to augment that, but we won’t really know if the Cardinals have solved their three-year-old QB problems until the bullets start flying on Sept. 8.
Can the revamped secondary deliver? Starting safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes and key corner Greg Toler are gone. Arians continually praises safety Yeremiah Bell, but Arians is a bit effusive when it comes to praise, and there’s a reason Bell came so cheap in free agency. Free safety Tyrann Mathieu was a dynamic college player, but he’s small, he’s learning a new position and he hasn’t played a game in a long time. The Cards wanted Toler back, but he went to Indy and the Cards got Colts castoff Jerraud Powers instead. There is much to prove outside of Patrick Peterson.
Can the Cardinals’ running backs stay healthy? The Cardinals’ top two backs have troubling recent histories. Rashard Mendenhall is coming off an ACL tear 16 months ago as well as an Achilles injury that limited him in 2012, and Ryan Williams has played just five games in his first two seasons due to knee and shoulder injuries. Enough said.
How much will the Cardinals miss Ray Horton? Todd Bowles may become an elite defensive coordinator in time, but his one-year run as coordinator in Philadelphia last season was less than impressive, and he’ll be handicapped by the absence of Kerry Rhodes, the suspension of linebacker Daryl Washington and an offense that may still have production issues.
Is it possible the Cardinals will have a good offensive line?With tackle Levi Brown’s return, the drafting of guard Jonathan Cooper, the maturation of tackles Bobby Massie and Nate Potter and the steady play of guard Daryn Colledge and center Lyle Sendlein, the Cards’ red-headed stepchild just might feel like part of the family this season.