TEMPE, Ariz. – On the 12th day of the 12th month of the year 2012, team spokesperson Mark Dalton noted that, entering this season, only 12 players had spent 12 seasons or more of service with the Cardinals.
Strong safety Adrian Wilson became No. 13 when he took the field for the club’s opener on Sept. 9. Will that No. 13 distinction be unlucky? It’s a tough question to answer.
Clearly, little has gone right for the Cardinals since uniform No. 13, Kurt Warner, retired, but one constant through these three years of postseason-less football has been Wilson. He’s played with passion, he’s played with precision, he’s played through injuries, and he’s played with a physical edge that makes ball carriers wary when he’s closing on them.
Before the season began, Wilson even agreed to play for less money. The Cardinals extended his contract by two years into 2015, but the deal included a significant pay cut. Wilson was supposed to make $6.5 million this season. Instead, he’ll earn $1.5 million, plus a $1.5 million signing bonus. Between this season and next, the lost salary for Wilson will amount to about $10 million.
Wilson was OK with that alteration because he was giddy about the prospects of playing two additional years — until the Cardinals decided to play him less as this season wore on.
“He’s a prideful guy, and when it first happened to him, I didn’t really say much to him because I know it was tough. But I know first-hand about this,” said fellow safety Kerry Rhodes, who saw his playing time diminished in a 2009 Jets defense that had previously been tailored to his play-making abilities. “It wasn’t to this point that he’s dealing with, but not to be in on every down is tough.”
In the first nine games, Wilson played nearly all of the Cardinals’ defensive snaps. In the past four games, he has played anywhere from half to 80 percent. That doesn’t sit well with a player who takes as much pride in his craft as Wilson.
“It’s gut-wrenching,” Wilson said Wednesday. “Obviously, I want to play. Whatever role I do have, ultimately, I have to play that role and do the best I can. Those are the cards I’m dealt, unfortunately.”
One of defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s favorite phrases is that the NFL is “a young man’s game.”
Wilson, 33, is not young in NFL parlance, and Horton has chosen to replace him in nickel situations with Rashad Johnson and James Sanders filling in. It is difficult to know for certain if that trend will continue or if, with the season spiraling out of reach, the Cardinals are evaluating younger players.
But there has been one consistent knock on Wilson’s game that makes it’s fair to assume these changes are not temporary.
“A lot of people say I can’t cover,” he said. “A lot of fans say I can’t cover. I’ve been dealing with that my whole career, so this season is no different.”
But what if the coaches also believe it? What if this reduced role is as good as it’s going to get the rest of his time in Arizona? Can Wilson live with that?
“My head is on finishing out these last there games,” said Wilson, who added that he will take stock of his situation when the season has ended. “That’s what I have to do. Ultimately, I’m not the decision maker, so that’s all I can do.”
It’s hard to imagine Wilson playing anywhere else, not just because this has been his only home, but because his feelings for this franchise are so strong. Remember this quote from training camp?
“I gave my heart to this team,” he said. “There’s no way I could leave here. There’s no way I could put my heart in another team.”
The Cards might not want that, anyway. While the team has done a good job of developing depth along its defensive line and in its linebacking corps, neither Sanders nor Johnson jumps out as an obvious replacement at safety because neither is a big-time play-maker like Wilson has been most of his career.
Beyond that, both Johnson and Sanders will be free agents, so there’s no guarantee either will be back. Replacing Wilson is no simple matter. The Cards might need to draft and groom his replacement, just as Wilson once replaced Pat Tillman.
In the meantime, Wilson promised that his discontent with his playing time will never equate to discontent with the current coaching staff – or discord in the locker room.
“That’s not me. That’s not who I am,” he said. “Right now, it’s a tough season and this is a tough stretch, so they need the leaders to be leaders. They need the older guys to lead the way, stay positive and work hard. I try my best to do that, and that’s not going to stop.”
As for the notion that he might just walk away from the game if his role doesn’t suit him, Wilson smiled.
“I can still play, and I know I can still play at a high level, so that’s not even under consideration,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”