TEMPE, Ariz. — Darnell Dockett doesn’t have the stats to state a case for the Pro Bowl. He doesn’t grade highly on some websites that don’t know his play-by-play assignments and defensive responsibilities (or those of his teammates).
But for those who have watched Dockett the past few weeks, he’s passing the eyeball test. And he’s passing it with ease.
“His hands are just coming around the past two or three weeks, and he’s been doing a hell of a job the past two weeks especially,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “From here on out, if he keeps using his hands, he’ll do some great things for us.”
Greatness is the standard by which the colorful three-time Pro Bowler (and two-time alternate) will always be measured. Maxpreps.com recently suggested he is the most intimidating high school player ever, he had a standout career at Florida State and he has exceeded the expectations that come with a third-round pick.
His nasty streak, his motor and his emotional approach to the game have made him a fan favorite — an integral part of the franchise’s identity for the past decade.
But all of that was in question when his numbers slipped in former defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme, with its two-gap duties. And all of it will be in question again after this season.
Dockett has two more years left on a deal that will pay him base salaries of $5.5 and $6.55 million in 2014 and 2015, with cap hits of $8.75 million and $9.8 million. Unless the team can restructure his deal, it may be too much money for a 10-year veteran who will be 33 when next season starts.
“It happens,” said teammate and former roommate, Karlos Dansby, who knows a thing or two about salary-cap casualties after last season’s unexpected release in Miami. “That’s the backside of that double-edged sword. You play the game long enough and that sword is gonna get you. A lot of times, you know it’s fixing to come back around and get you, but when it hits you’re still like, ‘damn!’ “
Dockett understands this but is surprisingly philosophical about the idea of playing for another franchise.
“I play hard enough that if it doesn’t work here, I’ll be on somebody else’s team, so that’s the least of my worries,” he said. “I would love to retire an Arizona Cardinal. I don’t want to be one of those guys who has done so much for one organization and then goes to another and starts over, but whatever happens, happens. It’s not the end of the world.”
As it stands, the Cardinals don’t have anybody on the roster who could replace Dockett. Frostee Rucker is on a one-year deal and looks more effective as a part-time player. Free agency is a possibility, but the Cardinals have more pressing needs in the high rounds of next year’s draft than defensive end, including quarterback and left tackle.
Dockett is amazed at how quickly 10 years have passed to create this conversation, “but I’m thankful that I have been able to sustain a brilliant career,” he said. “I’m still able to play at a high level because I took care of my body. I see a lot of guys that are slow, not strong, not explosive. They’re kind of losing a step. I still feel like I’m in my prime and a lot of that credit goes to (strength and conditioning coordinator John) Lott.”
When Dockett’s stats fell for the third consecutive season in 2012, he was stung and surprised by the criticism. He lashed out at his critics. He even snubbed coach Ken Whisenhunt following a well-publicized run-in with teammate Kerry Rhodes that led to a fine. All the while, he floundered in a scheme in which he never felt fully comfortable.
“I hated it,” he said. “I love Ray and I did what I had to do, but it never fit.
“I was taking so much criticism last year from media and fans and radio analysts saying, ‘Aw, he’s washed up. He lost a step.’ But I ain’t lost nothing. Put me in a situation to do what I do best; to do what I’m known to do and I’ll show you.
“That’s what my coach has been doing this year.”
Dockett, who has registered four sacks and 23 tackles (21 solo) through nine games, said he’s being allowed to attack more. He’s facing more one-on-one blocks and not holding up “two or three guys for somebody else to run free and hope they make the play.” He has also been pretty stout at the point of attack.
Bowles said the changes really haven’t been that drastic.
“Just how he’s got to get off the ball and technique and how he pressured the passer in previous years and how he’s rushing the passer now. Getting back to some of the things he can do well within the scheme of this defense,” said Bowles, who watched plenty of film of Dockett’s 2012 season.
“We saw the same player. It was just a different scheme from the front standpoint. He did what he did well. It wasn’t a problem. I thought Ray did a good job of using him in the scheme he did. Our scheme is just a little different, and we tried to tweak his stance a little bit and make him play on the other side of the line.”
Dockett admits it took some time to adapt to his fourth defensive coordinator in the past six seasons.
“Sometimes I get confused with some of the calls and lingo,” he said. “Sometimes I think it might be something from two years ago that’s still stuck in my head. It’s just about putting in the time, getting reps and focusing in.”
Dockett had a tough season opener in St. Louis, and he struggled at home against Carolina due to a groin injury that he said severely hampered his movement, but he’s been a rock recently, even if he isn’t putting up the gaudy stats that garner attention.
“It’s always about stats in this league, especially at D-line. But it’s good that people notice that you’re out there dominating,” he said. “I grade out high every week. I have the most intimidating block every week. And we’re winning.
“I don’t care if I get one tackle or if I don’t have one sack for the rest of the season. I’m 10 years in, man, and I got so close to that ultimate goal. I just want the damn ring.
“If people say, ‘Dock, you ain’t gonna get another sack, another tackle, another nothing for the rest of the year but you’re going to get into the playoffs,’ I say ‘give me the playoffs.’ (Expletive) the rest of that (expletive).”