New deal in tow, Campbell embraces pressure

TEMPE, Ariz. — With any big contract in professional sports comes added pressure to perform. The five-year deal Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell inked Thursday is no exception.

Campbell welcomes that pressure, though, and embraces the expected leadership that comes with the Cardinals’ commitment.

“Pressure is definitely a part of the game, and I think it brings the best out of players,” Campbell said. “I like having pressure on me. I think it makes me work even harder. It’s easier to work hard.”

Dressed in what he called his best suit, Campbell addressed the media at Cardinals headquarters Friday, his mother and two siblings watching proudly from the back of the room. The humble 25-year-old spent less than seven minutes behind the microphone addressing his long-term deal worth a reported $55 million, but it was clear in that time that Campbell took another step in his evolution with the Cardinals.

Campbell has become part of the organization’s core, joining the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson. It’s a role he’s desired, and just as the Cardinals committed to him, he pledged his next five seasons to what he called a “special team.”

“I tried to view myself as a leader from day one,” Campbell said. “I took that approach the best I could. The only difference now is maybe a couple guys will listen to me a little more. I’m definitely going to be a leader the best way I can.”

Campbell is already a leader on the field. He’s played in all but one game over his four seasons in the league and  has only gotten better each year. Last year, he recorded career highs with 72 tackles — the second most in the league among defensive ends despite playing in a 3-4 defense — and eight sacks. On top of that, he had one interception, two forced fumbles, 10 passes defended and three blocked field goals, thanks in part to his 6-foot-8 frame.

Those kinds of numbers make it pretty clear why the Cardinals wanted to lock up Campbell with a long-term deal. Ultimately, football comes down to on-field success. But contributing to the Cards’ motivation to keep Campbell in the fold was his character, which general manager Rod Graves made a point of praising as he introduced Campbell on Friday.

“We’re delighted with Calais as a player, but we’re even more overjoyed with the fact that he’s an outstanding person,” Graves said. “We’ve said many times our objective is to become a championship team on and off the field and become a championship organization. It starts with the core players.”

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, too, had high praise for Campbell. Asked which of Campbell’s 2011 stats stood out to him most, Whisenhunt cited the tackle totals that were unusually high for a defensive end but also said Campbell’s effort stands out more than any number.

“I still think back to his rookie year when he was running down the field on kickoff coverage and kickoff returns,” Whisenhunt said. “This is a defensive lineman doing that, (making) an impact on special teams until he earned his spot in the defense.

“Those are the kind of guys you build teams around.”

That’s exactly what the Cardinals are doing. The mutual commitment speaks volumes about the direction in which the organization is headed. The team had no intention of letting a star get away, instead making him a pillar of the organization.

And Campbell chose to finish what he has started in Arizona.

“I really felt like this team was a special team,” Campbell said. “I really feel like if we just continue to get better, we could be a championship team.”

Campbell figures to be a big part of the Cardinals’ quest to return to the NFL’s top tier, and he could hardly be a sturdier building block. At 25 years old, his best seasons could still be ahead of him — and in his new deal. Campbell believe he still has “a long way to go” before he reaches his peak.

“I feel like there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Campbell said. “Hopefully I can be a great player in this league for a lot of years to come.”