TEMPE, Ariz. -- It never hurts to have some potential postseason karma in your back pocket in the NFL, and Calais Campbell is well aware there’s only one way he and Julius Thomas -- the Denver tight end who illegally chop blocked him, injuring his right knee and costing him two-plus games -- can meet again this season.
That would be in Super Bowl 49, and this time, unlike in Week 5, the Broncos would be coming to the Cardinals’ house, University of Phoenix Stadium, where Arizona has started 4-0 this season, going 10-2 there since the start of 2013. Payback can be, well, you know. Even if revenge isn’t your driving motivation.
“I really hope that I do get to see him again this year,’’ said Campbell on Monday, smiling broadly at the thought of a Super Bowl Sunday matchup of Denver and Arizona, the NFL’s last two remaining one-loss teams. “My mind wonders what that would be like, but that’s what keeps you motivated, the dream, the vision of where you want to go.
“We’ve got a lot left to do to get there, and it’s so hard. But I think if we can make it to that game, and play the Super Bowl in our stadium, we’d have a huge homefield advantage. It’s just the luck of the draw and I know the other team would probably be a little bit disappointed and upset about it, but what can you do? Everybody knew the game was going to be played here before the season started, and if we happen to get there, it just makes it a wonderful story.’’
That story, of course, would have far more heft to it than a rematch between Campbell and Thomas, but for the Cardinals’ star defensive end and team captain, losing that game at Denver earlier this month still stings. And not just because the Broncos are still the only team to beat Arizona this season. Denver won 41-20 that day, but it was only up 24-20 entering the fourth quarter, and Campbell was having his best game of the season, with an interception of Peyton Manning, when he suffered a sprained MCL in the third quarter. On the play, Thomas dove at Campbell’s knee, hitting him low while Campbell was preparing for tackle Ryan Clady to engage him high in pass blocking.
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians seethed after the game, calling it the “dirtiest play’’ he had seen in his 37 years of coaching, and suggested Thomas be suspended for however long Campbell was out of the Arizona lineup. The Broncos were penalized for a chop block on the play, but the NFL wound up slapping Thomas with the minimum $8,268 fine, and moving on. Eventually Campbell and Arians did the same, but only after Campbell returned to the lineup last Sunday in the Cardinals’ dramatic 24-20 victory over visiting Philadelphia, the game that eventually made Arizona the last 6-1 NFC team standing.
“Now that he’s back, yeah, I’ve let it go,’’ Arians told me Monday afternoon at the Cardinals’ team complex. “But guys get fined twice as much in this league for wearing Beats headphones as [Thomas] did for that block. That part of it I don’t let go of. Calais is one of the top five ends in the league, and that’s why it hurt so much to lose him. The fact we had three team captains [Campbell, quarterback Carson Palmer and punter Dave Zastudil] in street clothes here for about three weeks was disheartening.’’
That the block cost Campbell just two-plus games helped in the process of putting it behind him, he said. An apologetic Thomas later reached out to Campbell via text, and the two exchanged their views of the play. That page turned, it was then time to get back to the work of rehabbing and what might be a very special season unfolding in the desert.
“It’s something that can’t benefit me going forward, so I’m going to let it go,’’ Campbell said. “No matter what I think about the block, or don’t think about it, it ain’t going to change. It’s over and done with. It definitely wasn’t easy to get over, it took me a little while. Because it sucked being off the field. Who knows how the Denver game would have been if I’d played the whole game? Not to say I’m the reason we’re winning games, but I think in that game I was just getting into the zone when I got hurt.’’
Campbell said he got to speak his piece to Thomas, letting him know that he saw the block as needlessly dangerous and in violation of the unspoken personal code NFL players should live by, even as opponents.
“He texted me and said what he had to say, and I told him what I needed to tell him,’’ Campbell said. “I gave him my little spiel and how he could become a better player and that was it. Because the NFL’s a fraternity, and we all understand how hard we work to play this game, and get better at our craft. I was polite about it, but that’s who I am. It was cool, but I think people will definitely think twice before doing the chop block now.’’
Though painful, Campbell’s two-game absence was just another brick in the wall in Arizona this season, where the well-chronicled wave of defensive injuries and defections has been almost ceaseless. It started with this spring’s loss of linebackers Karlos Dansby in free agency and Daryl Washington via a year-long NFL suspension, and continued when valuable defensive end Darnell Dockett was lost for the year with a late-preseason ACL tear, and outside linebacker and 2013 team sack leader John Abraham (11.5) was placed on injured reserve after Week 1 with concussion issues.
All those subtractions left Campbell, a seventh-year veteran drafted in 2008’s second round out of the University of Miami, as the senior-most member of the team’s defensive roster, at least with Dockett lost for the season. At 28, it was finally Campbell’s turn to become the face of Arizona’s defense, and his team leadership has never meant more to what Arians and Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles are constructing in Phoenix.
“I’ve always been a leader on every team I’ve played on, from little league football until now, but I think I’ve been waiting for my moment here, and I feel like now is the time,’’ said Campbell, who recorded nine sacks last season and has one sack and one interception in four-plus games this year. “Who I am as a person is beneficial for the team and what it needs at this point. I’m not trying to do anything more than what I am, just being me. I’ve always spoken my mind, always encouraged my teammates, and always played as hard as I could so I could lead by example. But I think now just more people are listening to me.’’
It is remarkable what Arians and his NFC-best 6-1 Cardinals have accomplished in the face of this season’s talent drain, but Campbell might be the one player the blunt-talking, Kangol-wearing coach considers close to indispensable.
“He’s one of the best and he can play any defense,’’ Arians said. “He can play 4-3 end or tackle, he can play 3-4, he can rush the passer, and he’s a disruptive guy. I think he’s gotten a little overlooked partly because of his personality; he’s not about himself. Not that Darnell [Dockett] is, but Darnell’s brash and he talks and he’s always had that rep. So Calais was just always behind Dock in that sense.’’
The irony is, while Campbell’s contributions can’t be duplicated, this resilient and resourceful Cardinals team is in no way built around the talents of any one special player, the way Arizona clearly was in its Kurt Warner glory days of 2008-09, when coach Ken Whisenhunt’s club went to the playoffs two years in a row and came agonizingly close to this long-tortured franchise’s first Super Bowl title. That club’s window was open as long as Warner remained, and when he retired after that 2009 season, there went the Cardinals’ playoff chances -- at least until Arians arrived in 2013 and put a stunning 10-6 record on the board, just missing the playoffs in his debut season in the desert.
What Arians and second-year Cardinals general manager Steve Keim have quickly built in their first season and a half together feels solid. It feels like a winning program, not just a good one- or two-year run and done. And Campbell, who played on Arizona’s Super Bowl team of 2008 as a rookie, can tell the drastic difference. When Palmer’s injured throwing shoulder kept him out for three games from Weeks 2-4, the Cardinals started the little-used Drew Stanton and went 2-1 with him under center, losing only at Denver.
“I don’t think in 2008 if our quarterback got hurt for three games we’re still winning without him,’’ Campbell said. “This year, to see Carson go down and see Drew step up and us continue to play the same way, I think that’s really a testament to our team. It’s really built well, and we have every single piece of the puzzle to be successful.’’
Or as Arians put it: “When Drew got his opportunity and showed what he could do, winning those two games, it showed us what we have here. It’s a football team. We’re going to always have a defense first and foremost, and we’re going to play good special teams, and then on offense we’ll scratch out points.’’
The Cardinals have scratched out enough of them that, spanning the past two regular seasons, they are 13-3 over the course of their past 16 games, tied with Denver for the best record in the league. Arizona is off to the franchise’s best start in 40 years, since the 1974 St. Louis Cardinals opened 7-0, and as midseason approaches, these Cardinals own a two-game lead (the league’s largest) over both Seattle and San Francisco (4-3) in the NFC West, considered the NFL’s toughest division. Arians’ team beat one of the NFC’s best last week with the win at home against Philadelphia (5-2), and now hits the road for Dallas (6-2) this week to take on another contender for the NFC No. 1 seed the Cardinals currently control.
“I’ll tell you, this is definitely the best team I’ve been on, my whole life,’’ Campbell said. “I’ve never been on a team that’s won 13 out of 16 games. I could get used to that. Even being here my first couple years, we were up and down all the time. We got blown out in so many games, and then came back and went to the Super Bowl.
“But this is the first time I’ve been on a team where it’s a complete team. And we still haven’t played our best football yet either. We can’t go crowning ourselves Super Bowl champions because we haven’t done enough yet, but we know the potential for that can be there as long as we keep putting the work in each day. This team, we know we can be good for a long time to come.’’
Another three months or so would suffice for now. Super Bowl Sunday in Arizona -- no matter who the opponent may be -- is just 94 days away. If it’s Campbell and the Cardinals with their shot at payback against Denver and Thomas, all the better. Campbell has this much right: The rematch would make for a story to remember.