Site: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., the second season the Cardinals have trained inside the retractable-roof stadium, to avoid the 105-degree daily temps in the Valley.
What I Saw: Chargers-Cards preseason game, Saturday, Aug. 22, 7 p.m. Mountain Time.
Three things you need to know about the Cardinals:
1. Carson Palmer has no pain in his knee, and he can take a hit. By my count in his three series in this game, he took five pops: two on sacks and three after releasing the ball. “I need that,’’ he said after the game. “Just like you need to get in shape after tearing your ACL, you also need to take hits—and feel what it’s like to take a hit and get back and keep playing.” Good news for the Cards: They’re 13-2 in Palmer’s last 15 starts for the team, and he is playing completely pain-free—he says.
2. James Bettcher, the new defensive coordinator, is not trying to reinvent the wheel post-Todd Bowles. Bruce Arians promoted Bettcher from outside linebackers coach to coordinator after Bowles left for the Jets’ coaching job. Bettcher has never called defensive plays before, and Arians has trained him in camp by having an unscripted 11-on-11 period to end many practices this summer, with Bettcher making play-calls quickly, in response to formations he sees from the offense. Smart move by Arians, instead of playing summer camp by the script, which many teams do. Bettcher is just 37, and eyebrows got raised when Arians went inexperienced and in-house instead of taking a veteran coordinator who had made big calls before. “I didn’t want the players to come in here and have to learn anything different,’’ Arians said in the spring. “I wanted to core of our defense and the playbook to remain the same.” Still, all eyes will be on Bettcher, to see if he make this defense more consistent than it was last year—when the Cards were beat up from the start and allowed 41, 29 and 35 points to Denver, Atlanta and Seattle, respectively.
3. Rodney Gunter is the camp star so far. Unearthed by Steve Keim and top personnel lieutenant Terry McDonough six days before the draft—and scouted on-site on a rutted rural field in Florida by defensive line coach BrentsonBuckner, the fourth-round defensive lineman from Delaware State took first-unit snaps at nose tackle against San Diego. The staff loves him, and he may get the start opening day for Corey Peters, lost for the season with an Achilles tear.
What will determine success or failure for the Cardinals: Palmer’s health. You can say about most teams what you say about the Cardinals: They’ll be a contender as long as the starting quarterback stays upright. When Carson Palmer went down with a torn ACL in game nine, the Cards were playing for survival the rest of the way. After starting 8-1, they went 3-5 (including the playoff loss to Carolina) with Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley playing. Nine months after ACL surgery, Palmer looks fine. If Palmer doesn’t play 13 games or more, Arizona’s playoff chances take a very big hit.
Player I saw and really liked: J.J. Nelson, rookie wide receiver, Alabama-Birmingham. GM Steve Keim and staff have unearthed another second-tier wide receiver to help an explosive passing game. Two years ago, it was Jaron Brown, an undrafted free agent from Clemson. Last year, it was John Brown, a third-round sleeper from tiny Pittsburg (Kans.) State. This year, it’s Nelson, in the fifth round. Carson Palmer’s first completion of the game on this night was a 57-yard bomb winged up the left side that speedster Nelson ran under and caught diving near the sideline. He’s had a strong camp and will make the team—and gives Arziona a strong future at the position and good depth right now.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Cardinals. Larry Fitzgerald turns 32 Aug. 31, and with all the new receivers on the roster, you’d think it’s phase-out time for him. Then why’d he catch 15 more passes than any other receiver here last year? “I just come into the locker room every day and I’m happy they’ve still got a locker for me,’’ he said … Sean Weatherspoon was a key free-agent signing, even though he’s missed nine games in 2013 at Atlanta (knee) and 16 games in 2014 (Achilles tear). But he strained a hamstring in the first practice this summer and hasn’t been able to come back from it. He’s frustrated, as is the team, which penciled him to start at inside linebacker alongside Kevin Minter, and there’s no sign when he’ll be healthy … Hard to tell the wideouts without a scorecard, and hard even with one. You’ve got two “J. Brown” players, back-to-back, on the roster: John Brown, number 12. Jaron Brown, number 13 … You forget how fortunate the Cardinals are to have a roof in the summer. When I walked into the stadium an hour before the game, the gauge on my rental-car dashboard read 106 degrees outside. When I turned on the car an hour after the game, it read 96 … At running back, if Andre Ellington stays healthy, I’d expect him to get 60 percent of the carries, and Chris Johnson (hamstring will keep him out another 10 days) to be the change-of-pace back and get maybe 100 touches.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. A.Q. Shipley, center. Could win the center job and be a vital cog in keeping Palmer healthy. Shipley’s motivated, for sure. He was released by the Ravens in camp last year, claimed by the Colts, started the first four games of the year despite having near-zero knowledge of the offense, and replaced after four starts by an undrafted free agent. He’s the favorite to win the center job.
The thing I’ll remember about Phoenix. The Arizona Biltmore Hotel. One of the training-camp treats with the Cards’ camp back in the Valley (they used to practice in cooler climes, up the road in high-altitude Flagstaff) is the summer rate at my favorite hotel in the United States. Even in the dog days of summer, having an evening drink on the outdoor patio at the Biltmore is living life very, very well.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town: I don’t feel as good about the defense as I thought I would. They’ll miss Darnell Dockett, and they’ve never replaced troubled inside ‘backer Daryl Washington, who was great two years ago, and they’ve got a defensive coordinator who’s never called plays before. And, of course, there’s the Palmer health question. He’s 35. I think I’ll pick Arizona as a playoff team, with an asterisk. Palmer has to be under center 80 percent of the time.