GLENDALE, Ariz. — The 37-year-old quarterback is on a pitch count at practice for the first time in his life. Tuesday was a regular coach-mandated body-preservation day off for the star 34-year-old wide receiver, who hasn’t said if he’ll play beyond this year. The 64-year-old head coach is coming off surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his kidney—his second cancer scare—and is his usual growly self.
Life moves on for three recent giants of the game—Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Bruce Arians. It’s futile to say in July what the future holds, but each man knows, as does the organization, that this may be the last season this trio in concert tries to bring Arizona its first Super Bowl title.
“The end is never really pretty for elite athletes,” Fitzgerald, the fourth all-time-leading wide receiver in NFL history, said at the start of training camp. “It never looks good. … Willie Mays running around with bad knees after 20 years, it’s not pretty.”
Right he is … except now the rules are being rewritten for the life expectancy of football players. And truly, we can’t know if this is the end for Palmer or Fitzgerald, because we’ve seen them play at high levels recently—Palmer was the best deep-ball thrower in football in 2015, and Fitzgerald caught 103 balls at 33 last year. And because they both do Tom Brady-type things to stay atop their games.
Palmer, an oenophile, told me Tuesday he’s stopped drinking wine “because I can tell that it makes my muscles dry.” He worked daily for the five off weeks before the start of camp to be sure he was in peak condition when the Cardinals hit camp over the weekend.
Fitzgerald played the Old Course at St. Andrews two weeks ago, a bucket-list event for this golf addict. But football wasn’t far from his mind. Not only did he bring a football for his workouts away from the fairways of Scotland and England, but his off-season trainer and mental coach, a former Navy SEAL finalist, worked Fitzgerald out in Europe on the trip.
There is a saying in sports that good teams have windows to capitalize on their chances. The popular theory about the Cardinals is their window is closing, starting with the disastrous NFC title loss at Carolina at the end of 2015 and continuing with a 7-8-1 disappointment last year, when Palmer fell to earth and was the league’s 20th-rated passer.
“That window,” GM Steve Keim said Tuesday. “We’ve got two great players with some age, but the rest of our team is not old—at all. I don’t put a lot of stock in it. Look, we know we’ve got to get a long-term quarterback at some point, and we will. But we’ve got good youth all over our roster.”
As important as the two recent franchise cornerstones are, the most important player on this team is a 25-year-old running back who is the envy of 43 million fantasy football players. The Cardinals are going to rise and fall on David Johnson's performance, and also the improvement of a young defense, which gets back Tyrann Mathieu after an injury-plagued season. He’ll join shutdown corner Patrick Peterson in one of the league’s best secondaries.
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The team held a walkthrough Tuesday morning at University of Phoenix Stadium. (Strange place to have training camp, but it was 71 degrees inside Tuesday, 103 outside. And the players practiced for two-and-a-half-hours on spongy grass wheeled in from the parking lot before practice.) Palmer was feeling philosophical when we chatted after practice.
“I just look at it this way: There is no way for two years in a row that our luck can be as bad as last year,” Palmer said. “We lost some bizarre games. We’re a year older, yeah. But I look at it like we’re years younger at some spots too. Robert Nkemdiche will step in and play well this year on our defensive line. We’ve got some rookies who are going to play early and play well. I hear the window thing, but in this league, I think you’re either rebuilding, or you’re overly optimistic. New England? They’re going 16-0. San Francisco? They’re rebuilding. And it’s never really exactly as it seems.”
Coming here Tuesday, I’d heard there was a good chance this would be Arians’ last season. He disabused me of that, pretty strongly, in his office at the stadium here.
“That is not what I’m thinking,” he said. “This is what I love to do. I’ve had a few things happen to me, and recently my friend Don Strock said to me, ‘How many signs do you need?’ But really, I’m afraid of getting old. Football, for me, is the best medicine in the world. This is what I love.”
One thing to be admired about what Arians has built: He found out at the beginning of December that he had a nickel-sized growth on his kidney, and doctors in Phoenix told him it would have to come out. Because it was slow-growing, he was told he could wait till the end of the season. So he told his players in early December. And it never leaked. In today’s world, with loose lips and social media and families knowing, I find it amazing this story stayed buried till Arians released his book this summer. (It’s called “The Quarterback Whisperer: How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback,” written with Lars Anderson.)
I asked some players about it, and they said it came back to what Arians has built—with a little threat to boot. “One rule we have that we’re pretty good about keeping: What happens in this [locker] room stays in here,” said Patrick Peterson. “Look at these T-shirts we wear: ‘Trust, Loyalty, Respect.’ Plus, Bruce tells us not to put stuff out on social media. We know he’d get rid of a guy [for disloyalty].”
What does that mean for the 2017 season? I doubt very much. When good teams start to go around the bend toward bad in the NFL, and when at the same time they get older at crucial spots, it’s not often they can pivot back to contention. That’s where we find the Cardinals, 18 months removed from the NFC title game and seven months removed from a debacle of a seven-win season. The good news is they’ll have a more consistent kicker this year—Phil Dawson, instead of the shaky Chandler Catanzaro—and they’ll have the running back likely to be the game’s most productive one. And David Johnson has proven he’s a pretty good security blanket.
“I know we’ve got to watch his [touches],” Arians said, “but I want to win the damn ballgames too.”
“That’s good news,” Johnson told me after practice. “I want the ball as much as they’ll give it to me. I’ve got good genetics. I can take it.”
We’ll certainly get a chance to see come September. Lots of fortunes in the Valley of the Sun will depend on Johnson’s legs this fall.
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