Cardinals Tempering High Expectations
The Arizona Cardinals shook the NFL world this offseason after completing the trade for DeAndre Hopkins, who is arguably the best wide receiver in the league. Although that may have been the franchise's biggest splash, it was not their last.
The new additions general manager Steve Keim and Co. were able to bring into the fold have been widely positively regarded. The team filled multiple holes, seemingly achieved Keim's goal of front loading defensive coordinator Vance Joseph with new weapons and received value for every one of their draft selections as they were all projected to go higher than where they fell to the Cardinals.
Still, even despite all of the overwhelming hype, the players know that football games are hardly ever won on a spreadsheet.
"I'm very big on not buying into or fueling the hype," linebacker Devon Kennard told SI.com's AllCardinals. "We've got to go earn it. There's been a lot of teams that look outstanding on paper or teams that are hyped up. But at the end of the day, it's man on man, got to win our matchups, we've got to win games. And that's what it's going to come down to and that's what really matters. It doesn't matter who's making splashes in the offseason and who's signing who. How we gel together, the camaraderie we build, the competitive nature and the culture that we have as a team, those are the things that's going to be able to set us apart. As soon as camp hits we've got to hit the ground running establishing that."
That sentiment has been widely echoed from other players who have spoken to reporters in recent weeks. The general consensus in the locker room is resoundingly similar: Cautiously optimistic.
It is nice to have the rave reviews in the news, but it also creates a standard that, if not properly achieved, will be met with vitriol.
"I feel like the game is never won on paper, it's always won on the field," running back Kenyan Drake said on Tuesday. "So, the things that we're doing right now — obviously in these unprecedented times — individually to get ready for the season, I know everybody is trying to put their best foot forward to once we all get back together, we can all come together and hopefully live up to these expectations.
"We appreciate the expectations, but at the end of the day it's all about going out there and playing the game itself."
While adding bonafide talent is one recipe for success, the inability to train in person through a normal offseason program as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic adds a new element of difficulty. Team chemistry is one of the most important factors in overall success. If new players are forced to settle on an entirely virtual setting to try and build bonds with their new teammates, players said they are nervous it may not translate as effectively as it otherwise would have.
"As a whole, it's all about chemistry," linebacker De'Vondre Campbell said. "The most vivid thing that I remember from our Super Bowl run my rookie year (with the Atlanta Falcons), is how much fun we had as a team. In all reality, I've been on teams where nobody's really cool with each other. We all have a job to do and that's it, it's just a job. But that year, it was special because you had guys from different backgrounds, different upbringings, everybody clicking together. That's really what it takes, is just having an overall team chemistry and understanding.
"In all football games, there comes a point where things get really hard and they get really tough. And you look at the man next to you and if you have that great relationship with him, you're more willing to leave it all out on the field. I've been on both sides of that where guys don't have a great relationship, it gets hard in the game and some people might give up. So, it's all about developing relationships."
At the same time, it is hard to underscore the drastic changes to the Cardinals' roster that have taken place this offseason. Second-year quarterback Kyler Murray has an elite target in Hopkins to go along with Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. The offensive line maintained its overall consistency. The defensive line has been bolstered by a potentially instant impact player in Jordan Phillips. The linebacker corps has swelled via the additions of Kennard, Campbell and No. 8 overall draft pick Isaiah Simmons.
There is reason to be optimistic.
"Having a quarterback like Kyler and then you add a weapon like (Hopkins), other weapons to shore up the O-line, guys on defense that we picked up in free agency, Isaiah Simmons that we picked up in the draft, the list goes on and on," Drake said. "I'm really excited just from the fact that it's another year to strap it up and go out and prove your worth."
Added team captain defensive tackle Corey Peters: "I'm very happy with the changes they've made. They've brought in some talent. Jordan Phillips, a proven player in the league, somebody that's going to be able to contribute right away. And then the two draft picks, I think that was a great addition ... Right now everything looks good on paper, but we really have to click and figure out how we're going to play together and work off of each other. And that's the best way to have success. And only practicing and getting that time together is going to really be the tell for that."
At the end of the day, every franchise has the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl berth and a subsequent victory. As someone who has experienced it (at least the first part) — albeit in his premiere season in the league — Campbell has drawn the same relative conclusions about the potential of the organization as it currently stands.
"There's very little weaknesses on our defense, if any at all," he said. "We have everything we need. The one thing I've learned about playing on a Super Bowl caliber team is that it doesn't matter how talented you are, you just have to have everybody clicking together. And if everybody's on the same page, and everybody has the right mindset, there's not much that we can't accomplish."