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Practice Matters

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

To: DeAndre Hopkins

From: A Cardinals’ Fan of 57 years

I watched your press conference yesterday and heard you say:

“You know, for those people who don’t understand football and don’t watch — there’s a reason I play football and they watch.”

Yeah, Hop, I never stood a chance make it as a pro football player. I tried to emulate my boyhood idol, the Cardinals revolutionary free safety, Larry Wilson, and I am proud to say that I started some games at free safety my senior in high school. But, I never had what it took to be a great player. You have me there, DeAndre. No question.

I am happy that you are a star in the NFL and I marvel at your talent.

But, watchers like myself and millions of other football fans are the reason why you are getting paid close to $20M a year—-because —- we care. We buy into the brand—-and the dream of one day seeing our favorite team win a Super Bowl.

I have spent a good portion of my life playing, coaching and studying the game of football.

Football has been my fascination.

You concluded your remarks yesterday by saying: “Tell those people who said I don’t practice to come watch me play the game.”

Just to be clear, I tune in on game days to watch the Arizona Cardinals.

Not to watch one player, even as gifted as yourself.

I take pride and joy in the team’s success.

As a former football and basketball coach, on numerous occasions I tried to hone my craft by attending coaching clinics.

One year, I went to a Nike clinic and watched Tom Coughlin talk about the paramount importance of practice planning. At the time, he was the head coach of my alma mater, Boston College.

I was so enthralled by what Coughlin had to say about practice planning that I went over to BC and watched one of his practices.

I sat there, DeAndre, in awe.

It was like a dress rehearsal on Broadway. Every second and step was accounted for. All of the instructions and coordinations were precise —- and the BC players were focused in on the proceedings like laser beams.

At the time, Tom Coughlin had come to BC after helping the New York Giants win Super Bowl XXV as Bill Parcells’ WR coach. So —- Coughlin already had a Super Bowl ring on his finger.

As we know, Tom Coughlin went on to win two Super Bowl rings as the head coach of the Giants (XLII, XLVI).

Having heard Tom Coughlin’s philosophy about practice planning and having watched it in action —- I was not surprised at all to see him win two more rings as an NFL head coach.

Practice matters.

How teams practice matters.

My favorite basketball clinician was Hubie Brown.

At a Nike clinic for high school coaches, Hubie Brown informed us that “the best teams in the NBA are the team that practice the hardest.”

It’s been well documented that 4 time NBA scoring leader Allen Iverson was not a big fan of practice. Iverson was on some talented teams through his career, but he never won a ring.

The Arizona Cardinals have never won a Super Bowl ring.

But, it was an impromptu practice during Christmas week following a dismal loss 47-7 in the snow at New England in 2008,, where QB Kurt Warner and WR Larry Fitzgerald helped to turn the Cardinals’ momentum around.

That follwoing Sunday the Cardinals beat the Seahawks 34-21. And then, in the playoffs, the Cardinals did this:

Arizona 34 Atlanta 21

Arizona 33 Carolina 13

Arizona 32 Philadelphia 25 (1st and only Halas Trophy for the Cardinals)

Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 27 Arizona 23

As you probably know, Larry Fitzgerald is arguably the most productive WR in the history of the NFL playoffs. His 64 yard TD on a slant pass from Kurt Warner had the Cardinals within 2:37 seconds of winning their 1st Super Bowl.

Larry Fitzgerald is a legendary practice player.

The magic of that 2008 Cardinals’ team was the team’s outstanding coordination of the passing game, led by Kurt Warner and his penchant for exploiting mismatches in pass coverage—-all of which he carefully arranged and rehearsed in practices.

Yes, Fitz was the bell cow WR, but he was one of three 1,000 yard receivers on that team with Anquan Boldin and Stevie Breaston.

What I (and perhaps other Cardinals fans) are frustrated with this season is the lack of production from WRs 2,3 and 4. The passing offense has not been as well coordinated as it needs to be. On numerous occasions there have been spacing problems, where two receivers have wound up in too close of a proximity, like on the pass that FS Landon Collins intercepted where the mesh that you were running got too crowded.

Plus, one of the common denominators in the Cardinals’ 6 losses this season has been your lack of production, save for the Lions game:

Opponent——-receptions—-targets====yards——average yards per catch——TDs:

DET (23-26 L): 10 catches —-12 targets—-131 yards—-21.8 ave.—-1 TD

CAR (21-31 L): 7 catches —-9 targets—-41 yards—-5.9 ave.—-0 TD

MIA (31-34 L): 3 catches —-3 targets—-30 yards—-10.0 ave.—-0 TD—-*4 PIs

SEA (21-28 L): 5 catches —-8 targets—-51 yards—-10.2 ave.—-0 TD

NE (17-20 L): 5 catches —-7 targets—-55 yards—-11.0 ave.—-0 TD—-*2 PIs

LAR (28-38 L):8 catches —-13 targets—-52 yards—-6.5 ave.—-1 TD

Totals (6 games): 31 catches (5.1)—-40 targets (6.6)—-320 yards—-10.3 ave.—-2 TDs (0.3 pg)

Take the Lions game out: 21 catches (4.1)—-28 targets (5.6)—-189 yards —-9.0 ave.—-1 TD

On the flip side, you have been a major factor in the Cardinals’ 8 wins:

72 catches for 1,004 yards (13.3 ave.) and 4 TDs. including the phenomenal Hail Murray Holy Hop game winner.

It wasn’t until the last two games (Weeks 14, 15) where you have taken on a more consistently diversified role in the offense and the results have been outstanding:

18 catches on 22 targets for 305 yards (16.9 ave.) and 1 TD (the game winner versus PHI) plus 14 first downs.

Obviously, key changes were made during the practices the past two weeks. Kyler alluded to this after the win versus the Eagles.

Therefore, you might understand the frustration from those of us who are watching of wondering whether the outcomes of some of the earlier losses could have been different had your role been more diversified weeks earlier.

Even though I only coached at the high school level, I cannot even begin to tell you, as a coach, how daunting it is to practice during the week without a full cast —- and particularly without any of my most productive performers.

It’s like having an actor in a lead role sit in the audience during a dress rehearsal. Sure, the actor is getting his rest, but it’s a real scramble for the director and the cast to proceed without him.

To be honest, when I read every week that you have not been seen on the field at the beginning of practice during the portion that is open to the media, it causes me a sense of anxiety—-and doubt. We Cardinals’ fans are no strangers to anxiety and doubt.

According to ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss you have missed 18 of 41 practices (44%) during the season, 13 of which were on Wednesdays that were, billed as a “veteran’s days off.” The one Wednesday practice you attended was the Wednesday walk-through prior to the TNF game in Seattle.

This prompted me to ask you this on twitter yesterday:

I think this is a reasonable question.

Keim most recently said last Friday on Doug and Wolf:

“Every player’s different, the way their body responds throughout the season, They know how to practice and how not to practice. We lean on our medical staff and (head athletic trainer) Tom Reed and those guys do a great job. That’s where we’re at is trying to make sure that he’s ready to go on Sundays. Again, everybody’s different in their preparation.”

Did Steve Keim really just pass the buck over to Tom Reed, the team’s head trainer?

Keim may have a similar understanding with Terrell Suggs last season.

The problem is—-not only the issue of double standards by making exceptions for some players—-but, as importantly (if not more)—-it’s the issue of maximizing the team’s ability to prepare for each game and the unique challenges that come with each game.

The NFL practice rules have been amended so stringently that practices are a cake walk in comparison off what they used to be. Basically each team practices 3 days a week and has a 4th day walk-through during game weeks. On the field, that amounts to each coach and player putting in roughly 7-8 hours of work. Is putting in 7-8 hours a week on the field in preparation for a game too much to ask from the players—-or from you?

Let’s not forget that your team is trying to game prep each week with a head coach and QB in their second years in the NFL, while not having the benefit of a normal off-season and the preparations that could have been be accomplished while on the field for minicamps and OTAs.

DeAndre, obviously you are new to the team and the system.

What’s of concern to me is the notion that hey as long as you show up and do your thing on Sundays, who should care whether you practice or not?

AZ Central’s veteran sports writer Kent Somers tweeted:

This tweet from Somers is cunning hyperbole—-but, it’s curious coming from him because from the get-go he has stated that the Cardinals’ hiring of Kliff Kingsbury “was a bold move, but a bad mistake.”

Sure, having a all-star WR like you, DeAndre, in the offense is a boon for Kingsbury—-but without you at practice 44% of the time, this has not made Kingsbury’s effort to maximize the productivity of the the entire offense any easier.

What seems to be lost in the shuffle here is the fact that having a veteran WR like you on the field in practice helps everyone in the offense improve. It also contributes to galvanizing the team’s chemistry.

I had a valedictorian in my AP English Composition class one year who missed one third of the classes because she was attending all kinds of field trips and science fairs. She was so fastidious about doing the homework that she earned the highest grade in the class.

Like you, DeAndre, today she is s superstar in her field.

But, when she was not there, the class suffered. Her voice and her intuitive understanding of the literature made classes all the more insightful and dynamic.

And yet, when she was not there, she suffered too, in the sense that she missed out on some of the key “reps” we performed in class—-and she missed out on the learning that she could have received, not just from the teacher, but from solving the questions with her talented classmates.

On the one hand, it surprised me that a student as brilliant as she (heading to Stanford on a full academic scholarship) scored a 4 and not a 5 on the AP English Composition exam. But, knowing the value of day to day preparation and the teamwork it often requires in order to maximize learning, it was somewhat understandable.

Every game in the NFL is a new and challenging exam.

So, yeah, practice matters.

Because preps and reps matter.

Because teamwork matters.

Because—-for everyone associated with the Arizona Cardinals (including those of us who watch and hope)—-the dream of the Cardinals winning their 1st ever Super Bowl matters.