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Cardinals’ #1 Improvement Area: Practice Urgency

Philadelphia Eagles v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Kyler Murray has said repeatedly this off-season that the focus of the team is getting better at mastering the details with regard to fundamentals and game preparations.

In other words —- if the Cardinals are going to compete for an NFC West title —- they will need to practice more efficiently and effectively than they did last year.

It is no secret that the best teams in sports are the teams that practice the hardest and most efficiently.

And, by now in Arizona, it is no secret that if Kliff Kingsbury doesn’t get marked improvement in the ways in which the Cardinals practice, in 2022, he could be putting his mountainside villa up for sale and looking for offensive coordinator jobs.

When the 2021 schedule came out and Kingsbury noticed that the Cardinals’ bye week this year occurs on the week of Thanksgiving, Kingsbury hailed this as a victory for the Cardinals.

While this bye week confession from Kingsbury was perfectly candid, one might prefer that Kingsbury would say something more on the lines of, “we have struggled handling the bye week, but this year we have a stronger plan as to how to correct it —- and a stronger plan as to how to handle the distractions during holiday weeks”

It appears that the Cardinals entire off-season plan has been hinging on what I have been calling The Tillman Test —- which boils down to one simple question: would Pat Tillman want you as a teammate and fellow baller?

Just to hear J.J. Watt expound very passionately about how NFL players should view their jobs as a privilege and how critical it is for them to be fully committed to embracing every aspect of their jobs, especially when it comes to practice attendance and effort, feels especially reassuring and potentially auspicious for Watt’s new team.

“if you can’t come in and out work in the building and go out to the practice field and work hard, do your lifts and do what you are supposed to do, you should;d not be here. This is a job —- we are getting paid a whole lot of money —- there ar a lot of people that watch us, invest their time and their money into buying our jerseys —- and they care about it —- they care every single week —- we’re in week 16 and we’re 4-11 and there’s fans who watch this game and show up to the stadium that put in time and every and effort and CARE about this —- so if you can’t go out there and you can’t work out and you can’t show up on time, you can’t practice, you can’t want to go out there and win —- you shouldn’t be here —- because this is a privilege, this is the greatest job in the world, we get to play a game and if you can’t care enough even in Week 17, even when you’re trash when you’re 4-11, if you can’t care enough to go out there and give everything you’ve got and try your hardest, that’s bullsh^%.”

Part of great leadership always included holding not only yourself to the highest of standards, but holding your teammates to the highest of standards as well. That’s what accountability is all about.

If your team is the most penalized team in the NFL, then your team has an obvious practice problem.

How team practice relates directly to how disciplined teams play and to how well they execute.

One of the first things that J.J. Watt did when he arrived at the Cardinals’ facility was to visit Pat Tillman’s locker —- he did so as an avid fan of Pat and everything Pat stood for, and as a dedicated contributor to the Pat Tillman Foundation.

Do you think Pat Tillman would have wanted J.J. Watt as a teammate?

Do you think for one second that Pat Tillman, who was legendary for riding his bicycle to practice would ever say, “You know what guys, you go ahead and practice today, I am going to sit this one out, but you know you can count on me to play my best on game day”?

Amidst the week’s nation-wide speculation that a Julio Jones trade is not a matter of if, but of when, a number of national pundits when talking about the pros and cons of trading for Julio Jones made a reference to the issue that “he rarely practices.”

Ugh.

Not again.

Jones told Shannon Sharpe that he wants to go to a legitimate playoff contender because “I want to win.”

One of the great ironies has been the rumor that Julio Jones wants to play with Cam Newton on the Patriots. ironic because, Bill Belichick’s long-standing coaching mantra is “No Days Off.”

Belichick has been able to convince his players, including free agent signees, that how teams practice in the NFL determines the winners versus the losers.

Not only is it important for the the team’s starters to practice every day for the sake of team chemistry and precision on their side of the ball —- something that is often overlooked is how well teams starters and best players help prepare their teammates on the other side of the ball.

For example, when Bruce Arians arrived in Arizona in 2013 the Cardinals at that time did not have many prolific edge rushers and that remained the case until the Cardinals signed Dwight Freeney for their playoff run in 2015 and then traded for Chandler Jones in 2016.

Because the Cardinals offensive tackles were not practicing against top level edge rushers, in BA’s early games as the Cardinals head coach, his offensive tackles were getting beat and appeared to need a quarter and a half to adjust to the speed and power of opponents’ edge rushers.

One of the main reasons why QB Kyler Murray is so dynamic is that the Cardinals’ opponents do not have a player like him to run their scout team.

The players defenders face off against in practice every day help the defenders improve and gain confidence.

While Dan Arnold is not the kind of playmaker that George Kittle is, Dan Arnold was an asset in practice because at least he offered comparable size, speed and athleticism to Kittle’s.

That’s a big deal —- and it’s part of the reason why the Cardinals improved their TE coverage last year.

Had DeAndre Hopkins practiced more regularly, he might have been able to help the Cardinals’ CBs play with more confidence and be less penalty prone. If anyone knows what good pass coverage looks lik and what the techniques require, it’s DeAndre Hopkins.

Therefore, it would be a significant breakthrough this season if DeAndre Hopkins stops taking off Wednesday practices.

Wednesday practices set the tone for the entire week of game preparation. When starters and star players are missing from those practices, it compromises the preparation and creates awkward and counter-productive double standards.

If Steve Keim had assured DeAndre Hopkins that he could feel free to take Wednesday practices off, think of how that decision handicaps Kliff Kingsbury and the entire coaching staff.

If the Cardinals’ practice woes continue and they continue to hold double standards for star players, then Keim should be fired before Kingsbury for allowing and enabling the double standards in the first place.

If Keim remains committed to Hopkins’ Wednesday off demand, then the only way to level the proverbial practice field would be to declare Wednesdays as a “Hopkins Day” and let everyone do what Hopkins does on Wednesdays.

To avoid the dysfunctional ramifications of double standards, It’s either one way or the other —- either Hopkins agrees to be all-in on practice this year, or the Cardinals decide to make Wednesdays a Hopkins Day.

Of course, this choice is not a “Morton’s Fork” (like Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” —- ‘“and both [roads] that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black”) —- it is, of course, a “Hobson’s Choice” (an illusion of choices, where only one option is inherently valid).

For Cardinals’ fans who continue to insist that Hopkins taking Wednesday practices off is no big deal —- the reason why it is a big deal is that all NFL players have to cope with the weekly bumps, persistent aches and bruises. Thus for an organization to condone a star’s player’s wish to sit out of practice while expecting everyone else to practice through the weekly soreness for the sake of attaining maximum levels of preparation, is clear favoritism.

Of course, the curious irony with regard to practice habits, is that DeAndre Hopkins was a factor in recruiting J.J. Watt to sign with the Cardinals with his passionate “let’s finish what we started” plea on social media. Yet, would Cardinals’ fans ever hear DeAndre Hopkins speak so passionately about the importance of practice the way J.J. Watt did? No, because it would be sheer hypocrisy on Hopkins’ part.

Now, the word came in yesterday that the Cardinals’ players and team management have decided to cut their previously scheduled 10 days of on the field OTA practices down to 3.

To which our very own Nacoming wrote on the “Hop on Julio” thread yesterday:

I want to comment on the ridiculous decision by Cardinals players and management to cut OTA’s from ten to three. SHAME ON YOU!! With this many new players this team needs all the time it can get working in this system. I wish I had the option of working only 30% of the days I’m expected to work. Nice GIG if you can get it but certainly not the way to build a championship team.

Imagine if this young Suns team told Monty Williams they really only want to practice 30% of the time.

  • I agree 100% with Nacoming. This is not good. This points toward a continued de-valuing of practice on the Cardinals’ part, both from the players and team management.
  • Decisions like this one perpetuate the perception of the Cardinals’ dysfunctional “country club” “take the easy way out” culture.
  • Some will argue that some other teams aren’t having any OTA practices. Well, then, imagine what a leg-up the Cardinals would have if they felt the sense of urgency and advantage to follow through with all 10 practices.
  • Some will point toward the Bucs as being one of those teams —- but their veteran QB has been hosting a number of “Brady Bunch” practices all on his and his teammates’ own.
  • It was obvious last training camp that a number of Cardinals’ veterans came to training camp out of shape. OTAs are a great way to ensure how well and properly the players are training.

No doubt, if practice habits don’t improve the team’s discipline and execution, Kingsbury will be the scapegoat, even if he doesn’t deserve to be.

The question is, how culpable should Steve Keim and the Cardinals’ players be?