Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians talks after practice on June 1, 2017. Patrick Breen/azcentral sports
It’s not that the Cardinals were a dumb football team in 2016 when they finished 7-8-1. It’s that they were less smart than the previous two seasons when they won 24 games and made the playoffs.
That’s coach Bruce Arians’ opinion anyway, and increasing the I.Q. of this year’s team has been a point of emphasis throughout the offseason.
“We had plays that we had made in years past that we didn’t make,” Arians said, “whether it be kicks, finishing a game defensively or offensively. Had a couple mental errors in critical situations that we hadn’t made in the past.”
So how do coaches go about improving a team’s collective intelligence?
It involves more than yelling at players when mistakes are made, although that’s happened an appropriate amount at Cardinals practices this spring.
Arians, for instance, was not pleased when last Thursday’s practice ended with some young players botching a two-minute drill.
“The young guys panicked,” Arians said. “When the clock is running, we have a certain play we go to, and, s–t, they lined up all over the place. Those are the types of things that get you beat.”
That’s an obvious, blatant mistake. But Arians and his staff are emphasizing eliminating errors that seem more subtle, yet can also determine the outcome of games.
The ‘Accountability Sheet’ makes an early return
Near the end of the first practice or organized team activities a few weeks ago, tight end Troy Niklas caught a short pass in a third-and-5 situation. Players don’t wear pads in the spring, so defenders such as safety Tyrann Mathieu are asked to pull away from ball carriers and make tackles in their minds.
Would they have hit the ball carrier high? Low? Did they take the proper angles? Did other defenders sprint to help?
In this situation, Mathieu closed on Niklas. The whistle blew and Arians had questions for the safety.
Did he tackle Niklas below the waist, taking his legs out but allowing him to fall forward? Or did Mathieu wrap up Niklas?
“I cut him,” Mathieu replied.
“Then he made the first down,” Arians said. “You’ve got to wrap up.”
Under Arians, errors made in training camp and during the regular season are recorded and logged on what Arians calls the “accountability sheet.” Players’ mistakes are there for all to see, and coaches expect a player’s name to appear fewer times with each practice.
In the previous four years, however, the accountability sheet didn’t make its debut until training camp, because spring practices often involve the installation of new concepts.
This year, however, the accountability sheet debuted with beginning of OTAs in May.
“More accountability,” Arians said.
Vets abound for a reason
Arians doesn’t want the message to come just from him and his coaches. He and General Manager Steve Keim have tried to construct the roster in such a way that at least one older veteran is in each meeting room.
Defensive linemen can turn to Frostee Rucker, who is 33 and in his 12th season. Linebackers can consult Karlos Dansby, 35, and in his 14th season. Defensive backs have safety Antoine Bethea, 32, and in his 12th year. Receivers have Larry Fitzgerald, 33, and in his 14th season.
No team wants a roster full of old players, but sprinkling them throughout position groups can help their younger counterparts.
“It took me two, three years to feel 100 percent comfortable in this offense,” said center A.Q. Shipley, “and once you do, it kind of clicks. Some of these guys are going into Years 2 and 3 of this system. Your football brain becomes a lot smarter.”
Like all students, players young and old can start tuning out coaches and teachers. It’s invaluable to coaches to have an older player repeating their messages.
“It’s being able to be coachable once you get off the field,” Rucker said. “When Coach has a pointer, it’s not just shrugging your shoulders, thinking about the next opponent and covering something under the rug. It’s attacking the little things.
“Being the oldest man in my room, you always take that responsibility to make sure your guys are right. My job is to continue to push them and to answer questions they may not want to ask the coach.”
No one can guarantee all of this will make a difference when the Cardinals open the season on Sept. 10 in Detroit, but Arians believes there’s less pressure on a player who knows what he’s doing. That’s true for young and old players.
“I’ve seen some really bright young players who don’t make those mistakes and are calm under pressure,” Arians said.
Pressure increases “when you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “If you know what you’re doing you never feel it. So, yeah, we had some of that last year.”
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