Only one game separates the Cardinals (6-7) from their opponent this week, Washington (5-8), but judging by comments from their respective locker rooms after Sunday’s games, the teams are miles apart in how they are approaching the final weeks of the season.
After their 12-7 victory over the Titans, the Cardinals sounded like a happy, 53-man family, pointing out their cohesiveness, professionalism and work ethic.
“We have a lot of resolve on this ball club,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “Guys care. It matters to them. We have a lot of pride in what we do and how we do it.”
After Washington’s 30-13 loss to the Chargers, at least one player questioned how seriously his teammates were taking their work.
D.J. Swearinger, a former Cardinals safety, said getting blown out in Los Angeles didn’t surprise him, because Washington has been practicing poorly for weeks.
“It’s just blah, blah. OK, we’re out here to practice, blah,” Swearinger said. “We’ve got to practice better. I’ve been saying that all year.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all. If you don’t prepare well, you’re gonna fail. I don’t think we prepared well, with some of the questions that’s being asked right before the game. ‘What’s this right here? What’s this right here?’
“Y’know, we’re not prepared. It’s all of us: players and coaches. So, we’ve got to be more prepared.”
Part of the contrast is due to winning and losing, certainly. The Cardinals know what it’s like to be blown out on the road as Washington was, and after a loss in Philadelphia, coach Bruce Arians said many of his players needed to study more between the end of practice on Friday and the start of the game.
But far more often, Arians has praised his team’s work ethic, and, if anything, he’s been frustrated by a tendency to practice well and play poorly.
The Cardinals use all the traditional ways to determine whether players are continuing to try their best through a disappointing season. Do they practice and play hard? Are they on time for meetings? Do they stay awake and take notes?
The Cardinals use at least one non-traditional method, too. They monitor how much players use electronic tablets, which contain game plans and video.
Arians and his coaches receive reports that detail the use of the tablets (and, no, it doesn’t work just to turn it on and leave it). They can tell who has been studying after leaving the team facility for the day, and who hasn’t.
“Guys are studying the heck out of film, and that’s on their own time,” Arians said. “Those are all really positive signs. Like I said, the character and the leadership of the room is outstanding.”
If it sounds like Big Brother is watching the players, he is. That’s nothing new for players, who are accustomed to be measured and monitored in most everything they do.
That doesn’t mean they all like it, however.
“There’s always some kind of measurement in this league,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “I can’t control that part.”
Judging by tablet use, Bynes spends more time studying video and the game plan than almost any Cardinals player. Every day when he gets home, he spends time with his wife and kids, then blocks out time to study.
The diligence has paid off on game days. Bynes, who signed with the Cardinals in August, has played well in a role as a backup and spot starter.
A seven-year veteran, Bynes learned long ago that while football is a team game, each player also is an independent contractor of sorts. He is one of 19 Cardinals due to be unrestricted free agents in 2018, and the quickest way to the unemployment line is lack of preparation or coasting in the final weeks of the season.
“At the end of the day it’s your job, despite what the record says and despite if your chances of going to the playoffs have diminished or not,” defensive tackle Frostee Rucker said. “You have an obligation to go out there and work hard. It’s your walking resume.
“You play hard for your family. You are your business and you still have to fight. You can’t lay down.”