In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals invited an NFL Films crew into their organization for unprecedented access that allows fans a glimpse into the everyday realities of life in the NFL.
The eight part series, entitled "All or Nothing," takes viewers from the 2015 Draft up through the end of the Cardinals' quest for the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Over the next week, we'll be publishing our takeaways from each episode of the series and discuss how these takeaways can help inform us about the Cardinals' organizational philosophy.
Episode One: "The Cardinal Rules"
"Every NFL season ends, only one ends happily."
From the start of the first episode, it's quite evident everyone within the Cardinals' organization views the opportunity presented in the 2015 season. While almost every franchise conveys their goals of winning a title, for some teams, it's just not realistic. If the Tennessee Titans or San Francisco 49ers were hosting an NFL Films crew last season and title talk became a theme from the outset, it would have seemed disingenuous. The reality is only a handful of teams enter the season with a definitive chance of earning rings, and in 2015, the Arizona Cardinals were one of them.
Veterans like Calais Campbell and Carson Palmer help convey this message to the audience, but no central character does so better than head coach Bruce Arians. Cardinals fans who follow the team closely are familiar with Arians' path to his current job, and his colorful language comes across as wildly sincere.
Part of the sincerity is drawn from how close the Cardinals came to reaching their goal in the 2014 season, only to be sidetracked by an ACL injury to Palmer. Palmer was candid about how much the injury impacted him, saying, "The physical pain was intense, but nowhere near the mental pain. Just knowing that was it for that year."
General manager Steve Keim also took responsibility for the Cardinals' 2014 first round playoff exit, suggesting he didn't give Arians enough depth to work with on the roster.
"I felt like that was on me," Keim said. "I didn't give our coaches enough depth to succeed in the end."
These types of quotes from Palmer and Keim provide important perspective for fans, because often times, teams only have a short window in which they can win a title. Take the Oklahoma City Thunder as an example. Their four-to-five year window is seemingly closed after the loss of Kevin Durant.
With the Cardinals' roster makeup, 2014 presented a good opportunity to win a championship, 2015 presented a great opportunity and 2016 might represent the final opportunity within the current window. If you look at factors like the age of key players (Palmer is 36, Larry Fitzgerald is 32), key contracts (Tyrann Mathieu's rookie deal is set to expire, Chandler Jones and Calais Campbell's contracts are up) and overall depth, it's easy to see why the feeling of desperation shines through and why that desperation should be a theme again this season.
The Cardinals veterans, as well as Arians and Keim, recognize that the 2015 season could be their best chance at reaching the sport's pinnacle, and it's why Arians insists on telling the players lines like, "You aren't **** yet," during the early weeks of the season.
"I just don't want him (David Johnson) in September to be good yet."
The story of how the Cardinals ended up with running back David Johnson is a perfect example of why "All or Nothing" is so appealing to football fans. Viewers have likely never been taken into a draft room and given the type of access we have when we see the Cardinals preparing for their second round selection.
Keim and Arians really wanted Ameer Abdullah, the Nebraska product, and from the raw emotion the Cardinals' staff exhibited, it appeared as though they felt confident Abdullah would be their second round selection. In the end, the Detroit Lions snagged Abdullah, and the Cardinals regrouped and selected Johnson in the third round.
By now, we know how the Johnson selection worked out for Arizona during the Northern Iowa product's first NFL season. But "All or Nothing" gave viewers a fascinating glimpse into the way Arians deals with rookies.
From watching the way Arians manages rookies, it's not hard to tell he prefers to wait until the middle or end of the season to begin working them into the rotation. But after Andre Ellington's week one knee injury, Arians had no choice but to give Johnson playing time.
By week two, Arians was quoted as saying, "I think he (Johnson) can be a bell cow by Thanksgiving. But I don't want to throw too much at him too soon."
Arians made reference to the concept Johnson could still perform very well early on in the season, but he wasn't sure how Johnson would handle the success. There are plenty of football coaches out there who would have played Johnson earlier and more often than Arians did, but Arians prioritized humility and making sure the rookie back was completely prepared.
The handling of Johnson provides us with an important takeaway heading into the 2016 season. In the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Cardinals selected the embattled Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who was widely regarded as a top ten overall talent in this year's draft.
If the Cardinals feel confident in Nkemdiche's character by the end of training camp, and Nkemdiche exhibits the talent most experts believes he possesses, it would make sense to work him into the defensive line rotation right away. But based on the way Arians handled a player like Johnson, it would make sense if the team held off on playing Nkemdiche for long bouts and instead saved many of his reps for later on in the season.
Not only will it give the Cardinals a longer window to evaluate Nkemdiche's character and how he handles the growth and maturation process as a rookie, but it could also give the team a fresh motor heading down the stretch.
The Cardinals basically gave last year's first round draft pick, D.J. Humphries, a redshirt year in 2015, and the sequence from "All or Nothing" on Johnson is an excellent glimpse into the care and caution the organization now takes with rookies.
"I wasn't ecstatic about it. I played my whole career outside the numbers and I played at a high level."
Fitzgerald's Renaissance season in 2015 was one of the great storylines of the year across the league, and the first episode of "All or Nothing," dives deep into the sacrifice one of the best players in franchise history made to push the team closer to a title.
Fitzgerald is the rare superstar who enjoys a sterling perception in the public eye, and through his 12 season with the Cardinals he has always been viewed as the consummate professional. But when "All or Nothing" first explores Fitzgerald's transition from the outside to the slot, we see a more human side of Fitzgerald.
Instead of a conversation about whether or not Fitzgerald would be willing to move, the wide receiver said the coaching staff simply told him he was moving and that didn't sit well with him initially. Nevertheless, within minutes, viewers come to understand that Fitzgerald was indeed a willing participant in the switch, because the coaching staff helped convinced him it was in the team's best interest.
I found the move similar to the way the Golden State Warriors asked career starter Andre Igoudala to come off the bench in 2015, as a new coach in Steve Kerr believed it was in the organization's best interest. Much like Igoudala, Fitzgerald enjoyed remarkable personal success in his new role, and though the Cardinals did end up falling short of a title, he helped reinvent himself with his best statistical season in recent years.
The position switch for Fitzgerald sets the stage for an "All or Nothing" type of season, as veteran players recognized a championship run was within reach.