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 five, "December Football"
"Your body starts to get beat up, that can't be an excuse."
December in the NFL is unlike any month in other sports, as even the league's best teams face adversity thanks to the rigors of the schedule. In 2015, the Cardinals have the unenviable task of playing two games in five days as they travel to St. Louis before returning home to host Minnesota for a Thursday night contest.
Arians has been outspoken about his dislike of Thursday night games, because of the mental and physical toll they take on players. And at this point in the season, the Cardinals' coach is missing some of his most important contributors.
Though the team began the season with impressive depth at running back, both Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington sustained injuries that forced the Cardinals to thrust rookie David Johnson into the spotlight. Arians did an outstanding job of protecting Johnson from taking too many hits early in the season, so Arizona is fortunate to have a young back playing at close to full health late in the season.
Using Johnson as the featured back does not come without its concerns for the Cardinals, though, as he fumbles for the fourth time during his rookie season against the Rams. While Johnson's ball security was an issue, Arizona didn't end up turning the ball over when Johnson lost it and the rookie back received a second chance.
Running backs' coach Stump Mitchell foreshadowed during the week Johnson would be used in both the running and the passing game, and after nearly turning the ball over, Johnson made up for it with a touchdown reception from Carson Palmer later on in the drive.
To have a skill position player of Johnson's caliber so fresh late in the season proves to be a boon for Arizona, as the team rolls to a 27-3 victory over St. Louis before outlasting Minnesota in a hard-fought Thursday night game.
The schedule may have been unkind to the Cardinals' and their bodies, but Arians didn't want any excuses and his team didn't provide them, which is the sign of a mature club with its eyes focused on greater goals.
Life in the NFL for non-stars
"All or Nothing" does an outstanding job giving fans perspective about the personal lives of the Cardinals' stars as viewers learn about the backgrounds of players like Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. But up until episode five, one of the key elements of storytelling missing from the show was a look at how players on the other side of stardom lived.
In "December Football," viewers receive an invitation into the home of veteran center Lyle Sendlein, who was never highly touted but always seemed to factor into the Cardinals' plans on an annual basis.
Sendlein was an undrafted free agent out of Texas who was one of the three remaining players' on the Cardinals' roster from the franchise's Super Bowl run during the 2008 season. While Sendlein started the majority of his career, he never earned a long-term contract or the big deal so many players who stay with one team for a long time typically garner.
Sendlein's wife admitted it was hard to make friends or connect with some of the families of other players because the Sendlein's always felt as if they could be moving on to a new place. This kind of uncertainty humanizes the players and demonstrates the business aspects of the sport for players who aren't going to make millions of dollars over their careers, and it gives viewers an appreciation for the dedication it takes to stick with a team that may not prioritize a particular player.
One of the most interesting aspects of Sendlein's career with Arizona is the local tie he has to the community, as he spent some of his early years in the state and has the opportunity to play in front of his friends and family on a weekly basis. Sendlein's parents, including his father Robin who played in the NFL, have never missed a home game which is a testament to how special the Sendlein family bond is through the game of football.
When "All or Nothing," shows clips from the Sendlein family tailgate, Sendlein's journey as a professional ties together quite nicely and we see how football is more than just a game for his whole family.
The Philadelphia game
When Arizona travels to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles, the Cardinals are flying high and have an opportunity to clinch an all-important playoff berth. Key players like John Brown must overcome slow starts as the Cardinals appeared sloppy throughout the opening minutes of the contest, but ultimately, Arizona rises to the occasion and proves itself as the superior squad.
Once again, Arizona leans on Johnson out of the backfield as the rookie puts together the defining performance of his first season in the league. Johnson ran for three touchdowns and proved unstoppable for much of the game, which is exactly how Arians envisioned his future early on in the season.
Thanks to Johnson, the Cardinals ended up winning in convincing fashion, but the game took a devastating toll on the team's hopes of winning the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals were able to recover from injuries to players like Johnson and Ellington throughout the course of the season, but against the Eagles, Palmer suffered a dislocated finger and Mathieu tore his ACL in the closing minutes of a contest that was already wrapped up.
While Palmer would return from the injury, the finger clearly impacted his performance during the final weeks of the regular season and the playoffs. As for Mathieu, the sudden pop in his knee dealt a crushing blow to the Cardinals' defense, one that the team may not have been able to recover from at all regardless of the type of depth general manager Steve Keim stocked on the roster.
Arians insisted early on in the episode December was a trying month for NFL players, and for the second consecutive season, the team couldn't make it through the year unscathed. While the Cardinals' reaction to Mathieu's injury is up ahead in episode six, viewers could sense the impending gloom upon the abrupt ending to episode five.