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. Through the course of the week, we've been publishing our takeaways from each episode of the series and discussing how these takeaways can help inform us about the Cardinals' organizational philosophy.
Episode six, "Endings and Beginnings"
"It's a very cold part of the business."
Episode five of "All or Nothing," left off on a grim note as Cardinals' safety Tyrann Mathieu suffered an ACL injury in the closing minutes of an already decided contest against the Eagles. Episode six picks up with the news of Mathieu's fate, as he learns he'll be out for the remainder of the season as a result of his ACL tear.
The injury left head coach Bruce Arians visibly upset, as the Cardinals' head coach was fighting back emotions upon learning of Mathieu's diagnosis. Despite having to manage 53 different players on a weekly basis, Arians admits he developed a special bond with Mathieu, which is rare for a coach and player to find.
"We just have a different bond because of where he came from and where i come from," Arians said. "I've just gotten real attached to him."
Mathieu's loss lingers with teammates as well, as the third-year safety had become one of the team's emotional leaders. Throughout the season, the Cardinals fed off Mathieu's energy, as he developed into the rare player who walked the walk just as well as he talked the talk.
"I can't stop thinking about it," said Cardinals' cornerback and fellow LSU product Patrick Peterson.
Quarterback Carson Palmer added, "There's no bigger loss we could have suffered."
The injury to Mathieu devastated his coaches and teammates, but of course, the person most shaken up was Mathieu himself. After tearing an ACL toward the end of his rookie season, Mathieu knows the pain and the grueling rehabilitation process, but above all, he knows what he's missing out on.
"I wasn't finished showing the world what I had," Mathieu said. "That's the hardest part about it."
With a healthy Mathieu, Arizona's defense looks completely different. The schematic versatility, the personnel packages, and the slight nuances in coverage Arizona benefits from are a direct result of what Mathieu brings to the field, and after his injury, the course of the team's season was undeniably altered.
While it's uncertain whether Arizona could have outlasted Carolina in the NFC Championship game, Mathieu was robbed of a chance to show the world what he had in the playoffs, and in turn, so were the Cardinals.
The game within the game
Heading into week 16, the 12-2 Cardinals are set to host the 10-4 Packers in game that could help Arizona secure a first round bye in the playoffs. The stakes are big for the Cardinals, and "All or Nothing," takes viewers inside the intense preparations NFL teams make in order to ready themselves for Sundays.
Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers is regarded as one of the best passers in the game, and one of his greatest skills is the ability to hit receivers on back shoulder fade routes that require intricate timing. In one of the show's previous episodes, viewers saw how Peterson prepared to defend Lions' receiver Calvin Johnson from catching back shoulder fades, and in episode six, the entire secondary works on preventing a passing lane.
The Cardinals cornerbacks focus on details like keeping their inside arm up to swat passes away, defending against the front shoulder of receivers to track their movements and deny them the ball, and hedging around to cut off angles.
Meanwhile, veteran Dwight Freeney leads Arizona's pass rushers in a technical demonstration of how to beat tackles off the edge. Freeney is one of the best to ever play the game at his position, and he details the evolution of his spin move from the point where it wasn't accepted by his coaches to it eventually being lauded as one of the game's defining moves.
Freeney emphasizes setting slower tackles up with speed rushes, and using the spin move only when necessary. Freeney explains that rushing the passer isn't simply about sacks, but about preparing yourself to beat tackles in specific situations.
"What I can do is try to make the plays before the plays happen," Freeney said.
In week 16, the Cardinals dominate the Packers, and on one particular play, the technical coaching given to Arizona's defensive ends and cornerbacks all materializes at once. Freeney's rush off the edge helps collapse the pocket on Rodgers, who rushes a back shoulder pass to the corner of the end zone ahead of schedule. Cornerback Justin Bethel intercepts the pass, and the Cardinals take over possession on a play that helps prove how the finer points of coaching can make a significant impact.
"It's a bad precedent to set at this time of year that games don't matter."
After the Cardinals lock up a decisive victory over the Packers, the team turns its attention to the Seahawks in week 17. Arizona already sewed up the best record in franchise history with its 13th win, and is locked into the second seed in the NFC regardless of the upcoming week's result.
While the debate looms over whether Arians should play or rest his starters, the Cardinals' coach wastes little time deciding to keep his regular lineup intact knowing the type of precedent he might set heading into the playoffs if he gives his team a break.
Even after losing Mathieu to a season-ending injury, the only overly cautious measure Arians takes is keeping Palmer on the bench during the second half of the Seahawks contest.
By halftime though, Arians realizes the Cardinals' didn't heed his warnings, as the Seahawks had blown the game open and scored on all five of their first half possessions. The old adage "You practice how you play," comes back to haunt the Cardinals, as the film crew of "All or Nothing," revealed Arians' displeasure with his team's practice habits throughout the week.
In the Cardinals' worst performance of the season, the always colorful Arians considered the loss downright embarrassing, and Arizona's performance ultimately led to a players-only meeting.
In a conversation with his wife Christine after the loss, Arians said taking away a player's incentive makes it difficult for a player to perform up to his full potential, and that statement proved accurate.
In the players' meeting, Palmer reiterated the only thing the loss cost them was a week of the Cardinals' head coach being upset at practice, because in the long run, losing to Seattle did not impact Arizona's title aspirations.