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.
Takeaways from episode eight, "All or Nothing"
Life in the playoffs
Throughout the eight-part series, the crew behind "All or Nothing," helped viewers understand why certain games mattered so much to particular players and coaches. For head coach Bruce Arians, returning to Pittsburgh proved an emotional roller coaster, whereas quarterback Carson Palmer felt additional pressure when facing the Cincinnati Bengals, especially because his divorce from the organization wasn't exactly amicable. Players and coaches rarely like to admit when games take on added meaning, but "All or Nothing" peeled back the curtain and revealed a more human side to the Cardinals in this sense.
In the playoffs, every game takes on added meaning, regardless of what prior history exists between players and teams. Even though the Carolina Panthers knocked the Cardinals out of the playoffs in 2015, the 2016 matchup wasn't so much personal as it was the idea the Panthers stood between the Cardinals and their pursuit of the ultimate prize.
Episode eight helped provide perspective as to how Arizona's players and coaches approach playoff contests, when the results carry so much added significance. An Arians-led locker room isn't going to spend many additional hours focusing and preparing for a playoff opponent, because coaches and players are already doing as much as possible to ready themselves for a game.
Viewers see defensive coordinator James Bettcher at home with his son during the week, and hear from Palmer as he explains why he won't really watch any extra film. Yes, the playoffs mean more, but there's only 24 hours in a day, and to adjust traditional working hours might do more harm than good.
"If it is to be, it is up to me."
When the Cardinals finally do step on the field in the NFC Championship game against the Panthers, the team commits a litany of uncharacteristic errors that immediately digs the team into a hole.
Arians preached throughout the week, "If it is to be, it is up to me," to reinforce the notion that each player controls his own individual success, and throughout the first half against Carolina, it is not to be for Cardinals players.
Within the opening minutes of the contest, Arizona has 12 men on the field, suffers a Calais Campbell offsides penalty, and allows Ted Ginn Jr. to knife his way through the Cardinals' defense as nearly every player over-pursues the speedy receiver.
As narrator Jon Hamm says, "The Cardinals are saying all the right things, and doing none of them."
Even cornerback Patrick Peterson fumbles a punt return when the Cardinals finally have their first bit of momentum, which served as a microcosm for how the entire night unfolded for Arizona.
Sometimes, players try to do too much, and in the cases of Peterson, Campbell and Palmer, that appeared to be the case through most of the first half. Though the Panthers entered the game with just a single blemish on their overall record, the Cardinals committed far too many unforced errors on their own to have a chance to hang tight with one of the NFL's best teams.
The NFC Championship influence
Even though uncharacteristic mistakes contributed heavily to the Cardinals' downfall, matching up with a top-tier team like the Panthers allowed the Cardinals to evaluate their personnel against a championship-caliber opponent.
The Panthers exposed the Cardinals in many regards, especially along the offensive and defensive lines. Football is a game won in the trenches, and we can't help but notice how the Cardinals have shaped their roster in the aftermath of the NFC Championship loss.
Arizona's offensive line couldn't keep Palmer upright throughout much of the contest, and in 2016, the Cardinals will have three new starters up front. Veterans played a key role in the Cardinals' success last season, so it should come as no surprise 34-year-old guard Evan Mathis was among the Cardinals' offseason signees.
Arizona needs a veteran presence up front, and general manager Steve Keim had plenty of success turning to title-hungry players throughout the course of the 2015 season, so Mathis seems like a logical choice to step in and make an impact late in this career.
The Cardinals' defensive line also struggled to put pressure on Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton, and aside from free agent signee Dwight Freeney, Arizona didn't have much consistency impacting quarterbacks last season.
We know from "All or Nothing" the Cardinals are confident in their locker room culture and Arians isn't afraid to give players a second chance, and all of this likely played into the Cardinals' first round selection of Robert Nkemdiche in the NFL Draft.
Nkemdiche is an impressive force off the edge and can play nearly any spot along the defensive line, so the schematic versatility and track record for getting after the quarterback he brings to the table should help Arizona improve in those regards.
Nkemdiche isn't the only player Arizona brought in to help neutralize players like Newton, as the team also traded for New England Patriots pass rusher Chandler Jones. The Cardinals likely would have improved their pass rush regardless of the outcome against Carolina, but the loss and exposure Arizona received only reinforced the need for Keim to make transactions.
Like any team with realistic Super Bowl hopes that falls short of its goal, Arizona took the loss against the Panthers hard. Arians knew not every player from the team's 2015 roster would come back, but he said in the locker room following the loss he hoped the Cardinals who would return would use the game and the season as a stepping stone to build a stronger unit in the years to come.
Success doesn't happen overnight in the NFL, and though the Cardinals will once again enter a new season with the "All or Nothing" mentality in 2016, it's important to remember the franchise is only a few years removed from that mentality being nothing more than a dream.