TEMPE, Ariz. -- Few thing in this world are worth more than money.
But in the NFL, camaraderie in the locker room and a chance to win the Lombardi Trophy trump currency. Or so the Arizona Cardinals hope.
With free agency beginning in less than two months, the Cardinals will find out if what coach Bruce Arians has built can convince potential free agents, especially those on defense, to bypass other more lucrative offers to stay in the desert and pursue a ring.
And depending on the player, it just might.
“You ultimately play this game to win a Super Bowl,” veteran safety Yeremiah Bell said. “The way everybody came together this year was amazing. Myself being an older player, I think it’d be very easy to sacrifice money for coming back for a chance to win the Super Bowl. I don’t think that’d be an issue at all.”
Of the 16 expiring Cardinals' contracts this season, 10 players have been in the league six or more years, and four have at least 10 years of experience. For most, next season is about hanging on to their careers. For others, the lure of the unattainable could keep them in Arizona. Ultimately, though, their futures are out of their control as Arians and general manager Steve Keim will decide who they want to pursue in free agency.
Arians understands change is inevitable, especially in an age where free agents want to cash in before their careers end.
“There is no way this team will be put back together,” Arians said. “But, we’re going to keep every component that we can possibly. Some guys are going to test the market. Hopefully what’s happened in our locker room is worth some dollars because if you can’t match dollars, we can at least match that.”
While Arizona’s offense took half the season to find its rhythm, the defense was gaining steam each week. When they were cleaning out their lockers on the Monday after the final regular-season game, the defenders who were milling around, savoring a final day with their teammates were able to reflect on what they accomplished in 2013 -- finishing sixth overall and No. 1 against the run.
The general consensus? They had started something special. It’s only a question is if they’ll be able to finish it. Bell, an unrestricted free agent, would like to see the defense reunited in 2014 to “see what happens next year.”
“But that’s the business of the NFL. That’s how it goes,” Bell said. “Nobody stays together. No matter what team you have.
“We made a special run and it’s really unfortunate that we couldn’t get in the playoffs and try to get a shot at that Super Bowl.”
With a year under in Arians’ system, the offense seems to understand the scheme. Pair that with a defense that kept getting better, and a playoff berth next season is more than a possibility and a run to the Super Bowl won’t be out of the question.
Throughout the final weeks of the Cardinals’ season, when the reality that the playoffs were out of their control was setting in, some players felt Arizona could make a run deep into January if they were just given the chance. That’ll have to wait until next season.
“When you had a 10-6 season, and you understood how to win and you learned how to win, it does do something with the culture of the guys that you understand you can do something special,” said defensive end Ronald Talley, who is a restricted free agent this offseason. “It’s all about leaving your name in stone and being in some form in history. So that does have some value that dollars can’t reach.”
Talley, who was inactive the final nine games because of injuries, also said that was enough to keep him a Cardinal next season.
The camaraderie could help keep unrestricted free agent Matt Shaughnessy a Cardinal, he said.
If it takes a one-year deal to do that, that’s what a lot of Arizona’s free agents will sign.
Right tackle Eric Winston signed a one-year deal on the first day of training camp in 2013 and, after eight seasons in the NFL without a ring, he’s open to another one-year contract if it’s the right fit.
“I think every player wants some stability, but you got to do what you got to do and sometimes a one-year deal is a better road to go down if you can stay healthy,” Winston said. “I think any time you find a place that has great guys and good coaches … I’ve seen the other side of the coin. You don’t want to roll the dice too many more times. I think this is a great place. You can’t get much better than Phoenix. Let’s face it, you can be in Buffalo. I’ll take it. Like I said, too, it’s not necessarily my decision.
“I think everything has a value to it. You can say being around a great team and great guys, absolutely, there’s a value to that.”