Arizona Cardinals: Eric Winston

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Welcome to #CardsMailbag, a weekly installment that allows you to ask Josh Weinfuss questions throughout the week via Twitter @joshweinfuss. He'll answer them every week during the offseason. Make sure to use the hashtag #CardsMailbag

Eric WinstonAP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerEric Winston becomes the president of the NFL Players Association during labor peace, but with plenty to resolve.

Four years ago, this would be a different conversation.

It would be about millionaires versus billionaires, about how one document will shape the course of professional football for the next decade and how Eric Winston would be the face of the future of the sport.

Fortunately for Winston, the former Arizona Cardinals right tackle who was recently elected president of the NFL Players Association, he doesn't have to worry about that. He doesn't have to worry about his constituents being locked out by the owners or sitting down at the negotiating table to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement. His two-year tenure begins amid labor peace, allowing Winston to spend most his time this offseason on specific issues that face the players and the game.

Timing is everything.

"Yes and no," Winston said. "I think in those negotiations, that's where you're going to accomplish a lot. I think that's where you're getting, whether it's benefits, whether it's salary, whether it's health and safety, all those are up for grabs at that point.

"With a lot of that stuff being settled I can focus in on some topics, and focus on and find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission, so to speak."

Winston's mission, to serve as the collective voice of the players, came about with a simple question, he said: "Would you be interested in running?"

He was at the biannual NFLPA meetings when the question was posed. If he was nominated, Winston said, he'd run. It didn't take long for someone at the meetings to follow protocol. A speech later and Winston was the new face -- clean-shaven after a season of growing out a hockey playoff-like beard -- of the players' association.

"It happened fast, that's for sure," Winston said. "I'm happy it happened. I'm eager to try to make a difference."

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
Michael Starghill, Jr. for ESPNEric Winston wants to "find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission."
Whether he knows it or not, Winston has already made a difference. And it's built an air of confidence from his side of the table and the other.

Cardinals linebacker Lorenzo Alexander knew Winston but never spent much time around the hulking right tackle. After spending last season with him, Alexander, who has been an NFLPA player rep and was voted onto the current association's executive committee, believes the NFLPA has the right leader.

"He has great leadership qualities and I think a great grasp on the vision he has for the PA," Alexander said. "I think all those things really help him as far as moving forward and strengthening our union as a whole and the perception, I guess, internally and externally from the players."

The perception of Winston was built two years ago, when he was protecting Matt Cassel's strong side for the Kansas City Chiefs. Winston showed everyone -- thanks to countless replays -- that he's more than a big, burly blocker. After Cassel was knocked out of a game against Baltimore and booed by Chiefs fans, Winston verbalized his frustration with the fans and his disdain for their gesture. As Winston's voice rose, his passion for the sport filled the locker room.

Troy Vincent, recently appointed NFL executive vice president for football operations, is also a former NFLPA president. He thinks Winston's passion is only part of the reason he will succeed.

"That says a lot about who an individual is," Vincent said. "I think he's going to be a great leader.

"I know what it takes to be elected. That's not a given and I think he's going to be a fine leader. He's very thoughtful. I think Eric is also very reasonable. I think at that position it has to be balanced to get things done, where you're not always going to agree on everything but you've got to find a common ground that works for everybody and I think, with his experience, I think with his values, I think he's going to be a very good leader for the union."

Assuming the presidency at a time of labor peace gives Winston the opportunity to focus on the players. Winston can lean on the experience of eight NFL seasons of serving as part of three different organizations and apply it to make the difference he's seeking.

The question Winston has to answer first: Where to start?

His overarching goal is to improve the day-to-day lives of the nearly 2,000 players in the NFL, but to do that, Winston understands he has nearly 2,000 different sets of issues to tackle. Each player has his own concerns about the direction of the league and his own career, but Winston has narrowed his first set of priorities to three areas: health and safety, financial literacy and working conditions.

When it comes to health and safety, Winston, who's second among active tackles in consecutive games played and started, thinks looking toward the future can help players now. Continuing to invest in technology and research is a priority, Winston said, because it'll help the league and its players learn more about the health and safety issues that they face on a daily basis, namely head injuries.

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
AP Photo/Greg TrottEric Winston has played eight NFL seasons with three different organizations.
"Doing that now is going to help the guys when they become former players and I think it's going to help the research side of it and it's going to help our former players now that have been suffering," Winston said.

Having watched thousands of players come and go during his career, Winston is also placing an emphasis on teaching players -- young and old -- the importance of taking care of their finances.

"Guys need to understand how to budget, guys need to understand what it means to have a mortgage, what it means to pay something like that, what does the typical cost of living [look like]?" Winston said. "It sounds clichéd but those checks are going to run out at some point. They're not always going to be there and what is really enough, so to speak, to retire on? And, in a way, [I want to] get that word ‘retire' out of the lexicon. You play 10 years and you're 32. There's other things you could do, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't have a nest egg, you shouldn't have something you can fall back on if you can't play that long."

Winston also wants to address workplace conditions, especially when it comes to the locker rooms.

A year ago at this time, Tampa Bay's locker room hadn't been infected by the MRSA outbreak, which occurred in October, nor had the situation in Miami involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin been exposed. Both will help shape the way Winston approaches changes in the locker rooms, albeit in extremely different ways.

"Working conditions are something that's going to be coming up, and we have to do something," Winston said. "I think there needs to be some standardization throughout the NFL and of course, you never know what's going to happen around the corner."

When it comes to approaching the locker room culture, which has come under siege since the reports of bullying in the Dolphins' organization were revealed in November, Winston believes his experience in the league is a bonus. But he's careful to warn that what happened in Miami isn't permeating through the NFL.

"I always think you're going to have something that's out of your control," Winston said. "You're always going to have a 'bad apple,' something that just happens. For whatever reason it happens and obviously it needs to be fixed.

"It's a challenge for all of us," Winston added. "We're professionals now. We got to act professionally. We can't be doing immature things."

Vincent wants to make sure he and Winston work together to "preserve our game."

"Have we forgotten the art of sportsmanship?" Vincent asked.

Vincent foresees working together to educate "all audiences" on eliminating facets of the game that either lead to injury or cast a negative light on the league, such as "harmful" plays.

Another one of Winston's priorities is curbing fines, an interesting dynamic since Vincent is the man responsible for assigning the fines. Winston would like to see fines eliminated for first-time incidental offenses. He thinks they should be levied for a second or third offense.

[+] EnlargeTroy Vincent
AP Photo/Doug Benc"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful," NFL Executive Vice President for Football Operations Troy Vincent said of Eric Winston. "Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job."
"I know plenty of guys that whether you fine them $5,000 or $15,000, it's the same to him," Winston said. "They get it. I don't think we have to fine guys an extraordinary amount to get their attention.

"They understand the value of money and what it means to them. To get the fines going up at a rate, it doesn't make sense. It seems much more punitive more than sending a message."

Winston will also help usher in a new era for the NFL when it welcomes its first openly gay player; Missouri's Michael Sam is expected to be drafted in May. The league, Winston said, is more ready than it gets credit for, mainly because this generation of players -- even on the older side -- is more accepting than previous generations.

One issue Winston said the players won't accept, though, is an 18-game schedule.

"I just don't see how that would ever make sense for us," Winston said.

"I don't think there's a need for it. I don't think there's a want for it. There's not a lot of scenarios that I'd say, 18 games in that context make sense. I just don't understand why that would make sense for our players and our guys."

While it's still early, there's an outside chance Winston may not play in any of the 16 games next season. He's been a free agent since March 11. But he's not fretting. Last season, Winston didn't sign with the Cardinals until the first day of training camp.

If Winston isn't signed for the 2014 season, he'll still hold onto his role as president. He'll just have more time on his hands to advocate for the players. Vincent would know. He was the NFLPA president for a year after retiring following the 2006 season and spent it crisscrossing the country, meeting with players, listening to their issues and helping them when called upon. Winston is ready for the responsibility if his career should go that way, but he'd rather be on the field.

Winston admits he has plenty to learn. He's served on NFLPA committees and understands the politics and policies, but has never held a role comparable to this.

Even though Vincent has crossed over to the league, he still offered a piece of advice to Winston: Listen. Vincent told him he doesn't need to have every answer, but he needs to be a great listener.

The more he listens, the more Winston will learn about his constituents. And the better president he'll become.

"You got to have balance," Vincent said. "There's a reason you have to be able to make sure that you're hearing all arguments, all positions, all opinions and then be able to come back to your group and properly inform the player on what is taking place and what has happened. That itself is one of the responsibilities for that position.

"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful. He's not jumping out there. Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job as a leader."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- This offseason is starting off eerily similar to the last for Eric Winston.
Winston
The former Arizona Cardinals right tackle is patiently waiting for the right team to call with a job offer, one too good for him to turn down. A few teams -- Winston wouldn't say which ones -- have already come calling, but after eight seasons, he’s being selective.

At least this year, he knows what to expect. After the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t opt to re-sign him following the 2012 season, Winston entered free agency not knowing where he’d play in 2013. The Cardinals signed him on July 25, 2013, the first day of training camp. He instantly moved into a starting role and gave up just seven sacks in 16 games.

Winston was expected to be a priority for the Cardinals after linebacker Karlos Dansby, but as of Wednesday, the team had still not re-signed Winston.

Armed with the experience from last offseason, Winston is keeping busy with his children and wife, waiting for the phone to buzz with good news from his next team.

"I’m doing fine," Winston said. “Last year it was frustrating, going on a lot of visits and not signing until camp. Now I kinda know the situation. I know that at some point there’s going to be a team that’s going to need a tackle and at that time I’ll be available to play and ready to go.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Welcome to #CardsMailbag, a weekly installment that allows you to ask Josh Weinfuss questions throughout the week via Twitter @joshweinfuss. He'll answer them every week during the offseason. Make sure to use the hash tag: #CardsMailbag.

 
Starter: Eric Winston, Paul Fanaika, Lyle Sendlein, Daryn Colledge, Bradley Sowell

Backup: Nate Potter, Mike Gibson, Earl Watford, Bobby Massie

Injured: Jonathan Cooper

Under contract in 2014: Fanaika, Sendlein, Colledge, Cooper, Sowell, Potter, Watford and Massie

Cash committed in '13: $21.8 million

Cap committed in '13: $19 million

Recap: Like the rest of the Cardinals' offense, the offensive line started the season out with much work to be done. It allowed 23 sacks in the first eight games and then 18 after that. Relying on three veteran anchors -- Winston, Sendlein and Colledge -- head coach Bruce Arians added two young, inexperienced players to the mix in Fanaika and Sowell and by the midway point of the season they were all in sync. But that wouldn't have happened had Arizona not traded left tackle Levi Brown after Week 4 and promoted Sowell to a starting role. The Cardinals' offensive line was ranked 32nd by Pro Football Focus, but it performed better than the critics said during the final eight games. The line will get younger in 2014 with Colledge already released and second-year player Jonathan Cooper assuming the starting left guard job.

Free-agency primer: Cardinals

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: LB Karlos Dansby, RT Eric Winston, S Yeremiah Bell, K Jay Feely, LB Matt Shaughnessy

Where they stand: Arizona has talked to all of them, but it's unlikely the Cardinals re-sign any of the team's key free agents until after March 11. Dansby could be the trigger, however. If he re-signs for an affordable price or doesn't re-sign, Arizona may be able to re-sign some of their veteran free agents instead of opting for cheaper options. According to reports, Arizona has been negotiating with linebacker Shaughnessy. Bell has expressed his desire to return to Arizona mainly because of what the Cardinals' defense started last year. Winston may be the Cardinals' best option at right tackle for another season and his camp has begun talks with the Cardinals. Feely has said he talked to the Cardinals this week.

What to expect: Don't expect Dansby to re-sign before free agency begins. If it hasn't happened yet, it probably won't until he tests the market to see what his worth is. Then the Cardinals could come into play again. Winston could be whom Arizona needs to anchor the line for another year. He, along with the rest of the offensive line, matured together and were protecting quarterback Carson Palmer better in the second half of the season than the first, momentum that can only continue to grow. Bell isn't likely to return because his size and speed make him a liability against bigger, faster receivers and tight ends. Even though he was in Bruce Arians' dog house at the end of the season, Feely can return because of the limited number of good kickers available. Shaughnessy is also likely to re-sign because of his value at a low cost.
A week from now, the NFL universe will be in an (un)organized chaos when free agency begins at 2 p.m. MT. The Cardinals have their sights set on a few needs, namely offensive tackle, tight end and safety.

ESPN Stats & Info put together a list of the best available free agents. Three Cardinals made the list -- linebacker Karlos Dansby, right tackle Eric Winston and safety Yeremiah Bell.

Here they are for the positions Arizona is targeting in free agency:

Defensive tackle

Hatcher
Hatcher
Jason Hatcher

B.J. Raji

Randy Starks

Kevin Williams

Paul Soliai

Henry Melton

Defensive end

Jared Allen

Lamarr Houston

Michael Johnson

Justin Tuck

Michael Bennett

Cornerback

Verner
Alterraun Verner

Aqib Talib

Charles Tillman

Captain Munnerlyn

Vontae Davis

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Linebacker

Shaun Phillips

Jon Beason

Daryl Smith

Brandon Spikes

Karlos Dansby

Bell
Safety

Jairus Byrd

T.J. Ward

James Ihedigbo

Yeremiah Bell

Ryan Clark

Donte Whitner

Tight end

Scott Chandler

Brandon Pettigrew

Brandon Myers

Garrett Graham

Jermichael Finley

Winston
Offensive line

T – Branden Albert

T – Eric Winston

T – Eugene Monroe

T – Michael Oher

C – Ryan Wendell

C – Jonathan Goodwin

G – Zane Beadles

G – Richie Incognito

G – Charlie Johnson

Ranking the Cardinals' free agents

February, 5, 2014
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- With the ink on Larry Fitzgerald's restructured contracted barely dry, it's time to look at what Arizona may do with the extra cap room the Pro Bowl receiver provided them. Arizona has 15 free agents left to sign after securing punter Dave Zastudil last month, but they won't bring them all back.

I ranked all 15 from highest priority to lowest and told you why:
  1. Karlos Dansby -- He's coming off a career season and was a main cog in a defense that kept getting better. Arizona would take a step back without him.
  2. Matt Shaughnessy -- He filled in better than expected at outside linebacker after injuries decimated the unit, and his length and power coupled with his speed make him a threat from the outside in Todd Bowles' defense.
  3. Andre Roberts -- The Cardinals need a speed receiver to take the top off defenses, but then again, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians had Roberts last year and barely used him.
  4. Antoine Cason -- He proved himself as a tough corner and nickel back after Tyrann Mathieu went down late last season. That could be valuable tape come time to prove his worth to the powers that be.
  5. Eric Winston -- As the season went on, Winston got better, allowing just one sack in the final nine games, according to Pro Football Focus. While left tackle is more important for the Cards, Winston could be the right fit to return at right tackle.
  6. Rashard Mendenhall -- Bringing back Mendenhall isn't a huge priority because it's likely that Andre Ellington takes over the every-down role, but Mendenhall can return in his previous role and continue to mentor Ellington.
  7. Frostee Rucker -- Rucker was the perfect kind of backup for the Cardinals' vaunted defensive line, and at the right price, he could be continue in that role and be a good mentor as the defense continues to grow.
  8. Jay Feely -- Feely was consistent last season, even clutch at times, but a few late season misses left his future with the team in question.
  9. Yeremiah Bell -- Bell provides veteran leadership in a very young secondary but at 35, he's slowing down.
  10. Javier Arenas -- Arenas saw the field most on special teams as a kick returner but was only able to return 23 kicks this year and often frustrated Arians with his decision making. He's a defensive back, too but hasn't impressed in either role.
  11. Jim Dray -- A starter in 2013 Dray was a run blocker but never blossomed into an offense weapon. The Cardinals could find another option who's a combination of both.
  12. Bryan McCann -- McCann filled a much needed role as a gunner across from Justin Bethel when Teddy Williams went down. McCann's role next year will depend on if Williams is brought back.
  13. Mike Gibson -- Gibson was a steady backup on the offensive line and a special teams player in all 16 games, but his return in 2014 will depend on if his $715,000 is worth it for a backup.
  14. Kory Sperry -- Active for just eight of 16 games, Sperry saw most of his playing time on special teams.
  15. Jeff King -- Injured all of last season, King's role was filled by Jake Ballard, a restricted free agent this year.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Welcome to #CardsMailbag, a weekly installment that allows you to ask me questions throughout the week via Twitter @joshweinfuss. I'll answer them every week during the offseason. Make sure to use the hash tag: #CardsMailbag

 

Kiper mock 1.0 reaction: Cardinals

January, 15, 2014
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There’s something to be said for the Arizona Cardinals drafting a kid whose nickname is Ironman.

In his first mock draft, Insider Mel Kiper Jr. has the Cardinals selecting Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin, who set a school record with 52 straight starts in four years for the Fighting Irish. He’s 6-foot-4 and 308 pounds, and while some draftniks believe he isn’t tall enough to play left tackle, his strength and athleticism may combat his size.

Martin was the foundation of an offensive line that gave up just eight sacks, tied for second most in the country, playing against the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Stanford. His durability is intriguing for the Cardinals, especially since the offensive line has been hit with injuries during the past two seasons. The Cardinals need someone quick enough to redirect the likes of St. Louis' Robert Quinn or San Francisco's Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, or Seattle's Cliff Avril or Chris Clemons, just to name a few.

The Cardinals allowed 41 sacks last season, which ranks among the middle of the league pack.

Martin opted to return for his redshirt senior season and proved to NFL scouts that he got better with age. But his success in the NFL will depend on how well he can handle outside rushers at his height, when Arizona now employs a left tackle (Bradley Sowell) who’s 6-7, 315 and a right tackle (Eric Winston) who’s 6-7, 302.

If those three inches can come with fewer sacks, count coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim in.
Flush the Pocket will be your daily morning dose of the Arizona Cardinals. It'll recap the top storyline from the previous day and give you a look at what everyone is saying locally and nationally.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- A day after his mentor was honored by the Professional Football Writers of America, Cardinals rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu was named to the PFWA's All-Rookie team at cornerback.

He was the only Cardinal rookie to be honored.

Also earning a national distinction Tuesday was Arizona general manager Steve Keim, who was named executive of the year by Pro Football Talk. Keim was praised for his offseason acquisitions of Carson Palmer, John Abraham and Eric Winston, as well as his deft draft which yielded Mathieu in the third round and Andre Ellington in the sixth.

2013 PFWA ALL-ROOKIE TEAM

Offense

QB -- Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

RB -- Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals; Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers

WR -- Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers; DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

TE -- Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins

C -- Travis Frederick, Dallas Cowboys

G -- Kyle Long, Chicago Bears; Larry Warford, Detroit Lions

T -- D.J. Fluker, San Diego Chargers; Justin Pugh, New York Giants

Defense

DL -- Ziggy Ansah, Detroit Lions; Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers; Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets; Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers

LB -- Kiko Alonso, Buffalo Bills; Sio Moore, Oakland Raiders; Alec Ogletree, St. Louis Rams

CB -- Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals; Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons

S -- Eric Reid, San Francisco 49ers; Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints

Special Teams

PK -- Caleb Sturgis, Miami Dolphins

P -- Sam Martin, Detroit Lions

KR -- Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings

PR -- Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams

ST -- Don Jones, Miami Dolphins
TEMPE, Ariz. -- With one week left in the regular season and still a lot to be determined in the playoff picture, there’s one area that’s starting to come into focus: the draft order.

If the season ended after Week 16, the Arizona Cardinals would select 25th in the first round.

The last time Arizona chose that high was in 2010 when it selected nose tackle Dan Williams out of Tennessee. The Cardinals have never chosen at 25th in the first round, according to the team’s media guide.

According to NFL draft Insider Todd McShay’s Mock Draft 1.0, he has Virginia tackle Morgan Moses going to the Cardinals. Moses has experience at both tackle positions, which would come in handy for Arizona, depending on if right tackle Eric Winston returns, which is unlikely, and if the Cardinals stick with Bradley Sowell at left tackle. Free agency will determine the latter.

For the first-round draft order, click here.

Cardinals draft picks at 20th or lower:

2010: No. 26 Dan Williams, NT, Tennessee

2009: No. 31 Beanie Wells, RB, Ohio State

1999: No. 21 LJ Shelton, T, Eastern Michigan

1976: No. 22 Mike Dawson, DT, Arizona

1975: No. 21 Tim Gray, CB, Texas A&M
TEMPE, Ariz. – The two most important pieces on Arizona’s offensive line have only heard about how loud CenturyLink Field in Seattle can get.

Winston
Sowell
Neither right tackle Eric Winston nor left tackle Bradley Sowell have ever played in the loudest stadium in the NFL. That may present a problem at some point Sunday, when the Cardinals are fighting to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

Arizona will go with a silent count in Seattle, like it does for every road game. That part doesn’t concern Winston, an eight-year veteran. It’s getting the plays from quarterback Carson Palmer to the huddle and then changing the blocking scheme at the line of scrimmage that has Winston worried.

“What slows you down is, all of a sudden, backers shifting around and moving, that changes calls and all of a sudden we’re trying to make calls, [and it’s like] ‘What did you say?’” said Winston, who also hasn’t played at Soldier Field in Chicago and Ford Field in Detroit. “Everybody has calls to make. That’s what can get confusing with the crowd noise in a way, for me at least. The silent count doesn’t slow you down.”

Arizona has prepared all week with sound piped into practice, including Friday in the bubble. The Cardinals need to do everything they can to make the noise a non-factor, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said.

Easier said than done. Seattle’s noise isn’t just a myth that has made its away from locker room to locker room, the lore growing in stature each time a player retells his story about playing in vaunted CenturyLink Field.

The noise is real.

Against New Orleans on Dec. 2, the crowd noise inside CenturyLink Field reached 137.6 decibels, which set a new Guinness World Record. According to The Associated Press, a jet engine at 100 feet is 140 decibels.

“Everybody told me it’s really loud,” Sowell said. “But silent count is silent count regardless of how loud it is, we do a lot of silent count on the road. So, it’ll be the same thing this week and hopefully we’ll adjust to it.

“It’s really challenging to make it to where it’s an even jump off the ball. Sometimes if you’re a little late and they get a good jump, it could be tough.”

Sowell said he’ll be keeping one eye on the ball and another on his lineman. It’s basically the only thing he can do to make sure he gets a good enough jump when the ball is snapped.

Arizona has 17 false start penalties – including eight by Winston and two by Sowell – and going off a silent count against the top-ranked defense in the league in the loudest stadium in the NFL doesn’t bode well for that number staying where it is.

“It’s probably toughest on the guys that have to block the D-ends,” Palmer said. “You are a guy away from the ball and you are trying to use your peripheral vision. You have two very good pass-rushers, three very good pass-rushers that they have, so you have to try to jump the count, try to stay on sides.

“There is a fine line between those two and also worry about the guy that is coming at you.”

Winston and Sowell know all about it.
TEMPE, Ariz. – When Cardinals running back Andre Ellington went down in practice on Nov. 28, quarterback Carson Palmer gave the rookie an important piece of advice.

Don’t go back in, the veteran told the newbie.

“That day, when I went down, he told me, ‘Don’t go back in at all … just kind of get your mental reps. We need you healthy,’” Ellington said. “He was the main guy to tell me not to go back in.”

If there was one person for Ellington to listen to about taking mental reps, it’s Palmer. He spent the week leading up to Sunday’s win over the Rams not throwing any balls in practice while a sore throwing elbow healed. Instead, Palmer took mental reps every day, and it worked. Palmer’s 84.38 completion percentage against St. Louis was the best for an NFC quarterback this season, the best of his career and the second best in Arizona franchise history.

The idea of taking mental reps is to let players -- usually veterans -- walk through each play in practice without adding more wear and tear to their bodies. A novel idea for the 8-5 Cardinals, who need a win on Sunday at Tennessee to stay in the NFC playoff hunt.

“You stand right behind center and you see the field and you see the coverage unfold as you would if you had the ball in your hands and you were delivering it,” Palmer said. “You try to get the mental rep as much as you can and try to match it up with what you see on film after practice when you watch it.”

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the mental reps are what helped Palmer play so well against St. Louis. But it’s a skill that’s learned with age. Rookies don’t know how to take those mental reps as well as vets.

Call it a trick of the trade.

“I think if you’re a vet and you know what you’re doing, absolutely you put yourself in that situation so when you get in the game and you know what’s going on you can do it,” right tackle Eric Winston said.

While some players use mental reps to just get a day off sometimes, others take advantage of them when they’re hurt.

When wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was out with his hamstring injury, he went through mental reps in practice. They helped him visualize how the defense would play him, which he put to good use in games.

But for as much as they help, mental reps don’t replace the real thing.

“It’s not as good as actually running the rep for me but when you don’t have any other choice, mental reps are very important,” Fitzgerald said. “And as you saw last week, Carson didn’t throw a ball all week. All he did was take mental reps in the passing game and he only posted the second-highest passer rating in history. He shouldn’t take any reps this week.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – Offensive lines and quarterbacks are, in theory, attached at the hip – or backside.

They've been linked together throughout football history. One can’t operate without the other. A line would have no one to block for, and a quarterback would have no one to protect him. And when paired together, how the line goes, so usually goes the quarterback.

It’s true for every team in the NFL, but none more so than the Arizona Cardinals. Through the first seven games, Arizona gave up 20 sacks of quarterback Carson Palmer. In the last six the Cards’ offensive line has surrendered 16, but five of those came in their only loss during that stretch. Overall, something has changed. The Cardinals’ line has been blocking better and has been giving Palmer more time.

The difference isn't just in protection. It can be seen throughout the offense. In the last six games, Palmer has averaged 286 yards passing, compared with 248 in the first seven. Arizona averaged 77 yards per game on the ground in the first seven and 104 per game since.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
John Geliebter/USA TODAY SportsCarson Palmer has enjoyed greater protection from the Cardinals' offensive line in recent weeks.
“You all need to play well for it to work,” Palmer said. “If a group doesn’t play well, then you won’t play well, or if a position doesn’t play well, you don’t play well.”

Once the line started giving Palmer more time, the entire team’s production went up. Palmer’s thrown 12 touchdown passes in the past six games compared with eight in the first seven.

As one of right tackle Eric Winston’s college coaches said: Protection equals completions. They also mean scores. Winston has seen Palmer’s decisions improve once he’s given more time to go through his reads. Palmer isn’t the type of quarterback to look at one option and take off, Winston said, so the more time he gets, the better passes he’ll throw.

If doubters need more proof, Palmer’s 69.3 completion percentage since Week 8 is second-best in the NFL.

“The times we’ve protected him well, he’s performed really well,” Winston said. “The times we haven’t we’ve made life hard on him.”

To the outsider, it looked as if a light switch had been flipped with the offensive line. To them, their performance since Week 8 has been the result of gradual and steady progress. Right guard Paul Fanaika said the line wasn’t surprised it finally happened. It takes time, he said, for a group that was put together at the start of training camp to finally mesh.

And when it did, a 5-1 record in the past six games has been the result.

“Once you start that momentum going, it’s like, ‘All right, I think this is going in the right direction,’” Winston said. “And it seemed like there was so much more consistency. Instead of having those flashes, you got it for longer and longer spurts of time. Now, I think we’re at a good point where we’re expecting to make these drives and open up games with scores and do those things and convert third downs.

“Now it’s not, ‘Oh, yes, we did it. Let’s not try to mess it up again.’ It’s something where I think a lot of people have a lot of confidence around here.”

But the offensive line shouldn't be the goat or the hero all the time, said Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, who was a Hall of Fame guard. The key, Munchak said, is to avoid "stressful situations" during a game and so that the confidence Winston mentioned can grow.

On film, he's seen the confidence improve in every game, which has led to Arizona's line getting better throughout the season.

"The offensive line gets too much credit and gets too much blame," Munchak said. "There are more pieces -- it's the line, it's the tight ends, the running back -- there are a lot more pieces to the puzzle.

"Ultimately, you have to keep the guy upright. The offensive line has to give the quarterback a chance to be successful and not to fumble the ball in the pocket and things like that, and they've done a good job with that."

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