NFC West: Eric Winston

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.

"Would you be interested in running?" Winston said.

He was at the bi-annual 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's 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's 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 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 cliché 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 work-place 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 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 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 criss-crossing 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."
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."

Free-agency primer: Cardinals

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
11:00
AM ET
» 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.

Kiper mock 1.0 reaction: Cardinals

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
3:00
PM ET
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.
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."
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It would take all day but right tackle Eric Winston would be glad to sit down talk about how the Arizona Cardinals' offensive line changed from its first game against the St. Louis Rams, a 27-24 loss, to this Sunday, a 30-10 victory.

But the short version goes like this: “We’re just a different team,” Winston said. “Different confidence. I wish we could go back and start over.”

Maybe then, Arizona wouldn’t have given up four sacks in that first game and let St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn dictate what the offense did. But the Cardinals lived and they learned, and Sunday was a different story.

For starters, Quinn was going against a new left tackle in Bradley Sowell. Then the Rams’ defense was facing an offense that had three months to gel, and it made enough of a difference to hold the Rams to just one sack and two quarterback hits.

“It was a situation where I think we were ready for it,” Winston said. “We went into the week knowing we have two guys on the outside that we’re going to have to shut down.”

And that they did.

Every time Sowell read about his matchup against Quinn, the more personal it got for the second-year tackle. He heard all about Quinn’s three sacks and two forced fumbles in Week 1 and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen. There were times, however, where Quinn blew past Sowell and missed sacking quarterback Carson Palmer by a fraction of a second.

But, for the most part, Sowell was able to keep Quinn off Palmer. Quinn didn’t have a sack and hit Palmer just once.

“My goal was to go out there and every time I got my hands on him, try to beat him up,” Sowell said. “It was a good matchup between me and him. We had some physical battle up there.

“Today I end up not giving up anything so it was a big day.”

The coaching improved, too, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

“We covered our guys up and chipped, and helped a little bit more than we have in the past,” he said.

The plan throughout the week was to help Sowell often, but he didn’t get as much help as he expected. But Arizona chipped on Quinn and those guys, tight ends and running backs, ended up open. Palmer saw that and hit them quickly.

The Rams only sack was by Alec Ogletree, and it didn’t happen until midway through the third quarter.

“That defense rarely only gets one sack and they always get quarterback pressures and quarterback hits and knock downs, but protection was phenomenal,” Palmer said.

While the focus was on Sowell stopping Quinn, Winston was able to handle Long on the other wise but he noticed how frustrated Quinn was getting.

“I think when you can do that to anyone’s defense,” Winston said, “you can make sure their good players don’t get off on you and now you have a chance to go downfield and you have a chance to do some things.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Before his 13 previous matchups against Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, Cardinals right tackle Eric Winston spent hours upon hours studying the league's most feared spin move.

Winston would look for any tell -- a lean, a nudge, an extra breath -- anything that could give him an advantage to stopping Mathis. Winston couldn't find anything.
Winston
"There's very few of them," Winston said. "There really is. He does a good job of just being in the same stance all the time, however he's going to play it. There's a few alignment things here and there but that was back with the old defense. In the new defense, they kinda move him around so much that it's tough to get a read on him."

But Arizona offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, who prepared the Colts offensive line every day last season to face Mathis, kept his instructions for the Cards' line basic: "Keep him away from the quarterback."

That's much easier said than done.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who benefitted from having Mathis on his side last season in Indianapolis, said Mathis isn't built like the prototypical linebacker. He doesn't have the perfect size nor the perfect speed, Arians said.

"But he is relentless," he added.

Goodwin called him the "Energizer bunny."

That has helped Mathis record a league-best 13.5 sacks, but it's also made Goodwin's job tougher. Goodwin knows when the Colts are in their base defense, Mathis will be on the open side. When Indy goes into nickel, he moves back and forth from right to left.
Mathis
Even when an offensive lineman knows Mathis' trademark move is coming, it's hard to stop.

"There's no one else in the league save (San Diego's Dwight) Freeney that can spin like him," Winston said. "It's violent, it's quick. He knows exactly when your weight's a little on the outside. He can spin inside. He's got all the moves, he's got the speed.

"It's hard to really sit on a move or sit on any couple moves. You have to kinda play it all. When you're trying to play it all, you're not really sitting on one move and he can get you with one."

Goodwin may have tipped his hand when he said Arizona will most likely use another offensive lineman or a running back as a second blocker on Mathis. It's not something anybody hasn't tried before. No matter what the scheme is, Mathis has seen it, and clearly not much has worked. Arians, however, was quick to point out that Arizona can't double Mathis on every play because of how Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky moves Mathis.

While most teams may have one tackle with experience against Mathis and his spin, the Cardinals have two with an extensive knowledge of how he moves. Left tackle Bradley Sowell faced Mathis in practice last season when he was Mathis' teammates in Indy.

He's seen Mathis' spin too many times to count, but Sunday has been circled on Sowell's calendar for a while. To play well against Mathis might be Sowell's best accomplishment this season.

"It's going to mean a lot," Sowell said. "Obviously, the team that cut you, you're going to want to come out and show they made a mistake. At the same time once the game starts I'll be settled down and playing the ballgame."

After facing Mathis for all eight years of his career, Winston knows what's coming -- he's known every game -- yet he's still not ready for what he sees.

"It's like a knuckleball pitcher," Winston said. "You just don't see it very often. So it's really hard to practice. It's hard to imagine if you haven't played him a lot. You get out in the game and you're kinda surprised by the stuff he can do."
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A lot of teams have practiced well during the week but come out flat or slow and lost on Sunday.

But not a lot of teams have the type of early-week practice that Cardinals coach Bruce Arians put his team through on Monday. Coming off a loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 17, Arizona had the weekend after off, so Arians took advantage of a new rule in the CBA that allows teams to practice in pads twice in a week just once during the season.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Bruce Arians
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri"We had a training-camp practice," Bruce Arians said of Monday. "A lot of teams would balk at that."
And it paid off in Sunday’s 27-13 win over Atlanta.

“We had a training-camp practice,” Arians said. “A lot of teams would balk at that.

“We had the best practice we’ve had all year and it set the tempo for this game and set the tempo for the rest of the season.”

Actually, a lot of players did balk but they knew at 3-4 heading into the Falcons’ game, they weren’t in a position to voice their displeasure. If they were 7-1, linebacker John Abraham said, Arians would’ve heard some moaning and groaning. But the Cardinals aren’t.

“If you’re trying to win, you’re going to do it,” Abraham said. “It was game speed. Literally it was game speed. We could’ve literally tackled, which a couple people did here and there. We could’ve took people down. It was a game. It was pretty much like training camp. It was going hard and we banged each other. We kinda just showed each other that we got it and we still can play. It was more for mentality thing.”

Two words were commonly used to describe Monday’s practice: character and maturity.

That the Cardinals took advantage of the extra work day proved to each other that they were committed to improving. And they all knew what was on the line, especially heading into a bye week -- 3-5 doesn’t sit as well as 4-4 does for two weeks.

“We just came back,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said, “and put our head down.”

Right tackle Eric Winston has been on teams that practiced well but didn’t play at the same level. He watched Monday’s practice carry over into Wednesday which propelled the Cardinals on Sunday.

“We knew we needed to get back to work,” he said. “We came Monday ready to work and we executed that. That, the execution part more so than anything, carried over into today.”
SAN FRANCISCO -- It's pretty typical for the offense to praise the defense and the defense to do it right back.

But it's not as often the offense flat out says the defense saved its rear.

“I really tip my hat to the defense in the first half because we could’ve been out of it in (the first) seven minutes,” Cardinals left tackle Eric Winston said.

Without the Cardinals’ defense, Sunday’s 32-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers could’ve been over long before seven minutes passed. Arizona held the Niners to no more than four plays on their first four drives, two of which ended in field goals. Arizona's offense, however, kept giving the Niners opportunities, throwing two interceptions in the game's first 6 minutes.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals defense limited the 49ers to field goals on several red zone trips in the first half.
But it wasn’t just that the Cards were stopping the Niners on third down, it was where they were doing it. Arizona held on its own 7-yard-line for three straight plays and then from its 11, 6 and 8 on another drive. Then in the second quarter, Yeremiah Bell intercepted Colin Kaepernick on the goal line from the 2.

Another red zone trip. Another trip without points.

“Our motto on defense, like Coach always said, (is) defend every blade of grass,” nose tackle Dan Williams said. “Just cause they’re down there, doesn’t mean they have to score a touchdown.

“We actually don’t want to give up any points. They get down there and we want to hold them to a field goal and when they get to a field goal we want to block that.”

Before San Francisco started its last drive of the first quarter, the one that ended with Bell’s interception, the Niners had a total of minus-1 yard. The defense saw the dividends of its work when the offense turned a corner midway through the second with a three-play touchdown drive.

But it started to slow in the second half, when the defense began not adhering to gap assignments and freestyling more, Williams said. The Cardinals couldn't stop the same running play no matter how many times the Niners ran it, rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu said.

“I thought our defense played outstanding until they were out there too long again,” head coach Bruce Arians said.

Sunday, linebacker John Abraham said, was an example of a true team effort. One side wasn’t going to let the other fail. They’d have each other’s backs, Williams added.

“I think it’s just the character of our defense,” Bell said. “We feel like we’re a strong unit. We feel like we can hold up against anything.”

Against the 49ers, the Cardinals showed they could.

Locker Room Buzz: Arizona Cardinals

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
9:12
PM ET
Observed in the locker room after the Arizona Cardinals' 32-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Arians
Arians
Play to win: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians didn’t enjoy leaving San Francisco with what amounted to a moral victory. “We only play to win,” he said. The Cardinals fell to 3-3 and into a tie for third -- and last -- in the NFC West. Arians added the Cardinals let a win slip out of their grasp.

Running game returns: One constant throughout the postgame locker room session was how Arizona’s running game, which came to life on the first drive of the second half, is necessary to win. With a running game that was eating yards and time, the 49ers pass rush wasn’t as effective.

No D, no W: Left tackle Eric Winston wasn’t shy about it. He said without the Cardinals’ defense Sunday, the Niners would’ve been in the driver’s seat in about seven minutes. But, he added, when the offense is struggling, the defense needs to come to the rescue.

TOs cause L: Arians and Winston said it: Four turnovers will not beat a team like the 49ers. The one positive, however, was that the Cardinals were able to keep it close until the fourth despite two early interceptions but two late fumbles did them in.
NEW ORLEANS -- The cover of the New Orleans Saints’ game day magazine featured a photo of defensive end Cameron Jordan with the headline: “The sky’s the limit.”

Maybe the team knew something the Arizona Cardinals didn’t.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Junior Galette
AP Photo/Bill HaberSpeed rusher Junior Galette gave Carson Palmer and the Cardinals problems.
Jordan caused fits for Arizona throughout the Cardinals’ 31-7 loss, keeping right tackle Eric Winston busy all afternoon while rushing quarterback Carson Palmer off the edge. He finished with four tackles -- two for a loss -- three quarterback hits and two sacks.

“When you get on the road and you get behind, as a tackle, it’s tough. It’s a tough day,” Winston said. “I felt overall I played alright. I wish had a couple plays back.”

When Jordan wasn’t getting to Palmer, Junior Galette was making life hard on the left side for Levi Brown. He also had three quarterback hits and finished with a sack.

Speed rushers continued to find their way around Brown. Galette was the second speed rusher Brown has faced in the first three weeks of the season, and it’s becoming a liability for the Cardinals, who needed to stack a tight end on the end or in the backfield for added protection. Against St. Louis, Brown gave up three sacks to Robert Quinn.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians emphasized protecting Palmer again after the game.

Palmer, who was sacked four times, was complimentary of the Saints’ pass-rush tandem.

“There’s two very good pass rushers that people don’t know a whole lot about,” Palmer said. “You hear a lot (about) Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma (who are both injured), but Cameron Jordan is really good. He showed that today. Junior Galette is really good. They’re physical guys. They stop the run and they rush the passer. A really good combination of strength and speed, and enough strength to hold up against the tackles and play the run well, and enough speed and athleticism to get around the corner and make plays in the passing game.”

It looks like the Cardinals know who they are now.
NEW ORLEANS -- The shift started on a third down late in the first quarter.

Until then, the Arizona Cardinals looked smooth as their offense produced a nearly flawless opening drive that quieted the Superdome crowd, momentarily taking the air out of the New Orleans Saints’ rowdies. Arizona’s 31-7 loss to the Saints began with the Cardinals taking a 7-0 lead. The Saints responded, tying the game on their first possession, and then it happened.

On third down from the Cardinals' 28-yard line, quarterback Carson Palmer looked to rookie running back Stepfan Taylor. They needed three yards to convert their third third down of the quarter, instead Taylor ran a two-yard route.

Arizona punted. And punted. And punted.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
AP Photo/Bill FeigCarson Palmer and the Cardinals offense couldn't get anything going in the second half, gaining just 95 yards.
The Cardinals’ offense slowed to a grinding halt starting with that third-down failure and never was able to get out of neutral. Arizona punted on eight straight drives and was outscored 31-0.

“I thought we had a conversion on [Taylor’s] third down but we didn’t quite get there and that was kind of when they turned the momentum on us,” right guard Eric Winston said. “We never did anything to get it back.”

The Cardinals got away from what worked for them on that opening drive, which went 80 yards in 11 plays. Instead of varying the weapons, as they used three running backs and five receivers on that opening drive, the Cards’ offense became stale.

Palmer began relying on rookies, throwing to Jaron Brown on two plays and targeting Andre Ellington twice as many times in the second quarter as Larry Fitzgerald.

Even after Javier Arenas had his best return of the season, 46 yards with less than 3 minutes left in the first half, the Cardinals couldn’t convert inside New Orleans’ territory, going three and out.

“We still are a team that can run to the 50-yard line and kill ourselves,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “It seemed like we did it all day -- we’d get first downs and first downs and then boom, we’d get to the 50-yard-line and then not convert a third down when the play was there to be made.”

After halftime, however, the offense slowed to a crawl. It managed just 22 yards in the third quarter on eight plays.

Third down again plagued the Cardinals, who converted just 5-of-13 opportunities. Arizona finished with 247 yards, less than Palmer threw for in each of his first two games. He finished with 187 yards on 18-of-35 passing and was sacked four times.

Arians said a few dropped balls and players lining up in the wrong positions didn’t help the cause.

Palmer shouldered the blame to an extent. He said a few of his passes were bad, such as the interception he threw in the fourth quarter after the Cardinals found their legs again with back-to-back passes to Larry Fitzgerald for 26 yards and Michael Floyd for 13, respectively.

For three quarters Sunday, the Cardinals’ offense looked like it was playing in 2012, when many of the same issues hampered its progress.

Palmer wouldn’t say whether Sunday was just an off day or if there were deeper problems within the offense.

“We need to get better. I need to get better. We need to get better as an offense,” Palmer said. “Our defense played great for three quarters and really slowed them down -- got a turnover, gave us some momentum. We just didn’t give them enough to feed off of. We weren’t successful enough and staying on the field long enough to get them a rest and give them something to keep fighting for.

“It just wasn’t good enough.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Eric Winston had yet to finish one of those small bottles of hotel shampoo before he was working on the two-minute drill during training camp with the Arizona Cardinals.

It took him about two days to realize his new coach, Bruce Arians, was very serious about situational football.

“You don’t usually do that,” Winston said with a smirk. “I think it stresses the importance of all the situations, understanding the situations, knowing what we need to do. And doing it.”

[+] EnlargeRashard Mendenhall
AP Photo/Darryl WebbAfter losing in Week 1 in the final seconds, the Cardinals edged Detroit at the end of the game behind Rashard Mendenhall and a defensive stand.
Just as it didn’t take long for Winston to find out how important the two-minute drill was to the Cardinals, it took the Cardinals just as long to find out how fragile those 120 seconds are.

Two minutes can be a long time. It was long enough for the Cardinals to lose a game, and long enough for them to win. Both have happened already this season -- and it’s only Week 3.

The Cards lost to St. Louis in Week 1 on a field goal with 40 seconds remaining, and then last Sunday they beat Detroit after Rashard Mendenhall ran in for a touchdown with 1:59 to play, and the defense held on.

“It is a peeve of mine if we don’t win in two-minute or if we lose a game in two-minute like we did against the Rams,” Arians said. “But we won the game this week so we can build on it, and I think they’re starting to believe it now.”

All it took was a defensive stand.

The Lions regained possession with just under two minutes left in the game, and with a quarterback like Matthew Stafford and a receiver like Calvin Johnson, that's enough time to score two or three times over. And the Cardinals knew it.

Arizona gave up a 17-yard pass on the first play, but then shut down the Lions on four straight plays, capped by a game-winning tackle by rookie defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.

“It came down to two minutes and that was something we were so confident in, that we would win the ballgame with two minutes left, because we do it every single day,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “Even when we are tired at some point, this is going to help us.

“We know going to New Orleans, it might just come down to that.”

Against Detroit, Arizona’s defense clamped down when it counted. In seven plays after the two-minute warnings in both the first and second halves, the Cardinals have allowed only 25 yards. They limited Stafford to 5.2 yards per pass attempt, and they were stronger against the run, allowing minus-1 yards on two carries.

The Cardinals’ performance was a product of their preparation.

Arians finished every practice in OTAs and training camp with a two-minute scenario because he knew that during the season it’d be tougher to work on the two-minute drill. The Cardinals usually work on the two-minute drill on Thursdays, but even then Arians has to be careful because players' legs are usually tired at that point in the week.

He spent a “ton” of time on two-minute scenarios in Indianapolis, and approached the drill in Pittsburgh similar to how he’s doing it in Arizona.

But his players don’t need to look at Arians for proof that the two-minute drill is crucial to winning games. There have been 22 games through the first two weeks of the season decided by seven points or fewer -- a new record, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“Those things are real,” Arians said. “You need to coach that way.”

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