On any given Sunday, the pursuit of championship glory is front and center, the primary reason to suit up. But the motivation doesn’t end there. Starting spots, job security, new contracts, signing bonuses, respect (or disrespect), the thrill of competition, and the desire to be the best all provide hefty incentive. The need to prove doubters and “haters” wrong also fuels the fire for some athletes. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a decade into his career; but one Super Bowl ring and a pair of MVP awards later, he STILL remembers all 23 teams that passed over him in the 2005 NFL draft.
Then there’s the motivation of unfinished business. Being close enough to see the promised land but falling just short can be the all-powerful stimulus for players banding together to chase a common goal. Like climbing within a few hundred feet of the summit of Mount Everest, the heartbreak of missed opportunities is often the birthplace of greatness.
The 2015 Arizona Cardinals are driven to finish what they started last year. After a 9-1 start, they were sitting pretty atop the NFC West. But the crushing weight of injuries dragged them down from division front-runner to wild card berth. They stumbled through the final third of the regular season and coughed up all of a three-game cushion in the West. By the time they reached the postseason, the starting roster was littered with casualties.
Quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, running backs Andre Ellington and Jonathan Dwyer, linebacker John Abraham, and defensive end Ed Stinson all suffered season-ending injuries. Star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, safety Tyrann Mathieu, linebacker Matt Shaughnessy, and defensive end Calais Campbell missed chunks of time trying to get healthy. In fact, Fitzgerald and Mathieu never were completely right. Throw in the loss of stalwart defensive end Darnell Dockett to a torn ACL in training camp, and the Cardinals exhausted most of their depth before they ever kicked off their wild card battle with the Panthers. With third-string QB Ryan Lindley at the helm, Arizona managed just 78 yards of net offense which was the lowest total in NFL playoff history.
A season with amazing promise ended painfully and abruptly. Head coach Bruce Arians would’ve been excused for wallowing in the “what ifs.” Instead, within days, the 2014 Coach of the Year pulled out his depth chart and began slotting players for this year’s run. A charismatic leader known for his blunt honesty and aggressive style, Arians preaches the value of team non-stop. He doesn’t sugarcoat or handle guys with kid gloves, and he expects maximum effort. He’s tough on his players, yet they respect him and respond to him. Even as the obstacles mounted and their championship hopes faded last season, the Cardinals never let up. What they lacked in talent and depth, they made up for with heart and intensity.
In their adversity and disappointment, the Cards forged the kind of unity, chemistry, determination, leadership, and experience that can’t blossom any other way. From the crippling injuries, as players were unexpectedly pressed into service, coveted depth emerged. And now while the football world fixates on the Patriots and Packers and non-stop analysis of Peyton Manning’s arm strength, Arizona is off to its own 3-0 start. While the victories may be against three opponents sporting a single victory combined, the Cardinals’ method speaks volumes about their potential.
Carson Palmer is back and better than ever. He’s already thrown 9 touchdown passes (only 2 interceptions) with a completion rate above 63%. He’s picked up where he left off before the knee injury. Over his last 18 games, he’s 16-2. In fact, Palmer hasn’t lost since the final week of 2013! His favorite target Larry Fitzgerald has back-to-back campaigns of more than a hundred yards receiving, and he’s already grabbed more TD catches this September (5) than he did all of last season (2). New addition Chris Johnson rushed for a pair of touchdowns Sunday in a blowout of San Francisco. This trio of 30-somethings spearheads an offense averaging more than 40 points per game.
Despite the departure of coordinator Todd Bowles to the Jets, the defense is more than carrying its weight. The front line remains tops in the league against the run. The secondary features superstar cornerback Patrick Peterson and a healthy explosive Mathieu as well as multiple pieces that Arizona can mix and match. The group picked off Colin Kaepernick four times and returned two of them for scores. Before the offense even got warmed up, the D had already posted a 14-0 lead. They’re fast, physical, and aggressive. They’re also confident. Even with all their missing and battered pieces last season, the defense still gave the Cardinals a chance to win every weekend.
Arizona isn’t one of the NFL’s flashy franchises. With only a single Super Bowl appearance behind Kurt Warner in 2009, the Cardinals don’t have the championship pedigree of Green Bay or New England or Dallas or San Francisco. What they do have is a fearless leader who won’t settle for anything less than the best, a locker room full of veterans who grasp the value of team and who’ve bought into the system, talent, depth, and good health plus the powerful motivation of unfinished business.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.