Pendergast has Cardinals' D flying

10/10/2004 - Arizona Cardinals

In the Gospel According to Clancy, there are parables and platitudes and pithy words of wisdom. And among the nuggets in that last verbal subset is an eight-word admonition which Arizona Cardinals first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast preaches to his charges on a near-daily basis.

Every game is going to be our resume.

Given the collectively dismal track record of the Cardinals defense -- an assemblage of rookies and retreads and somewhat talented young veterans eclipsed in the Valley of the Sun by all the losing that has taken place there -- it is an appropriate rallying cry. And it is almost as pertinent for Pendergast, who, despite being in the NFL 10 seasons, remains a virtual no-name even to some of the league's best-connected people.

Case in point: Last Monday afternoon, in speaking with general managers and personnel directors about the weekend's games and catching up on gossip, three team officials cited the surprising performance of the Cardinals' defense in the first four games. Two of them could not identify, however, the Arizona coordinator. Even after having been apprised it is Pendergast, there was still a sort of who's he reaction.

People won't be asking that question much longer if the Arizona defense continues to rate as one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2004 season and if Pendergast, who had never been a coordinator at any level before head coach Denny Green hired him in mid-January, keeps putting defenders in position to make plays.

Indeed, the most recent entries on the Pendergast resume are impressive, as are those of his defensive unit. This is, for sure, a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. And the Cardinals, who won their first game under Green last Sunday, are coming off a game in which the defense kept the explosive New Orleans offense bottled up much of the day.

This has been, truth be told, a season so far in which several defensive coordinators have helped to promulgate notable turnarounds. Ed Donatell, dismissed by Green Bay after the fourth-and-26 debacle in the 2003 playoffs, has done a marvelous job in Atlanta. Veteran coordinators Ray Rhodes (Seattle) and Dick LeBeau (Pittsburgh) have helped resuscitate their units. Despite a lack of offensive support, Gregg Williams has the Redskins defense playing an aggressive, blitzing style. In Tampa Bay, it isn't Monte Kiffin's unit that is responsible for the Bucs' winless start. Larry Coyer, another relatively unknown veteran, has schemed the Denver defense to a No. 2 ranking through the first month.

It is especially hard, though, to ignore or underestimate the nifty turnaround enacted by Pendergast and his defense. Just as hard to overlook is that the reversal of fortune for a unit that statistically ranked 26th in overall defense in 2003 and surrendered a league-worst 452 points has come principally without gimmicks.

OK, so there was that five-man front Pendergast employed a couple weeks ago to help corral mercurial Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. But the Cardinals defense is not a blitz-crazed bunch, applies its newfound pressure mostly with four or five rushers, and is pretty much devoid of frills. Its aggression, defined largely in numbers by the league-best 12 turnovers created in four games, is mostly a by-product of discipline, hustle and being accountable to every other guy lined up with you.

"When I interviewed for this job, the things that Coach Green said he wanted were an aggressive defense where the mindset mirrored that of his offense, and a coordinator who was a good teacher," said Pendergast, the bulk of whose experience in the league came in a seven-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys (1996-2002). "And so from the very first day, we told our guys that we were going to make them comfortable so that they could play the game as fast as possible, and that we would put them in position to make plays."

Every coordinator, of course, promises his minions that they will be playmakers in his scheme. That Pendergast, 36, has followed up that vow with validation is evidenced by the early numbers his defense has posted.

While the Cardinals statistically rank No. 25 in total defense, they have surrendered just 14.0 points per game, fifth lowest in the league. The average in 2003 was 28.3 points per game, and 32.5 in the first four outings of the campaign. A unit that permitted third-down conversion rate of 46.2 percent a year ago has lowered that to 31.1 percent this season. In "red zone" situations, Arizona has allowed only three touchdowns in 15 opposition drives inside the 20-yard line. The Cardinals have nine sacks, on pace for 36, a number the club has not reached since 1998. And with 12 takeaways (four interceptions and eight fumble recoveries), Arizona is already more than halfway toward its 2003 total of 23. And that is despite dropping, by conservative count, five other potential interceptions.

There is a certain irony to the fact that Pendergast, a Phoenix native who played at that city's Tolleson High School before attending the University of Arizona, is succeeding in his hometown. His family owned a substantial stretch of land in nearby Glendale, Ariz., site of the Cardinals' new stadium. His family sold the tract of land to the franchise and now Pendergast seems to have sold his players on his brand of defense.

"He makes you feel," acknowledged middle linebacker Ronald McKinnon, "like you're prepared for everything. He gets your respect and attention without screaming at you. He points out the reasons behind things, why they will work, and, hey, they've worked. And he definitely keeps you on your toes."

And, in some cases, on the edge of your seat.

One mechanism employed by Pendergast is to gather his defense for a Friday session, at a time of the week when game preparations are completed, and things are winding down. In a darkened meeting room, Pendergast flips on the videotape machine and shows a short compilation of 25 plays, both laudable and wretched, from the past week's game. It is a different atmosphere from the typical Monday tape review, the atmosphere a bit looser, but players unsure of what is going to transpire on the screen. One clip might show a pass breakup, followed 30 seconds later by a botched coverage from the same player.

The technique that Pendergast and Arizona defenders most credit for improving the unit's ability to get to the football, though, came on the field and not in a classroom. In the very first practice of the spring, Pendergast introduced a pursuit drill, in which every player on the unit is obliged to track an offensive player for 25 yards, through the end zone. If any player is deemed to have loafed on the five-minute drill, the entire unit must repeat it.

"Those first practices in the spring," recalled Pendergast, "we'd have maybe half the guys chasing the ball. And so everyone had to do it over. By summer, we had maybe cut down to 'repeats' to two or three. With our first unit now, there is really almost never a call-back, because guys know what is expected of them."

Funny thing but, when Pendergast arrived, a lot of people didn't know what to expect. He was interviewed after the Tampa Bay Bucs denied Green permission to speak with linebackers coach Joe Barry about the coordinator vacancy. Noted for providing young coaches opportunity and responsibility, Green was intrigued enough to hire him.

Pendergast, on the other hand, got just about exactly what he anticipated, it seems. A candid and articulate guy, he was asked earlier this week if he was pleasantly surprised by the level of talent at Arizona when he first reviewed tapes from last season. His pointed replay was that, no, what he saw on tape measured up, or down, to his assessments of the Cardinals defense from afar.

Pendergast came pretty quickly, though, to expect more. And to deliver more, whether it was with holdover players, or by bringing in replacements.

His professional career began in 1995 as a quality control assistant with the Houston Oilers and then, the following season, Pendergast began the seven-year stretch in Dallas, working with the linebackers and secondary. In 2003, he followed for Cowboys head coach Dave Campo, who had been hired as defensive coordinator in Cleveland, and worked that one season with the Browns linebackers.

"Excellent mind, really detail-oriented, a very good communicator and works well with younger players," assessed Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones.

Indeed, the success of the Dallas secondary and the growth of a Cleveland linebacker corps that underwent a total overhaul under Pendergast in '03, are testimony to his skills in developing young players. It is an acumen that has served him well in Arizona, where the defense includes six starters who were not with the Cardinals in 2003.

The ends, Bert Berry and Peppi Zellner, are retreads. There are two rookies, strongside linebacker Karlos Dansby (No. 2 pick) and "under" tackle Darnell Dockett (No. 3). Four starters were signed as veteran free agents or claimed on waivers, and one of those, free safety Ifeanyi Ohalete, wasn't even with the Cardinals in training camp. Somehow, the collection of players from far-flung places and background has meshed nicely.

"The one (constant) we're going to have, I think, is effort," Pendergast said. "The things our guys know they are going to get from us are (schemes) that allow them to be ready for just about anything and a lack of (baloney). There is no run-around here. We're direct and to the point. Guys understand where we're coming from, and they know where they stand with us. I think we've gotten the message through to them as to what we want to be."

If the Cardinals' unit keeps playing at its current level and Pendergast is likely to take the next step: Getting the message to general managers leaguewide about who he is.

Around the league

  • Since 1990, there have been only 10 "in-season" coaching changes in the NFL, the most recent coming last year, when Dan Reeves told Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank that he had no desire to continue as a lame duck after being apprised he was not coming back for the '04 campaign. The reason for the reduction in coaching changes during the season is a fairly simple one: Owners have come to realize they have no effect on a franchise. The NFL isn't like baseball, where Phil Garner can take over the floundering Houston Astros just after mid-season, and spark a surge that sees the team finally play up to its talent potential. The track record of in-season coaching changes, especially over the last 20 years, is, in a word, pathetic. And so, in all likelihood, there probably won't be any coaching changes in the NFL until after the'04 season concludes.

    Note, however, the wiggle-room disclaimer probably here, because the Miami Dolphins situation bears continuing scrutiny. To this point, Wayne Huizenga has been tacitly supportive of Dave Wannstedt, even if his team's dismal start has sent the Miami owner mostly to the bunker. Even general manager Rick Spielman used the term "foxhole" this week to refer to the organization's state of mind. But there could come a time, should the ugly losses continue, when Huizenga might feel compelled to make a change just for change's sake. To us, it makes little sense, since not even the reincarnation of Vince Lombardi could do any better trying to play the hand that has been dealt to the classy Wannstedt. Imbued with the same kind of pragmatism shared by many of his peers, Wannstedt continues to try to make the best of the unraveled situation and is as focused as ever. Word is that, during a conversation with Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher this week, Wannstedt was legitimately unaware the Titans and Packers, who meet Monday night in Green Bay, are both off to disappointing 1-3 starts. So anyone who suggests Wannstedt is just biding time until the inevitable would be misguided. But there are quiet whispers, suggestions even, that Huizenga, who paid a visit to the Dolphins office earlier this week, could grow increasingly desperate to staunch a tide of negative publicity.

    And don't discount this possibility: Huizenga comes in one day and Wannstedt presses the issue, asks him if there has been any kind of determination on his future, and the owner candidly responds by acknowledging there is going to be a change after the season. And Wannstedt, beaten down by the current predicament and maybe hoping to get some time off to recharge the batteries for 2005, when he figures to be either an NFL coordinator or a college head coach, strikes a deal to exit before the end of the year. He cuts a settlement on the two years remaining on his contract, heads off to a less frazzled existence for a while, and allows some other poor schmuck to commandeer the Dolphins sinking ship. For now, folks, we'll continue to think there won't be any in-season coaching changes. And we will continue to assume that the massive overhaul in Miami, beginning with the retirement of team president Eddie Jones, won't commence until January. But that opinion, particularly when considering the plight of Wannstedt, is definitely subject to change.

  • One more example of how fragmented the season has become for Wannstedt: After all the hurricanes that have devastated Florida, disrupted practices, and forced the Dolphins to change either the day or time for two of three home games, this was a week in which the Miami staff figured things might return to semi-normal. And then the news hit that tailback Ricky Williams might be seeking to return and, like the erstwhile tailback, the situation grew abnormal again. Said one Dolphins staffer: "Just when you thought it was going to settle down, Ricky pops up again, and the circus starts all over. Instead of being about us, even with all the negatives, the locker room opens on Wednesday, and all the media wants to talk about with our players is a guy who quit on them. Are we a bad team? Have we made mistakes with personnel and (stuff)? Yeah. But the non-football stuff, like the hurricanes and the Ricky situation, that has all hurt us, too."

  • His statements to his chosen historians at the Miami Herald aside -- you know, all that manure about his rekindled passion for the game, and wanting to pay back the Dolphins "every single cent" of the $8.6 million he owes them -- weirdo tailback Ricky Williams really had no intention of un-retiring this year. And even less desire, according to folks familiar with the situation, to repay the Dolphins in full. The whole notion of having agent Leigh Steinberg seek a hearing with the league, it is believed, was simply to clarify Williams' status for 2005. The suggestion that he wanted such a hearing expedited, so it would come before the Oct. 19 trade deadline, is silly. He does not, despite his ramblings to the Herald, want to play in '04 in Miami, and his plan was to offer the team significantly less than the $8.6 million an arbitrator has ordered him to fork over. The fact is, Williams cannot un-retire this season, unless he wants to serve a suspension of one year. That's the penalty for opting to take a hike to the Third World while already under sanctions that relate to the NFL substance abuse policy. If he returns in 2005, Williams will face a less-severe four-game suspension. Of course, the key question is, what team will want Williams anyway given his lack of dependability? Give credit to the bumbling Dolphins for this much: They had enough foresight, and wariness of Williams' flightiness, to write very specific "default" language into his deal when they reworked his contract a couple years ago. How smart were the Dolphins? They included a stipulation that Williams repay signing bonus money Miami didn't even pay him -- that was shelled out by the New Orleans Saints when he was a rookie in 1999 -- as part of the deal. Yep, they knew Williams is wacky, so they protected themselves against the whims of the bizarre tailback.

  • Of course, Williams wasn't the only high profile tailback talking out of both sides of his mouth this week, right? In Atlanta, the city where I live, U.S. district court judge Orinda Evans asked Jamal Lewis during his Thursday plea bargain hearing if he made a cell phone call to a longtime friend to facilitate a drug deal. And the Baltimore Ravens star back responded, in court and on the record: "Yes, your honor." And then 30 minutes later, in a claim NFL officials appear ready to buy into, one of Lewis' defense attorneys said that at no time did his client "possess cocaine, intend to possess cocaine, provide any money for the purchase of cocaine, or expect to receive any money from the sale of cocaine." Uh, what? Like most athletes, Lewis is taking shelter behind the hackneyed old camouflage that, when the drug deal occurred in the summer of 2000, he was just some impressionable 20-year-old kid, one who made a bad judgment. That's bull. As the top-rated high school player in the country, Lewis had all kinds of judgments to make (like a choice of college) long before he even turned 20. That defense doesn't fly. Fortunately for Lewis and the Ravens, though, his high profile defense team helped him navigate a plea agreement that won't prematurely end his career. A plea, we might add, to charges that Lewis had passionately denied just eight months ago. And, please, let's not have Ravens coach Brian Billick try to convince people, as he did in the Ray Lewis case, that Jamal Lewis is guilty of no charges.

  • We referred in the "Morning After" column on Monday to the ballhandling skills of Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and how his sleight-of-hand also benefits the Colts running game, and that bears reprising. But in speaking this week to some Colts offensive linemen, and defensive pass rushers around the league, the legerdemain is also seen as contributing mightily to the fact Manning has been sacked a league-low two times through four games. "There is a natural hesitation when you're rushing him, because of all the play-action, and the fear you're just going to come (all)-out against him, and he is going to slip the ball off to (tailback Edgerrin) James," said one Jacksonville defender who was forced into that pass-rush conundrum at times last week. "He's so clever that you find yourself looking for the ball and not just reacting. Plus, he gets the ball out so quickly, by the time the pass rush gets there, the thing is out of his hand."

    Although the Indianapolis offensive line is solid enough, there is no doubt Manning merits some of the credit for the low sack count.

  • Now that Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden has elevated quarterback Chris Simms to the top of the depth chart for the foreseeable future, it will be interesting to see how the Bucs handle demoted starter Brad Johnson. There are whispers that Johnson could fall all the way to the No. 3 spot and, given that Gruden seriously considered turning the starting spot over to Brian Griese before settling on Simms, that could well be the case.

    Suffice it to say that, no matter what transpires over the rest of the season, Johnson will not be back with the Bucs in 2005. Not with a base salary of $5.75 million. It is highly unlikely that he will be dealt, though, before next Tuesday's trade deadline, as some have speculated. The truth is, Gruden inherited Johnson when he moved east from Oakland, but never really embraced the veteran as his starter. He became enthralled with the younger Simms because, as is the case with all coaches who are labeled great "quarterback developers," he wanted to be Pygmalion with his own guy. Beginning with the springtime minicamps, when Gruden started gushing about the progress of Simms, it was pretty obvious where the Bucs coach was headed, and now he has arrived there.

    But the difficult thing for Gruden to accept, we're guessing, is the tacit admission that he's playing for the future now. It's a change of approach that might help the Tampa Bay organization in general, and in part, dodge some blame for the poor offseason it experienced. One of the many ill-advised moves was handling offensive tackle Todd Steussie, coming off a terrible year in Carolina last season, a $4 million signing bonus. As the right tackle, Steussie becomes the blindside pass protector for the southpaw Simms. Which helps explain why the Bucs are considering moving former first-round pick Kenyatta Walker, all but forgotten under the Gruden regime, into the starting lineup at right tackle. Walker, by the way, had a great line when asked about his progress under Gruden and line coach Bill Muir. "It's come slow," he noted. "Slower than a turtle. Slower even than anything that is slower than a turtle." Look for Gruden, without ever conceding it publicly, to begin overhauling his team for the future.

  • Brad Johnson isn't the only player who probably won't be swapping addresses before next Tuesday's deadline for trades. True, there has been more trading this season, both before and during the season. And, yep, there are ramped-up discussions on some fronts. But the deals, if there are any, don't figure to be staggering. Kansas City would still like to dump former first-round tailback Larry Johnson, but acknowledge there really isn't much of a market. The Raiders would love to send Jerry Rice packing, but there aren't any takers right now. Look for a deal or two involving an offensive lineman or maybe a defensive lineman, as teams try to beef up depth-wise in those two areas.

  • Maybe it's a good thing that no punches were thrown in the contretemps between New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks and defensive end Charles Grant on the Saints' flight home after last Sunday's loss to the previously winless Arizona Cardinals. Word is that Grant, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season to this point, is very popular among his teammates. And that the aloof Brooks doesn't exactly inspire great loyalty. Could be that most of the Saints would have been in the defensive end's corner had something more serious than just some ugly jawboning escalated from the argument.

  • Once again this week, with the retention of starting left offensive tackle Matt Light on a six-year contract extension, New England Patriots brass demonstrated why it is on top of the NFL world. The Pats have an uncanny knack for keeping most players they don't want to lose but for not breaking the bank in doing so. Had Light gone out on the open market next spring as an unrestricted free agent, he probably could have squeezed another million dollars in upfront money, and about a half-million more on yearly average, out of some suitor. But the $27 million deal, with $9 million in bonus money, was enough to keep him around, and the Pats knew it. In fact, they know their team better than most clubs understand players, and that is a key to their success. Light got a signing bonus of $2.5 million and an option bonus of $6.5 million payable next spring. His base salaries are $1 million each in 2005 and 2006, then $3.5 million (2007), $3.75 million (2008), $4.25 million (2009) and $4.5 million (2010). The Pats also quietly re-upped another player who would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency, linebacker and special teams ace Larry Izzo, for two more seasons. Izzo got $150,000 to sign and base salaries of $665,000 and $670,000. But his explanation for re-signing at this early stage were telling. "I love this team," Izzo said. "I love this region. And I'm looking forward to continuing to play here. You never know what might happen when you go out on the open market. I'm really happy we could do something now." Next target for the Pats brass: Star kicker Adam Vinatieri, arguably the NFL's best clutch placement specialist, and the man who hammered home the game winning field goals in both Super Bowl victories.

  • Tough to tell at this point if Minnesota coach Mike Tice is just playing mind games with fifth-year veteran Chris Hovan, demoted from the starting lineup this week, or if he really is displeased with the performance of the former first-round defensive tackle. Journeyman Steve Martin took most of the snaps with the team's "base" defense this week, and Hovan played principally on the "nickel" unit. During the first couple seasons of his career, the fiery Hovan played at a Pro Bowl level. His performance has slipped a bit, but perhaps not quite as much as the coaching staff likes to hint it has. Hovan and Tice have had some ups and downs and it will be interesting to see how this is resolved.

  • We're still not buying into the rationale that his 11-year absence allowed the game to simply pass Redskins coach Joe Gibbs by. But we do accept the suggestions from one key Washington player that the team's sideline is "chaotic" when the 'Skins are on offense. In four games, Washington is averaging just 15.25 points. The Redskins averaged 24.03 points under Gibbs his first time around.

  • Two pending Pittsburgh unrestricted free agents, wide receiver Plaxico Burress and inside linebacker Kendrell Bell, are getting mixed reviews from personnel directors who have already begun perusing the list of available veterans for the spring. After boycotting the Steelers' offseason workouts, Burress has been a model citizen, and his demeanor has been especially exemplary at a time when he isn't getting the ball very much. Because the Steelers are running the ball more, and have simplified the game plan for rookie starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the veteran wideout has just nine catches for 172 yards and no touchdowns. This from a deep threat who, over the past three seasons, averaged 68 receptions, 1,064.3 yards, and 5.7 touchdowns. Burress has been outspoken, though, in his support of Roethlisberger, even if his body language sometimes hints at frustration.

    On the other hand, Bell continues to be out of the lineup with injuries, and hasn't been on the field for a single snap. This week, he underwent surgery for a "sports hernia" and will be sidelined at least two more games. That hasn't gone unnoticed by pro scouts around the league. When the Steelers extended the contract of fellow inside linebacker James Farrior this summer, it seemed obvious they would not attempt to keep Bell, who has not progressed as markedly as people hoped after being named defensive rookie of the year in 2001. Now one has to wonder just how much Bell will command on the open market. He is a talented defender, with great playmaker potential, but the injuries send up a red flag. Plus, teams simply won't overpay, if history is any indicator, for inside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. Perhaps Bell could move to a strongside spot. But after notching nine sacks as a rookie, the Pittsburgh coaches tried for two straight summers to turn Bell into a "nickel" pass rusher, and all he collected was eight sacks.

  • It now appears that Chicago Bears offensive tackle Marc Colombo, who has not played in a game since dislocating his left kneecap on Nov. 18, 2002, will test himself on the field in the next week or so. The tentative date for Colombo to see just how far he has progressed in his long and frustrating rehabilitation is Oct. 20. The former Boston College standout, chosen in the first round of the '02 draft, has been dogged in his battle to try to beat the odds and make it back onto the active roster. Here's hoping he does.

  • Punts: Steelers tailback Jerome Bettis is now averaging more touchdowns per game (1.25) than yards per carry (1.22). ... The 100-yard performance for Emmitt Smith last week was his first since Dec. 1, 2002. In between those century performances, the leading career rusher in league history averaged just 32.9 yards per game. ... San Francisco has had 16 different defensive linemen on its 53-man active roster through the first four weeks of the season. ... The Cowboys have 904 net passing yards, the most ever for Dallas through the first three weeks of the season. ... Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker, who played in the Pro Bowl in 2003, has zero sacks so far. Ditto Buffalo end Aaron Schobel, who signed a $23 million contract extension, with a $6.75 million signing bonus, this summer. ... The Vikings have not intercepted a pass yet this season. By unofficial count, they have dropped at least five would-be interceptions. ... On the flip side, the Minnesota offense has now posted at least 300 yards in 32 straight games, the longest such streak in league history.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.