Pendergast has Cardinals' D flying
Clancy Pendergast might be relatively unknown, but that won't last if the Cardinals keep playing defense like they have been.
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.
|“||The one (constant) we're going to have, I think, is effort. 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. ”|
|— Clancy Pendergast, Cardinals defensive coordinator|
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."
In the first 49 starts of his career, New England quarterback Tom Brady has posted a 37-12 record, and a .755 winning percentage. A victory on Sunday against Miami, of course, would give the Pats a record 19-game winning streak and also elevate Brady into a tie for second place for best winning percentage by a quarterback in his first 50 starts. He would be at .755, tied with former Dallas Cowboys star Danny White. Here is the list of passers with the best winning marks in their first 50 starts:
Player -- Record -- Pct.
Ken Stabler -- 40-9-1 -- .810
Danny White -- 38-12 -- .760
Jim McMahon -- 37-13 -- .740
Dan Marino -- 37-13 -- .740
John Elway -- 35-15 -- .700
Mark Rypien -- 35-15 -- .700
Kurt Warner -- 35-15 -- .700
Stat of the Week
Stat of the Weak
There is no denying that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has been a much more accurate passer this season, that he is playing more under control in the offense that was implemented by coordinator Greg Knapp in camp, that he is taking better care of the football in general. But one thing Vick hasn't done much yet is get the ball to his wide receivers. In four games, the Atlanta wideouts have combined for just 18 catches. There are 26 individual players in the NFL with more receptions than that.
The Last Word
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
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.
Although the Indianapolis offensive line is solid enough, there is no doubt Manning merits some of the credit for the low sack count.
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.
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.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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