- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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For the Arizona Cardinals, team chemistry starts with an attitude. That attitude starts on defense.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast stresses hustle. Hustle can be visibly seen on tape. The idea is to have at least nine players seen on the screen when the play ends. Then, line up as a team defense and spread the field to execute the game plan. Next, come together and converge on the ball carrier once the play starts. That's the plan.
Last year, the plan started with the type of players picked for the defense by head coach Dennis Green and vice president of football operations Rod Graves. Green demoted a bunch of underachieving high draft choices loitering on the roster. He replaced them with hustlers such as defensive end Bertrand Berry, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, linebacker Karlos Dansby and cornerback David Macklin.
With hard work, the Cardinals became the 12th-best defense in football. They expect to be much better in 2005.
"We wanted 11 guys to play with heart," Pendergast said. "We had heart defined as Hustle, Execution, Attitude, Respect and Technique. Guys bought into that. With heart, you are going to fly around to the football."
In year two, the Cardinals added to the mix by drafting cornerback Antrel Rolle and signing defensive end Chike Okeafor and linebacker Orlando Huff -- the latter two having played last season for division-rival Seattle.
To call the Cardinals a sleeper team is a misnomer. With each snap on defense, they awaken you with their ability to converge to make tackles and plays. Pendergast is making them a machine, a machine that works fast and efficiently.
"We will feed a lot off each other," said Berry, a Pro Bowler last season. "You don't have to be a vocal leader in this league. You can lead by example. As a unit, though, we want to be the ones who establish the tempo."
Credit Green with having the master plan. He did something similar in Minnesota with the Vikings. In Minnesota, Green picked players more for their hustle and heart than for their pure scouting numbers. Some of his stars, such as defensive tackle John Randle, went undrafted. Randle was undersized, but he hustled on every down. Green cared less about the scouting the reports than he did the results on the field.
Though his Vikings defenses were slightly undersized, they had good team speed. He's putting the same type of model in place with the Cardinals. He realizes it takes a few years to assemble offensive talent. He's plugging in Kurt Warner at quarterback. He drafted Larry Fitzgerald last year to be a big target at wide receiver. He hopes J.J. Arrington provides a spark in the running game. Holes in the middle of the offensive line still have to be addressed.
But Green realized he could make an immediate impact on defense. Finding the right players who are willing to work together and hustle can speed up the process of winning and make a statement on the field. With a tough, aggressive defense, the Cardinals are now on the map. They can be a factor.
"I think this is going to be a team that has to rely on defense to set things up," Green said.
Safety Adrian Wilson has watched a lot of philosophies and theories fail in his five years with the Cardinals. Players loved former head coach Dave McGinnis. He was a players' coach and he created a great environment for his team. The defense hustled. The offense tried. But the chemistry never worked out to a point that the team won.
As a franchise, the Cardinals struggled with a plan. For McGinnis, who didn't pick the players, the Cardinals relied on youth sprinkled with a couple of high-priced free agents. During McGinnis' reign, the Cardinals were among the league's youngest teams. Some of the top draft choices never lived up to their scouting reports.
Green and Pendergast changed that. The scouting reports meant nothing to them. They looked for the guys who hustled and moved first- and second-rounders who didn't to the back of line. All that is nice, but success wins over a team in the locker room. The Cardinals were noticeably better on defense early in the season. The coaches struck gold.
"I think everybody started believing in it," Wilson said. "We had a lot of speed. We took advantage of different people's skills. Each unit on defense has speed. Now, we have the personnel to build on it."
The Chargers underwent a major chemistry adjustment in 2004. Coach Marty Schottenheimer and general manager A.J. Smith weeded out the players they believed pulled down team chemistry. Some were locker room politicians. Some were underachievers. Perhaps the boldest move was the swift way Smith got rid of wide receiver David Boston, the team's free-agent prize of 2003.
Though talented, Boston didn't mix well with his Chargers teammates. He spent endless hours in the weight room but never made himself part of the team. Despite the cost, Smith moved him to Miami after one season in San Diego. The loss of Boston and a few others from the 2003 season turned out to be one of the big reasons the Chargers won 12 games in 2004.
"To be quite honest with you, one of the reasons we had the season we had in 2004 was because of some of the moves we made to help the chemistry on the team," Schottenheimer said.
Under Bill Cowher, the Steelers have usually had teams with great team chemistry. For one, his teams are usually built around great, aggressive defenses and smart, efficient ball-control offense.
"Team chemistry is everything," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "You can rely on a team that is very talented, but when it comes right down to it, it comes down to what team has the best chemistry and who is jelling at the right time. For us, we have a great group of guys around here. We hang out together. The defense cheers for the offense and the offense cheers for the defense. Team chemistry has a lot to do with team success."
"Team chemistry was a major factor why it worked last year," Ward said. "Ben was a big part of it, but we didn't want to let him try to go out there and feel like he had to win the game. We ran the ball 61 percent of the time. Sure, we made some plays with the passing game, but we also had the No. 1 defense. With that combination, that's the reason we won 15 games."
Ward, one of the Steelers' leaders, was worried that his training camp holdout this summer could affect team chemistry. He made it a point to stop by as many rooms as possible in camp to explain his holdout to his teammates once he came back. To them, he apologized. Days later at the Steelers' preseason game against the Dolphins, Ward got in front of the team and apologized again.
"I wanted to see that there were no hard feelings," Ward said. "I talked to everyone and wanted to make sure they understood rather than react to what they read in the papers. There are a lot of numbers that are thrown out, but only my agent and the team and I know the real numbers. I wanted them to understand and didn't want it to be a distraction. They understood."
For years, the Dolphins had great team chemistry. They'd win 10 games a year and make the playoffs. Defensive end Jason Taylor and linebacker Zach Thomas were the team leaders. They were the spokesmen to the media during the good times and bad. They made sure things went right in the locker room.
"It's easy to have team chemistry when you are winning games and everybody is happy," Taylor said. "The real test is when things aren't really going well. Everything is predicated on playing well. When you have success, your words carry more weight."
That's the important part to remember about the Cardinals. They have the team chemistry coming off a 6-10 season. More wins should come this year.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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