- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- On most training camp days before noon here, thunderstorm clouds arrive, creating a threatening atmosphere.
A week ago, a lightning bolt lit up a tree at the end of the Cardinals practice field. Earlier this week, lightning -- which is more prominently seen at the elevation of 7,000 feet -- flashed a couple of times near the Northern Arizona University dorms that house the Cardinals.
There is no truth to ideas coach Dennis Green ordered the storms to keep players alert. And there were definitely no fears of anyone complaining to the NFL Players Association. Like the explosive summer weather in Flagstaff, Green has hit the Cardinals like a lightning bolt. One of the seven NFL franchises that hired new head coaches this offseason, the Cardinals have only one playoff win since 1947 (excluding a win in 1962 in the non-advancing Playoff Bowl). Think about it. Green, who wasn't even born in 1947, has worked with Bill Walsh in San Francisco and rebuilt the Vikings while the Cardinals languished in futility.
"You recognized when a team doesn't win a lot of games, it becomes deeply ingrained," Green said. "You have to cut to the core of that. If you have phenomenal talent, you may overcome it. In Minnesota, we had a lot of guys in the Pro Bowl. They went to the Pro Bowl because they ran and hit."
The Cardinals annually have been drafting high enough in the first round that they should be able to fill a Pro Bowl roster. And that's where Green made his biggest impact. Like none of the previous new coaches, Green shattered the psyche of this underachieving roster like lightning ripped apart that tree the other day. Cardinals taken in the first day of the draft who weren't meeting expectations found themselves at the back of the depth chart.
Look at the defensive line as an example. Four linemen selected in the first three rounds of the past four drafts are backups -- Kyle Vanden Bosch (No. 2, 2001), Wendell Bryant (No. 1, 2002), Calvin Pace (No. 1, 2003) and Dennis Johnson (No. 3, 2002). The linebacking corps has two highly-rated backups -- Gerald Hayes (No. 3, 2003 and LeVar Woods (No. 2, 2002). L.J. Shelton, a No. 1 pick in 1999 who received a five-year, $22.5 million extension last year, is now a backup guard.
Green isn't looking at résumés. He's judging production. No wonder this camp is being referred to as Camp Fear.
"It all depends on who wants to play more," cornerback Duane Starks said. "If the guy picked third is better than the guy picked first, the guy picked third starts. The objective is to win. That's what we need to do."
That won't be as easy, Green says. At a fans function this spring, Green said the Cardinals had enough talent to win 10 games. On paper, that might be true. The 1979 49ers Walsh inherited didn't have the talent of the current Cardinals roster. The key though is turning that talent into wins.
"There is no secret to turning around programs," Green said. "You don't win because you don't do things winning teams do. I don't think it's talent. The talent is too evenly divided around the NFL. If you have too many guys that don't put winning as an emphasis, those guys don't have enough help. So you find players who put an emphasis on winning."
That's where the storm clouds collide. Green can only promote overachieving players who hustle and try to make the rest hustle more. Practices are hard and feature more hitting. Following the Monday practice after a 23-6 preseason loss in Minnesota, Green made the team run gassers.
For the time being, the Cardinals have to do a lot with effort because they lost most of their skilled players on offense to injuries. First-round choice Larry Fitzgerald twice rolled an ankle during the exhibition loss to the Vikings and will sit out this week's game. Receiver Bryant Johnson is out another week or two because of a stress fracture in a foot. Receiver Anquan Boldin is out eight-to-10 weeks because of a knee injury. Halfback Marcel Shipp fractured his fibula and is out eight-to-12 weeks and maybe the season. Fullback James Hodgins is sidelined with a strained shoulder.
Numerous injured players were riding stationary bikes trying to stay in shape, and if the Cardinals can't shake the ailments, they are going to have to find more bikes -- or healthier players.
The injuries to the three receivers had a negative effect on quarterback Josh McCown. That was evident during the Monday practice. During the offseason, McCown was clicking in the passing game with Fitzgerald, Johnson and Boldin. His timing was good. The big plays were developing.
"Offensively, we never found a rhythm, so we're going to have to rely on the system more," Green said. "We didn't have our three explosive guys on the field. You can't force it. You can't make plays that aren't there."
McCown watched the tapes with his coaches and found his drop backs weren't in sync with his second-unit receiving trio. McCown struggled with his retreats and trying to get the right timing. After practice, he stayed to smooth out his set up behind the line of scrimmage.
"I was not deep enough on the drops," McCown said. "I wasn't allowing the routes to develop and I might have gotten out of the pocket too early. I'm thinking, 'Hey, it's go time, I've got to get out of here.' I need to time them up better."
Green took a calculated risk in passing on the chance to draft a quarterback this spring. He liked what he saw in McCown, a 6-foot-4 athlete who has great running skills and has a strong arm in making all of the throws. He started three games last year, but he needs the discipline of the West Coast offense to keep him more in the pocket. He had 25 sacks and only 166 throws last season. In order for McCown and the Cardinals to be successful, he has to lower his sack-to-pass ratio.
"I'm trying not to solely rely on my athletic ability," McCown said. "There are times I need to go, but the more you play the game, the better feel you get. Of course, I can't say how many times I've watched a quarterback stay in the pocket too long and got sacked. I think it's something that just comes with the more you play."
And play he will. This is clearly Green's team and he's going with the players that make him comfortable. Regardless of past drafts, Green will play his draft choices. Fitzgerald, linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and center Alex Stepanovich -- the team's top four choices -- are currently starting. Dockett is being tried at three different spots along the defensive line, but he will start at one of them. Stepanovich was promoted when Green cut popular center Pete Kendall.
The Kendall release hit like some of that Flagstaff lightning. Many believed Kendall was released because Green thought he turned in a complaint to the Players Association of excessive offseason workouts. Kendall didn't put in the grievance, and Green countered by saying he wanted a different chemistry along the line.
The Cardinals lost a week of the offseason program, and that didn't please owner Bill Bidwill, who likes to abide by league rules. For Green, though, the point was made. Résumés mean nothing. Work does. Work hard or else.
"Coach Green has a plan, and I think he's very determined to carry out that plan," defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "It's up to us to get on board and do what he wants to do. If we do that, it's going to be a very productive season."
"You've just got to play good football," Green said. "In Minnesota, we had a lot of guys who came out of small schools and played well. I don't pay attention to where a guy was drafted. It's a matter of how well you play the game."
Play well or hear the thunder.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Regardless of pedigree or reputation, Cardinals coach Dennis Green has not hesitated demoting underachievers.