- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Those who question the Arizona Cardinals' all-business approach to 2007 need to watch only one practice.
Running back Edgerrin James appears to be playing with a greater sense of urgency. His body is also different thanks to extra weightlifting and core training.
Assistant coach Russ Grimm is making constant corrections to make sure Arizona's underachieving offensive line can hold its ground.
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, whose incredible athletic skills put him among the elite receivers in football, is working harder on his route running and mental game.
Under the direction of first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the Cardinals are trying to prove that their goal of becoming a playoff team is no desert mirage.
The signs of optimism are real. The Cardinals have the league's easiest schedule; they face only four playoff teams from last season. Grimm should improve a run offense that ranked 30th last season. The easiest route to .500 is to run the ball and play good defense.
Quarterback Matt Leinart is expected to throw with 60 percent efficiency. Clearly, with a star-studded offense and an improving defense, the Cardinals appear to be a team on the rise in 2007.
What's interesting is to see the changes in James, perhaps the biggest but most forgotten name on the team. With Corey Dillon telling reporters he's probably retiring, James is the league's active rushing leader with 10,385 yards. He turned 29 a week ago, and clearly that milestone affected him more than any statistical achievement. His numbers have been dropping the past couple of years, so James tried to turn back the clock by eliminating the gold from his teeth and paying more attention to his body.
"I made a trip to New York to talk to Curtis Martin," James said. "We both came to the conclusion that these [29 and thereafter] are the years when you get it all together. Curtis put it together at this age. He started training better and taking care of himself. At this age, there aren't many unknowns. You work like a rookie, but you have the experience.
"Hopefully, you get the results."
James came to camp in great shape. Though he still weighs about 215 pounds, his legs are much more muscular from intense lifting. He trimmed his stomach muscles to improve his ability to make quick turns. Whisenhunt put James in a time capsule by letting him run behind fullback Terrelle Smith, a style of offense James hasn't witnessed since college.
"I'm doing everything as if I were a rookie again," James said. "First of all, I'm not going to allow myself to get comfortable. I'm going out and making things happen. The first part of last season, I took such a beating my body wore down. Heck, at the beginning of the season, I think I led the league in tackles for losses, and I'm pretty good at escaping things."
Grimm and Whisenhunt came to Arizona with the Steelers' mentality of putting the offense in position to move forward, not backward. In Pittsburgh, they relied on a power running attack and mixed in creative passes for quick-striking ability. Out of the box, Whisenhunt warned Leinart and backup Kurt Warner not to be surprised if the team runs the ball as much as 55 percent of the time.
"I think you always set your goals high, but the purpose of that is to establish a mind-set that, 'This is what we are going to do,'" Whisenhunt said. "If we don't achieve that because we are having success throwing the football with the quarterback and the receivers, then we are having success. Look at what we did with the Steelers during their Super Bowl year. We threw the ball early, got a lead and then were able to pound the ball and run it. But if you don't establish that mentality from the start, you can't just flick a switch and run the football."
Grimm's first order of business was improving the conditioning of his huge, underachieving offensive line. Guard Deuce Lutui lost 39 pounds. Left guard Reggie Wells lost 39. Right tackle Oliver Ross lost 20 pounds. The whole team looks like a NutriSystem commercial.
One of Whisenhunt's first decisions was to emphasize improvements in the weight room and work ethic. Meanwhile, the Cardinals give the appearance of a team that's young and having fun. Leinart is particularly relaxed.
"The attitude and discipline of the team is night-and-day improved from last year," Leinart said.
He admits he didn't have a full grasp of what he was doing as a rookie starter. Now, he feels like the leader of the team. Practices are as fun as they were in college.
Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end and H-back, brings a creative approach to the offense. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, a former college quarterback, is learning Hines Ward-type gadget plays in which he does things from the backfield.
"The design of our offense will allow us to take shots down the field, but it's also designed to have a high completion percentage," Leinart said. "If the play isn't there, we can check the ball down for a short completion. A lot of our offense is based on timing and getting the ball out fast. I pride myself on being an efficient passer and have a decent completion percentage with not a lot of turnovers."
The key to the season, though, will be the offensive line. The line was the downfall of former coach Dennis Green, who removed three starters -- Anthony Clement, L.J. Shelton and Pete Kendall -- in a little over a year and didn't adequately replace them. Left tackle Leonard Davis fled to Dallas, but the Cardinals added two solid players -- center Al Johnson and left tackle Mike Gandy. In the draft, Arizona took Levi Brown and put him at right tackle to protect Leinart's blind side.
Watching Grimm coach is a treat. He's a former leader of the Hogs offensive line from his Redskins days. As a coach, he's a master at teaching a lineman the ability to think on his feet while using proper technique.
"We're not there yet, but we've got enough talent there to be pretty good," Grimm said. "I think we're going to be all right, but we still have some work to do."
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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