This story appears in the Jan. 25, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
As July turned to August, and August to September, the game Dwight Freeney loved forced him to make an honest assessment of his future. His skills? Eroding. His power? Uneven. His motivation? Fading. He knew then that it was time—time to return to football.
And, improbably, there was Freeney last Saturday, hurrying and harassing quarterback Aaron Rodgers into a sack in the fourth quarter of the Cardinals’ 26–20 divisional-round victory over the Packers. This was, of course, a marked contrast from three months earlier, when Arizona brass found the 35-year-old defensive end on his favorite Indianapolis-area golf courses, surrounded by divots, missing putts and shanking drives. As a veteran of 13 NFL seasons, Freeney’s golf game had come to adhere to the off-season calendar: His scores peaked in mid-July, right before training camp. Only this year, there was no camp; his game peaked as usual, then it crashed. There was no contract offer. Only the wrong teams—bad teams—even bothered to check in. “My game went south,” says Freeney. “I broke 80 for the first time this summer. Then I fell apart.”
September passed without the kind of offer he wanted, from a playoff contender. One-third of October flew by too. Every Sunday, Freeney watched a handful of plays on TV, only to storm out of his house in frustration and head to the golf course. Fellow duffers wondered why he wasn’t at home, keeping up with the game from afar. “Who cares?" Freeney told them. "I’m not playing!”
Eventually, he stopped watching football altogether. On Oct. 11, the fifth Sunday of the season, he told himself, “If one more week goes by and I don’t get that call, I’m retiring.”
The Cardinals beat the Lions that afternoon, 42–17, to improve to 4–1. But in their lopsided victory they also lost outside linebacker Alex Okafor (strained right calf) and reserve backer Kenny Demens (left ACL).
Quentin Harris, Arizona’s director of pro scouting, knew exactly where to find a replacement. The Cardinals keep two logs: an Excel database of between 1,500 and 2,000 players they want to keep eyes on; and what they call their Ready List of the five to 10 best-available options at every position. Harris knew one name on that Ready List well. Freeney, a pass-rush specialist with 111½ career sacks in the NFL, had been his college teammate at Syracuse.
Most teams looked at Freeney and saw a Hall of Famer who’d passed his expiration date. The Cardinals are not most teams. They’re not afraid to pursue guys their competitors have ignored, to deploy newcomers the week they're signed—or to pull a contributor off the golf course in the middle of the season. “They’re not the only team that does that,” says Gil Brandt, VP of player personnel for the Cowboys from 1960 to ’89 and a legend among front-office types. “But they’re the most extreme.”
Arizona’s decision-makers cared less about Freeney’s sack numbers over the previous two seasons—four total with the Chargers—and more about the consistency with which he hurried quarterbacks. Last year, despite starting just nine games, he was No. 6 among 3–4 outside linebackers, with 53 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. “He may not have been finishing,” says Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, “but he was disruptive as hell.”
Harris made the call that stopped Freeney from retiring. Bruce Arians, Arizona's coach, sent a text message: Hey, man, you ready to roll?
Freeney responded: I’m ready. Get me off this golf course. PLEASE!
What happened next was classic Cardinals team-building. Freeney signed on Oct. 12 and played the following Sunday against the Steelers. He bagged his first sack (Joe Flacco, Ravens) a week after that, on Monday Night Football. And in the weeks that followed he sealed a victory over the Vikings with a last-second Teddy Bridgewater strip-sack, dropped Rodgers three times in a regular-season blowout of the Packers (for which he earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week) and piled up a total of eight QB takedowns, over just 11 games. His bagging of Rodgers last Saturday marked his 10th postseason sack, a tally that only 11 other players in NFL history have reached.
Freeney has become one of this season’s most improbable success stories. He is also confirmation of the Cardinals’ organizational philosophy. On some level, every NFL franchise hunts for creative ways to fill roster holes, or aims to. “But the teams that have a chance to win every year,” says Cardinals defensive tackle Red Bryant, “teams like Pittsburgh and New England and Seattle and Green Bay—they do the best job of finding players to fit around their core.”
The Cardinals’ approach an inexact science that worked with uncanny precision in 2015. They filled out their roster with reclamation projects, players considered too old, too injured, too unstable or too expensive for other teams. They went 13–3.
Tyrann Mathieu, the defensive back who had been dismissed from LSU following multiple failed drug tests, played defensive-MVP-caliber football until he tore the ACL in his right knee in Week 15. Running back Chris Johnson, on his third team in three seasons, led the Cardinals in rushing (814 yards) until he fractured his left tibia in late November. Safety Deone Bucannon converted to linebacker and led the Cards in tackles (112). On Saturday he had seven more against the Packers.
Quarterback Carson Palmer emerged as a candidate for MVP after recovering from an ACL tear. His top target, Larry Fitzgerald, enjoyed a career-best season (109 receptions, 1,215 yards, nine TDs) at age 32, and he did that from the slot, a relatively new position. Then the two—QB and receiver—carried the Cardinals in the divisional round, connecting for eight receptions and 176 yards. Fitzgerald's 75-yard catch-and-run (and run and run) in overtime set up the winning TD—which, naturally, he scored.
Those are the marquee names, but they only partially account for the fact that this outfit ranked No. 1 on offense this year, No. 5 on defense. This was Arizona: Team Best-Case Scenario.
It’s early January, nine days before that playoff showdown against Green Bay, and rain pelts Arizona’s facility as the architect of the most-balanced roster in football watches over practice. Keim, 43, wears a neatly trimmed goatee and a cardinal Cardinals hat that covers his bald head. Like every other GM in football, he wants to build primarily through the draft. What makes Keim different is how he rounds out the roster, with castoffs and calculated risks signed to incentive-laden one-year contracts. Freeney, for instance, joined for a base salary of $684,705, but collected $200,000 after his fourth sack this season, plus $100,000 for every two sacks thereafter.
The composition of Keim’s 53-man playoff roster—22 drafted players, seven rookie free-agent signings, two players acquired through trades, and 22 free-agent signings—speaks to his look-anywhere, sign-anyone approach. “That’s how we want to build,” he says (adding, almost sheepishly, “not every player has worked out”). This philosophy, Keim says, was born of two crucial factors. One is a coaching staff with a combined 222 years of NFL experience. (It’s an insane 480 years if you count college.) Arians and his assistants can school newcomers quickly and are not afraid to play the best players, regardless of draft status or contract size. The other factor is a locker room stocked with veterans who simply don’t care whether the guy next to them was signed last year, last month or last week.
Enter the Ready List. Keim and his staff do the tracking, courting and signing. They consult with coaches and players from their own roster for scouting reports on specific free agents that they know or played with, or they have Cardinals players evaluate potential signees on film. Arizona’s defensive backs, for instance, graded safety D.J. Swearinger as a fit before he signed in December. “Most teams aren’t bringing in guys off the street,” says fellow defensive back Jerraud Powers. “They’ll move a guy up off their own practice squad, because that guy knows their system.”
Once a player signs, Arians and his staff take over. With someone like Freeney, they don’t give him the full playbook; they start with specific packages (like third-and-long) and specific responsibilities (chase the quarterback). With in-season signings like this, Arians considers a 90% success rate to be ideal. And to remind his players that they must compete daily for their jobs, he works out as many as 10 outsiders every Tuesday.
The year before Arians arrived, in 2012, the Cardinals finished 5–11. They've won at least 10 games in each season since. Which isn’t to say that Arians, 63, considers himself some sort of football genius. He’s simply more comfortable than most at taking on risk. Case in point: Two O-linemen that the Arians regime chose in the first round of the draft, guard Jonathan Cooper (’13) and tackle D.J. Humphries (’15), hardly even play. At 13–3, who cares?
It's this performance-is-what-matters philosophy—not just the Kangol hats, or the sunglasses, or the smooth-jazz-station baritone—that players love, that most helps the Cardinals land free agents, says Johnson. The veteran back believes players ultimately want two things: the chance to compete for a job and the chance to win. “If teams talk about competition but don't play the best players, that's known around the league,” he says. “The organizations that don't win, like Tennessee, they're also behind the eight ball. [Johnson was cut by the Titans in 2014.] They have to build through the draft. Guys are not going to commit there unless they overpay them. Or if they’re just playing for the money.”
The signings help tell the story of the Cardinals’ season. They found Johnson on the free-agent discount rack, six years removed from the 2009 campaign when he gained 2,006 yards and a nickname—CJ2K—that has since been used to mock his decline. He played for the Jets last season, started only six games and gained 663 yards, plus a new, humbling handle: CJ.6K. In August, Arizona pitched him over the phone. They didn’t even fly him in to visit.
Arians was straightforward. He told Johnson he could not promise a starting gig, only a role of yet-to-be-determined size. The then 29-year-old took a week to think it over. “There weren’t exactly a lot of teams beating down my door,” he says.
He signed for $870,000, plus incentives, then stepped in for an injured Andre Ellington and topped 100 rushing yards four times from Week 3 through Week 8. He was second in the NFL in rushing as the Cardinals started 6–2. “I’m looking around like, ‘Is this for real?’” he says. “I was kind of amazed. Like, ‘I’m a part of this? Damn!’”
Bryant watched Johnson’s resurgence from his home in Jacksonville, where last year he started 16 games at defensive end. After being released by the Jaguars before training camp and then, in September, by the Bills, Bryant spent the first 11 weeks of 2015 on the couch. For seven seasons he’d paid for DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket package; this was the first time he actually used it. He waited for the phone to ring.
For Thanksgiving, Bryant flew with his family to his hometown of Jasper, Texas. They landed on that Tuesday, and the Cardinals (who were dinged up on the D-line) called on Wednesday, at which point Bryant sped to Houston and barely caught an evening flight. He worked out with the Cardinals on Thursday morning and joined practice that afternoon.
“You can get him ready for next week,” Keim told Arians. “Dude, I’m playing him this weekend,” Arians responded.
That Friday, coaches taught Bryant a handful of standard packages for which he might be useful. He booked a room at a Courtyard by Marriott down the street from the Cardinals’ facility, flew on the team plane to San Francisco on Saturday and played 15 snaps against the 49ers on Sunday. Monday, five days after Arizona first called, Bryant needed a massage, Epsom salts and a long spell in the cold tub just to “feel normal again.”
Aided by the 6'5", 323-pound lane-clogger, the Cardinals finished the regular season ranked No. 6 against the run, and as Bryant looked to the future, he targeted two goals: win another Super Bowl (he started for the Seahawks team that stomped the Broncos two seasons ago) and ascend to higher levels in Marriott's rewards program. “I’m trying to get that Platinum,” he says.
Swearinger, a former second-round pick out of South Carolina, arrived the week after Bryant and signed to the practice squad on Dec. 1. Cut by the Texans before the season and released by the Bucs for what he says were medical reasons on Nov. 17, he had been hanging with his pets—a French bulldog—pit bull mix named Snowman and a pit bull named Blue—while nursing a sore big toe on his right foot. The week before the Cardinals called, Swearinger worked out for the Packers, who, he says, seemed interested—until he failed a physical.
Ultimately he chose Arizona over Buffalo, and he settled into both a furnished, short-term-lease apartment and the Cardinals’ regular defensive-back rotation. In Week 15, his second on the active roster, he played 52 snaps and recovered a fumble in a 40–17 victory over the Eagles. With Mathieu out, his role has only solidified. “I’m just so happy I injured my toe,” he says.
The Cardinals won their first NFC West title since 2009 because Johnson had few options and Bryant (with some nudging from his wife) was talked out of retirement and Swearinger bruised his toe badly enough to be released but not badly enough to end his season. Now, Team Best-Case Scenario is two wins from a championship.
The Cardinals call their slot receiver Old Man Larry, and while he’s not a new addition to the roster, his story still speaks to the way Arizona operates. For his first nine NFL seasons, from 2004 through ’12, Fitzgerald lined up mostly outside, as one of the best receivers in pro football. But when Arians arrived, he shifted Fitzgerald (who in ’12 had suffered his worst full season, by almost every measure) into the slot, just as the coach had with Hines Ward in Pittsburgh and Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis. From the start, Fitzgerald struggled to adapt to his new position while fighting through leg injuries in each of the past two seasons. Palmer's abbreviated 2014 didn’t help.
“I’m sure there are people in this building who thought I was washed up,” says Fitzgerald. “But that doesn't matter. Because Bruce didn't.”
After the Panthers ousted the Cardinals last January in the wild-card round, Arians met with the receiver in his office. He wanted Fitzgerald to play in the slot exclusively this season, telling him, “There are 90 balls inside for you, easy.” Fitzgerald simply nodded in agreement.
Arians was wrong: His estimate was low. Playing almost exclusively inside—healthily, and alongside a fit Palmer—Old Man Larry found creases in defenses and exploited coverage over the middle. His blocking (never his strongest suit) improved to the point where Arians now calls him the best blocking receiver in pro football. Perhaps most important, though, has been his freeing up the outside for speedy young wideouts John Brown, Michael Floyd and J.J. Nelson, vaulting Palmer to career highs in touchdown passes (35), passing yards (4,671) and passer rating (104.6) while making the QB an MVP candidate. “Coach,” Fitzgerald told Arians late this season, “you’re a genius.”
Arians’s experiment with Old Man Larry echoes his deployment of Freeney, Johnson, Swearinger and “I don't care how or when you got here, or where you played before,” he says. “If you're one of the best 11 in a certain package, you'll work. I think we have 16 starters on both sides of the ball.”
“I’ve been here 12 years,” says Fitzgerald, “and the cupboard was never bare. We always had talent. But we didn’t always have guys in the right positions. I’ve never seen the roster more aligned than this year.”
What's the difference? “Steve and Bruce came in,” he says. “That’s huge. At this age, my window of opportunity is slim. I don't care how they do it, because everything I’ve worked for is right in front of me.”
He means the Super Bowl, the trophy, the ring. Best-case scenario.