TEMPE, Ariz. – When cornerback Eric Green reported for training camp with the Arizona Cardinals in July, he delivered a familiar punch line about this franchise. He talked about the team having a different energy and a new face. This, Green said, was the new and improved Cardinals.
It's the Cardinals' fourth new look in 12 seasons. And improved? Well, that typically turns out to be the annual joke.
"I really do think it's going to be different this time," general manager Rod Graves told Yahoo! Sports, just before training camp kicked off.
Graves' words can be taken either as a statement or a prayer. He has seen so many head coaches wash out of the organization in the last decade, you can understand if it's a little of both. He was the assistant to the team president through the Vince Tobin disappointment. And he ascended to his GM duties during the Dave McGinnis disaster. Then he helped stock the team with ample talent during the befuddling Dennis Green era, which was marked by plenty of bluster and promise but delivered an anemic 16 wins in three seasons.
So the question Graves hears now is simple: Why now? What is going to work for new coach Ken Whisenhunt that hasn't worked for every other administration? What makes this Cardinals team, with just one playoff win since leaving St. Louis, different from every other desert mirage the NFL has seen in Arizona over the past 19 years?
"There are a few things," Graves insisted. "At various stages in my time here, we had one aspect in place, but there wasn't another. Yes, we've grown as an organization along the way. But this is the first time I really believe that all the elements are really in place for us to make a run.
"We've got a good coaching staff. We're more talented as a team than we've been since I've been here. Our organization has supported keeping our key players in place. We've jumped up and extended players before their contracts have been up. We've stabilized our roster. Our ownership has shown commitment by going and doing what it took to get a new stadium. For the first time, every aspect of our organization has the support that it needs to be successful."
There should be a warning label on such hopeful sentiments. Indeed, recite that statement to past Cardinals players, and there is bound to be some eye-rolling. As former Cardinals running back Thomas Jones once remarked of his time in Arizona, "From the moment I set foot off the plane to the moment I got out of there, the situation was bad." Former safety Robert Griffith, who played for the Cardinals in their fancy new stadium last season, went as far as to dub the franchise's new financial commitment "a facade" and "all show" to Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver.
The ears of ownership and the front office executives have been ringing for years over the franchise's faults to the point where it was a major topic on Whisenhunt's mind when he interviewed for the job in the offseason. But what Whisenhunt expected to be a house of horrors from all the stories has never materialized. And that, he says, is the only thing that matters now. The cheapskate mentality that Graves says isn't a reality today and the coaching failures – which have always seemed to be blamed on a wide array of issues: talent, facilities, money and lack of a common plan inside the franchise – are irrelevant.
"First things first, the Bidwell family allowed me to hire a good staff," Whisenhunt said. "One of the criticisms they've had in the past was 'well, they won't let you do this or they won't let you do that.' Well, everything we've asked for, they've made it happen. And that was one of the things we discussed in the interview.
"I know that there are some players that have been in the program that hear it and say 'here we go again.' But the thing you do to fight that, you bring in guys that have been to the Super Bowl, that have won the Super Bowl and that have had success in the league. This is how we do things. We're not saying we're going to change the culture. We're not saying we're going to win 'X' number of games. All we're saying is that this is our program and this is the way we're going to do things."
The message has been one of Whisenhunt's key points. Despite walking into a team that has an excellent set of skill position players on offense in Matt Leinart, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Edgerrin James and Bryant Johnson? Whisenhunt has stayed away from promises of instant success. He doesn't talk about making the postseason, Super Bowls or even guarantee the most modest of win totals.
Part of that decision revolves around the massive amount of work that has yet to be done. And that's a long list: Recreating the offensive line; developing Leinart; establishing a run-first mentality with James; and mastering the defense to fit a base 3-4 scheme that also has the flexibility to play 4-3 when necessary.
That's the type of major retooling that tends to temper enthusiasm, not that Whisenhunt is worried about hyping up the fan base or winning over his players by promising the moon. Indeed, it was those kinds of proclamations that stung the Dennis Green regime, which fell flat on its face in nearly every goal it set the past three seasons.
"As opposed to past years, Coach Whisenhunt isn't coming in saying he's the messiah," safety Adrian Wilson said. "Everybody definitely respects that about him. Guys have come in here and guaranteed that we were going to be a playoff team; that we were going to win 10 games and all this other stuff. Coach Whisenhunt came in and said we were going to be physical, smart and tough. And that's as far as he's taken it."
When Whisenhunt arrived, he made it clear that he was making one promise to his players: they would be well-coached and there would be a singular message about how the team would win games. That wasn't something the locker room felt it was getting last season, when there were a number of different messages coming from other elements in the staff that didn't mesh with Green.
"Whenever you've got a lot of different opinions on the team and really none of those are the opinions of the head coach, you're always going to run into problems," Wilson said. "We were getting three or four different perspectives on how we should play games. And that was from different parts of the coaching staff. It wasn't ever really the head coach saying it. When you have that, you don't know what to believe. But with coach Whiz, it's all one message coming from him."
Even more, Green was seen by many as a player's coach – someone who didn't spend a great deal of time screaming and who expected players to keep their preparation in line away from the field. But that led to poor study habits with some players, and eventually manifested itself into mistakes on the field. Those are the issues Whisenhunt and his coaching staff have harped on repeatedly, from study habits to offseason attendance in team programs to weight-room conditioning.
"Everything is on-point now," running back Edgerrin James said. "These coaches know exactly what it takes to win and how to accomplish it. Denny was more of a veteran's coach, but for this team, which hasn't won yet, Coach Whisenhunt is a much better fit. He's very detailed, and everything is done a certain way until we do it the way he wants."
Part of making sure that message gets across has come from the base of knowledge of Whisenhunt's staff. One of Green's biggest criticisms was that he was loyal to a fault to poor assistants. But Whisenhunt, the offensive coordinator with the Steelers' Super Bowl XL championship team, brings a staff that has a wealth of success and knowledge, starting with offensive line coach Russ Grimm, whose recruitment became an unexpected bonus after he missed out on the Steelers head coaching job.
Whisenhunt brought two other assistants from the Steelers – special teams coach Kevin Spencer and defensive assistant Matt Raich. He also added three assistants who have had coordinating experience at the NFL level in Maurice Carthon, Billy Davis and Todd Haley. When Whisenhunt built the staff, he said he did it knowing his players "needed an overall direction that they could believe in."
Early on, his design appears to have worked.
"There's going to be some bumps in the road, period," Grimm said. "But Ken has a philosophy and he sticks to it. It's not going to be a guy coming in and saying you're going to do it one way, and then all of a sudden things start to slide and you go to something else. That doesn't show confidence and it doesn't show a commitment to direction."
If the past two decades have shown anything about this franchise, those are two things the Arizona Cardinals have desperately needed.