Just before the season’s midway point, the Tribune sat down with Cardinals’ general manager Rod Graves. They talked about the team’s future and recent past.
Graves spoke of his desire to keep the team’s core of players, perhaps 20 or 25, together for the long term.
Q: You’re close to the salary cap, so if you re-sign these guys, you might have to let somebody go.
A: It’s very possible we will be in the position of having to make some tough decisions.
Again, our first priority is to address our core. We’ll work from there.
Consequently, anyone we don’t consider part of that core group, we may end up making decisions that affect their contracts or even their employment by us.
Q: I’ve heard Bertrand Berry speculated on.
A: Right now, I don’t want to give away names. But there will be quite a few players who may fall in that category. Some of those players could very well be starters for us now.
Q: What did you think of this year’s draft and how it’s turned out?
A: I’m pleased with it overall.
But let me say I’m pleased with our draft performance over the last five years.
When I went back at the beginning of the season when the final cuts were done, I had noticed that over the past five years, 84 percent of the players who we drafted are still in the league. That was the highest amount of any club in the National Football League.
I’m proud of how we’ve drafted. Not all of those players have worked out for our team. But I think it speaks to the quality of players we’re bringing in.
Obviously our objective is to meet the needs of this team.
I’m excited about Levi Brown and his contribution. I think he’s going to be a solid offensive tackle for years to come.
Q: What about Alan Branch (who hasn’t played much)?
A: I think Alan is going to be a heck of a football player. Those guys are still learning. I think he’s going to come on and be a truly great player in time. He’s already making some contributions.
He’s behind a guy who’s doing a real nice job in Gabe Watson.
I’m disappointed we didn’t hit on the linebacker from Florida State, Buster Davis, but that happens.
(Steve) Breaston, Ben Patrick, I think those guys have the capability of making a mark on our team for years to come.
We all have great expectations for our rookie class. But as we improve as a team, which I believe we have, it’s going to make it more and more difficult for those guys to come in and make an immediate impact.
Q: Do you feel that you could be remembered as the guy who didn’t pick Adrian Peterson?
A: Not necessarily. I think we have to focus on what we’re looking for to give our team the greatest impact. There are a number of players from that top-10 list from last year that we would have loved to have had.
We felt our greatest need was in the offensive line. Had we passed up a player like Levi Brown, I’m not sure where we would have been able to get a starting tackle like we have right now, and a guy I think has a chance to eventually become a Pro Bowl player.
You’re not going to see the effects of his play like you will Adrian Peterson. Now Adrian is an outstanding running back. We all knew he was. He was rated accordingly on our draft board.
We felt like our greatest need was in the offensive line, and we addressed that.
Q: In general, do you believe in drafting for need over ability?
A: We always start with the idea that we’re going to go for quality, the top player first, regardless of position. But within that group, if there’s a top player who fits a need, we’re going to take an eye to that player.
But we’re not going to address a need by passing up 10 players that we think are top-notch guys jut to fill a need.
The guy we select has to be within that group. He may not be at the top of the list as the best player available, but he certainly has to be a justifiable pick for that area. We felt like Levi Brown was.
Q: You haven’t had any tossing and turning? You could have had a potential superstar relatively cheap.
A: No question. I’ve been there …
Would I have loved to have had Adrian Peterson?
Sure I would. I would have said that on draft day. We discussed it. But we felt the right move for our team at the time was to take an offensive lineman.
Do I toss and turn about it? No I really don’t. …
We took the guy we felt most comfortable with, given the state of our team.
Q: Looking over the drafts, 2004 looks like one where you really hit on just about everybody. Did you analyze why that draft went so well and maybe others didn’t go as well?
A: We try to get smarter every year about our process and our picking. We review and go over the ones that maybe we passed up, like you said in Adrian Peterson.
But a lot goes into the equation. Much of it is: Where do you stand with your current roster?
One way I generally approach it is by making a selection, what is the opportunity cost of that selection? And where do you feel you’re going to get the greatest margin of improvement.
We had Edgerrin James. We had Marcel Shipp.
Those guys aren’t Adrian Peterson. Don’t get me wrong.
But in terms of overall position, we felt the greatest margin of improvement for our team would have been in the offensive line. That’s what kind of guided our decision.
Q: Do you feel you need an upgrade in the scouting department?
A: Our look in that area and our feelings about the scouting and the quality of our evaluations is always under scrutiny.
We have had changes in that area. We will continue to evaluate whether we’re getting the type of work that we need. I’m the first to keep those guys accountable with respect to the information they bring to the table.
But when you look back at our record for the last five years I still say we have one of the best records; 84 percent starting in ’03.
Q: Calvin Pace looks better now.
A: He does. Calvin is doing a lot better.
To be a successful team, I’ve learned firsthand through my experiences with the Bears and here, three components have to be in place to be successful.
One, you’ve got to have support and good management from the top. You’ve got to have ownership support.
Secondly, you’ve got to have talented players.
Third, you’ve got to have good coaching.
I’ve heard the expression, we say it jokingly among my peers that “coaching matters”. Name me a great football team, or in any sport, that didn’t have an outstanding coach.
You have to have it. A lot of people will say we didn’t have the players. We weren’t successful because we didn’t have the talent.
You have to have talent. No question. But you have to have guys who know how to mold players, who know how to build a solid foundation. You get to a point where you get the right principals in place, the players begin to coach for you.
I really believe we have that in Ken Whisenhunt. It’s about the way he’s approaching the development of this team, the foundation he’s trying to lay. He’s taken the players we all felt in our minds — although we’re prejudiced — that were talented, but now we’re getting some production out of those players.
Had we been lucky enough to have a coach of his caliber earlier, I really feel like we would have had better results.
Q: You shored up the offensive line and the cornerbacks. The team may finally be as talented as an average NFL team.
A: I agree. I’ll say this, there have been many years where I stood on the sidelines and looked over at our opponents, pre-game, and said, “Damn, our guys don’t look like their guys. They look so much more talented.”
But now I’ve gotten to a point where I can stand on the field and look over at the other side and say, “Our guys look like their guys, like a real NFL team.”
The big teams, Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh, they all have the four or five players that separate them from everybody else. San Diego with LaDainian (Tomlinson) … but for the most part the rest of them are the same guys we have.
To me, coaching still matters in this game. It’s important for a coaching staff to recognize the salary cap implications of free agency that you have to coach the last man just like you coach the first.
I can say honestly since I’ve been here I see we’re doing a much job of that under this staff than we ever have since I’ve been here. …
I would certainly say we were probably in the top five over the last two-three years as the most penalized team in the league. We were undisciplined, we made a lot of mental mistakes. … We have done a much better job of that.
Coach Whisenhunt, I think, would agree that we’ve gotten ourselves in a hole in three or four of our games because of mental mistakes, because of things we created.
It’s still a job for us. But we’re not looking like the team of old. I think that’s what people appreciate.
It’s not something that’s happening all game long where we have players making mistakes, coaches making game-management mistakes.
We’ve done a very good job of minimizing that. We’re still working to become a sharper team, coaches constantly harping on the mental mistakes.
The other thing we’ve done that I appreciate about what Whisenhunt is doing, we’ve simplified things in a lot of areas. We haven’t taken the game away from the players.
We’ve simplified things to a point where guys aren’t necessarily worried about, “Do I go here, Do I go there” Do I block this guy? Do I block guy?’
They understand the rules of their position. And they’re just playing.
He did a wonderful job of selecting his assistants, starting with Russ Grimm, and a number of other guys are top-quality assistants. I think it’s making a difference with our team.
Obviously we want to win and be a playoff team, a championship-caliber football team. We want to win more games than we lose. That’s always our objective.
But I think at the end of the day, if you ask most people, they just want to feel like they’ve got a well-coached team, that our players are playing hard, that we’re competitive.
Under those circumstances, you will win more than you lose.
Q: And that they don’t get in trouble.
A: And that they don’t get in trouble. Absolutely. And I think we’re working hard to be that type of team.