The Cardinals aren’t fat any more. The Cardinals are dominating fourth quarters. The coaches and players think these two facts are related.
That a team that seems to lose by tradition is winning any quarter consistently is news enough.
But to say the Cardinals are “dominating” fourth quarters seems as astounding as saying, “The Cardinals are perennial Super Bowl favorites.”
Yet it’s happening. The Cardinals have outscored opponents 58-41 in fourth quarters.
With the exception of a drive in the final three minutes of the season opener by the San Francisco 49ers — the only time “same old Cardinals” has been heard this season — the Cardinals have owned the final period.
They pulled away at the end in their three wins — over Seattle, Pittsburgh and St. Louis — and nearly made up a big deficit at Baltimore.
Players and coaches credit an improved, more demanding offseason conditioning program headed by John Lott, the team’s first-year strength and conditioning coach.
“He’s the best I’ve had,” defensive linemen Darnell Dockett says. “By far.
“He pushes you. He’ll call your name. He keeps pushing you.
“The bottom line is he’ll work the hell out of you.”
“We’ve got to credit our coaches and the strength and conditioning staff,” receiver Anquan Boldin says.
“They challenged the entire team to get in better shape. The entire team took on that challenge.
“As a result, you see guys out there full strength for four quarters, not tapping out, not getting tired.
“We’re making plays first and fourth quarter.”
Boldin, asked about what had happened in the past, says, “I don’t think we were challenged enough.
“Some guys took it upon themselves to be in better condition. But we weren’t challenged from a coaching standpoint. This new coaching staff has challenged us, and guys have responded.”
Coach Ken Whisenhunt recalled that when the new staff took over early this year, “The very first thing we said when we came here is we have to win games in the fourth quarter.
“A big part of that is being in good shape … so when it gets to the fourth quarter and you’re tired, you won’t make the mental mistakes because you’re in shape.”
That was pretty much his experience with the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers.
And what worked then is working now.
“That’s something that’s always been apparent to me,” he says.
If the players buy into the conditioning program and adhere to it, “That gives us a chance,” Whisenhunt says.
Lott’s program — he wouldn’t comment — seems to be based as much on his energy and commitment as well as technical expertise.
In March, he said, “I tell them, 'If you don’t have the energy, plug into me, I’ll give it to you.’ ”
Lott, who often takes part in the exercise program, emphasizes running sprints along with strengthening players’ cores.
The Cardinals’ ownership helped out by upgrading the team’s weight room.
The difference is so apparent that opponents have noticed.
After watching videotape of Arizona in its season opener, Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said, “Their guys on defense, especially up front, look like they’re in much better shape this year.”
That’s because they are.
The team lost hundreds of pounds between them, led by offensive lineman Elton Brown (387 to 340), nose tackle Gabe Watson (370 to 330), right guard Deuce Lutui (377 to 338) and left guard Reggie Wells (341 to 318).
“It was no walk in the park,” Lutui says. “Losing weight is tough.”
Yet the results are apparent.
“Most of our games come down to the fourth quarter,” Lutui points out. “And as a team, everybody has been in shape.”
More specifically, “We tire teams with the no-huddle because we’re in better condition.”
“It was tough,” Watson says.
“The good thing about it is that there were a lot of guys here and when you got tired and felt like you couldn’t make it there were guys to push you along.
“And when you got in good enough shape to push other guys, you could do the same for them.”
For himself, not only is Watson in “much better shape,” the improved conditioning has helped the technical aspects of his game.
“People may not think it helps your technique that much, but it does.
“You’re quicker with your hands, your stance is better. You don’t have to worry about your lower back getting tight.”
Cornerback Eric Green said he’d never gotten a call in the offseason from a conditioning coach.
But he says Lott called him about a week before training camp asking him to report to camp at 195 pounds.
At the time, Green was 202.
So he cut back on eating and started drinking plenty of water.
“I came in at 193,” says Green, whose play has improved this season.
Green also thinks the Cardinals’ conditioning has been helped by practicing in the heat — something Whisenhunt also has mentioned — and by running and weightlifting after practice.
That they can see the results makes them ever more determined, he says.
“When other teams get tired, that motivates us to go even more.”
Even players who have kept their weight the same are feeling the effects.
“There’s a tremendous difference,” says linebacker Karlos Dansby, who remains at the 250 pounds he played at last season.
“My endurance is up. I feel like I’m getting stronger every week.”
As for the team as a whole, “It’s all about attitude. Our attitude has totally changed. We’re in shape now.
“We’re not fading in the fourth quarter. We’re getting stronger.”
Dansby thinks that players who have been with the Cardinals for a few years simply are growing up.
“We see the difference between winning and losing.
“It’s going to take lifting, running and getting in shape in order to win.”
It’s good not to be fat.
It’s even better to win games going away.
Panthers at Cardinals
When: 1:05 p.m. today
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium
TV: Ch. 10