Coincidence was all it was.
Adrian Wilson stood in front of some students at Tempe’s Marcos de Niza High School Tuesday speaking about adversity, but the veteran safety didn’t pick the topic. It was chosen by the Powerade people running the event. Yet it felt apropos.
This time of year has usually been about Wilson’s chances to make the Pro Bowl, which he has accomplished five of the past six seasons. Instead, Wilson is coming to the end of his 12th season unsure of his future with the Cardinals and his playing time reduced.
Wilson has been through difficult injuries and teams that have not won. But his current situation easily fits into the definition of adversity. This time, he can’t lean on previous experience, because for all the experience Wilson has, he has never been through this.
“I think it is an unknown time,” Wilson said. “You don’t know what is going to happen at the end of the year. It is kind of a time when everything is up in the air.”
He says this evenly, without emotion. The emotion welled up after Sunday’s win over the Lions, when Wilson couldn’t help but be choked up after notching a sack that made him only the sixth player in NFL history with at least 25 sacks and 25 interceptions. (Wilson now has 25½ sacks and 27 interceptions.)
Things have changed and Wilson isn’t unaware of what the changes mean.
Wilson played all 71 snaps against the Packers Nov. 4. During the bye week, defensive coordinator Ray Horton decided to reconfigure his defense, using
In the five games since then, Wilson has been on the field for 209 of 353 possible defensive snaps, a little more than 59 percent of the time. Sometimes he plays more because the opposing offense lends itself to the Cards’ base defense (Wilson played 64 of 77 snaps against the Jets), sometimes less when the opposition passes it all over the place (31 of 77 snaps against the Lions).
Numbers alone don’t mean Wilson would not return in 2013. He is under contract through 2015 with a manageable 2013 salary of $2.5 million, plus a $1M roster bonus. With Johnson and Sanders both free agents-to-be, Wilson may be needed. But he chuckles when it’s pointed out no one has told him he isn’t in the team’s plans for next season.
“Nah, no one has said that,” Wilson said. “But whenever you are playing less than what you are accustomed to playing, and they’re playing younger guys, obviously that doesn’t bode well for an old-timer. You just stay positive, be there for your teammates. I will continue to give Rashad everything I can give him, try to win these last two, and see what happens.”
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said recently, he broke down some statistics for the entire defense. He listed players who were all-pro-types, or Hall of Famers, and how long they played. He did the same with a bunch of former first-round picks.
The really good players played about 12 years in the NFL, the others about five. Horton’s point was that halfway through his playing days, a player is already on the downside of his career. Even with the stars, that’s a mere six seasons. It’s less for the shorter careers.
Horton does not talk specifically about Wilson, instead laying out his overall philosophy. He emphasizes Wilson has handled the decline in playing time “professionally.”
“One of my big things is, and I preach to the guys all the time, this game isn’t forever,” Horton said. “Your body breaks down. It’s the first thing that kind of deceives you. Your mind is still sharp but your body … you think you can do everything but you just can’t anymore. It happens to everybody.”
Even with diminished playing time, Wilson is still fifth on the team in tackles (55), with three sacks, an interception, four tackles for loss and five passes defensed.
Horton said making such a change if the defense had been playing poorly would have been easier. But Horton wanted to be aggressive, and that meant taking a risk.
“Statistically on defense we have done very well,” Horton said. “ ‘Well, coach, we’re in the top this (of rankings), why are you doing that (and making a change)? ’ Well, I’m trying to say I want to be number one or number two (ranked), not number seven. There is a fine line. If it doesn’t work, you look silly, you look bad.”
Wilson realizes Horton’s thought process. His reaction isn’t laced with anger. He has had time to absorb the move since he first found out in early November. But he clearly is disappointed how things have turned out.
“It’s a tough situation just overall, just to think about it,” Wilson said. “I don’t even want to think about it. I know I can still play and help this team.”
The tears Wilson shed in front of the cameras after the Lions’ game weren’t his first that afternoon. The moment hit him at first on the field and followed him into the locker room in the moments after the game.
“I’ve never seen him that way, so it was kind of cool to see him show some real emotion,” safety
Part of his emotion was because Wilson’s love for the players on this defense, the same players that have played well enough that Wilson has lost snaps. Wilson has a pride in this defense and what is has accomplished that he hasn’t had before. “To reach the milestone with that set of guys and that group is a lot different than it was any other year,” Wilson said.
Wilson has always been aware of his place in history – especially Cardinals’ history. That’s why this scenario has been so hard for him.
All Wilson has ever wanted to do is play his entire career as a Cardinal. When he looked at statistical goals, it was within the Cardinals’ record book. Eventually reaching the team’s Ring of Honor was important to him.
“Adrian is a very prideful man,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “He’s worked very hard for this organization for a long time and been a very good player, as evidenced by his Pro Bowls and all the recognition that he’s got.”
Wilson doesn’t broadcast his hopes, but he doesn’t hide them either, and his teammates know how things like Sunday’s sack affect him.
“I’m so happy for him,” defensive tackle
“Facing adversity this year and still overcoming, still having his head held high, he’s still one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around.”
One of the reasons Wilson agreed to a restructuring of his contract, including a pay cut, prior to training camp was not only the ability to extend its length by a couple of years but also to stay with the only team he wanted to play for. It was about his legacy, something he holds dear. It was, indirectly, about avoiding a situation just like this.
The NFL is always fluid, however. Someone who has played 12 seasons knows that all too well.
“These are the cards I’ve been dealt,” Wilson said. “There’s nothing I can really do about it except stay ready whenever I am called upon.”
During his talk with the Marcos kids, Wilson was asked about the Cardinals’ Super Bowl run in 2008. Wilson said it was one of the greatest experiences of his life, and mentioned that he wished he had appreciated the moment more than he did.
At the time of that game, though, it was clear Wilson understood the gravity of the moment. His emotions reared up often during that run, and he knew what it had taken both personally and as a team to climb that mountain. But he was also seeing it through the prism of a player in the heart of his career.
Four seasons later, he’s in a different place. So are the Cardinals.
In the lobby of a high school gym, a few days before the Cards were to play the Bears in their final game at University of Phoenix Stadium this season, Wilson insisted he hadn’t “really” considered the possibility it could be his final home game.
It was hard to tell if Wilson truly hadn’t thought of it, or if he just didn’t want to let himself contemplate the possibility. That emotion might be too tough to tackle right now.
“You always want to go out the way you want to go out,” Wilson said. “I’m not going to think about it being my last home game. Maybe my last home game this year, but hopefully not for my career. We’ll see.”