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(Football) Ties That Bind

Posted Apr 10, 2014

It only makes sense that Cardinals bring in players about whom they have knowledge

Tackle Bradley Sowell said he isn't sure the Cardinals would have claimed him after he was cut if head coach Bruce Arians hadn't worked with him the year before in Indianapolis.

Bradley Sowell worked out for more than two hours Monday, spending the final 30 minutes alone outside during an unseasonably warm late morning in Tempe.

Afterward, his list of priorities surely did not include a media interview, yet the Cardinals’ offensive tackle sauntered over to a hallway near the team’s locker room and answered questions earnestly for five minutes.

Bruce Arians was not around for any of this, but in many ways it’s a reminder as to why Sowell became a member of this team in the first place.

In his 15 months as coach of the Cardinals, Arians has continually brought in players he’s held in high regard from past stops. Last offseason it included cornerback Jerraud Powers and quarterback Drew Stanton from the Colts as well as running back Rashard Mendenhall from the Steelers. In March it was running back Jonathan Dwyer from Pittsburgh.

Sowell was a late addition last preseason, claimed on waivers from Indianapolis Sept. 1. Arians was the offensive coordinator/interim head coach for the Colts when Sowell was a rookie in 2012, and came to appreciate his hard work on the field and his selfless personality off it.

“I think (the prior relationship) was the only reason they brought me in,” Sowell said. “Bruce is one of those guys where if you’re loyal to him and you work hard for him, he can work with you. If you’re a guy that doesn’t listen to him, he’s not going to have anything to do with you.

“Honestly, when I was in Indy, I never thought I was one of his favorites, because I was a rookie and he’s kind of hard on the rookies. When he left, I didn’t think I was a guy that he would bring back. Sure enough, it turns out he ended up liking a few guys on the Colts and I guess I was one of them.”

It’s only natural. The Buccaneers, with new coach Lovie Smith, have brought in some ex-Bears Smith coached while in Chicago. Two players former Cards coach Ken Whisenhunt, now coaching in Tennessee, has looked at this week for the Titans are linebacker O’Brien Schofield and defensive lineman Ronald Talley, who both played for Whisenhunt in Arizona.

Few forget the whispers of “Pittsburgh West” Whisenhunt elicited after bringing former Steelers like Sean Morey, Clark Haggans and Joey Porter to the Cardinals.

The NFL is full of players with elite athleticism, but there are other factors involved in shaping a roster.

“Inside information makes you feel very good about signing somebody,” Arians said. “You know what their work ethic is, how they’re going to fit in the locker room, rather than a 20-minute interview or a dinner interview. We’ve spent time with them and seen how they prepare after a win or after a loss. It’s a huge advantage. You’re always stockpiling information, just in case.”

If Arians doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of a player, he turns to his assistant coaches. Cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross was consulted after working with cornerback Antonio Cromartie in San Diego and left tackle Jared Veldheer in Oakland, and the Cardinals ended up signing both in free agency last month.

Even though it’s been six years since Ross coached Cromartie, the memories stuck.

“You hear from one guy, ‘Maybe you can handle him. Maybe you can’t,’” Ross said. “I know I can handle him. I know what he is in the locker room. I know what he is as a player. If he’s healthy, he’s a pretty good player. He’s really good in the locker room and he loves the game. He has passion for the game and studies it pretty well.”

Ross didn’t work closely with Veldheer as safeties coach for the Raiders in 2010, but still noticed him during drills when the offense and defense faced off. Neither had any idea the effect it would have in in free agency four years down the line.

“I was just trying to work as hard as I could,” Veldheer said. “I just know if you work as hard as you can and keep a positive attitude, things tend to shake out.”

Team-first superstars are no-brainer pieces to a successful franchise, and it’s why Arians hasn’t tinkered much with the core of the Cardinals club he inherited. Rosters include a variety of backups, though, and finding the right players all the way down the line is important.

“It’s a fine line between talent and fit,” Arians said. “You really want the talented fit, but they can’t all be Patrick (Peterson). They can’t all be Larry (Fitzgerald). You want guys that care about each other and aren’t self-centered.”

Sowell knows the drill better than most. Undrafted free agents don’t get a lot of latitude, and his release in Indianapolis could very well have left him unemployed for 2013. Instead, the Cardinals gave him a second chance, and he ended up starting 12 games at left tackle.

It’s why he will always try to put his best foot forward, whether that’s acquiescing to an interview following a workout, or making time to speak with employees around the team’s practice facility.

“In the NFL, a lot of it is about who you know,” Sowell said. “You never know who is going to be your boss. It’s just like the guy who just went to the Bucs, (Jason) Licht. You never knew he was going to be the Bucs’ GM. And now you’re hoping you were nice to him because he’ll be bringing in guys if you get cut. It’s a people-person business.”

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