The Cardinals break their final huddle after the last practice of 2012 training camp Tuesday.
FLAGSTAFF – When dawn broke over Flagstaff early Monday morning, the sun struggled to show its face around Northern Arizona University.
A blanket of clouds kept the rays hidden, insulating the Cardinals from the heat on their last full day of camp. It was fitting that after their last afternoon practice ended, an ice-cold rain began to speckle the upper practice fields.
They won't be seeing days like that for another month or two.
Maybe it was Mother Nature's way of saying goodbye to the Cardinals' 2012 Training Camp or maybe her way of showing them, one last time, what they'll be missing.
One thing is for sure, the players will long for the 70-degree days and afternoon rain showers as they drive south on I-17 this afternoon toward a high temperature of 105 degrees. Their lasting memory of this year's camp was a morning practice Tuesday, another overcast and cool day that closed with the roll of thunder, the earliest practice of their four weeks* *in Flagstaff.
"Flagstaff is (the place to) come get your mind right, come get in shape, come get ready for football," defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. "I feel like I'm ready for that now."
This year's camp was noticeably different from last year's and the players feel they're heading back to the Valley better prepared to take on the rigors of another season.
When camp began in 2011, the NFL had just ended a lockout that erased minicamps and OTAs, and kept teammates away from football for the entire offseason. The Cardinals reconvened last July to new faces and a new defense, and even as the calendar turned to September they felt like they were still behind schedule.
"This year's camp was totally different," linebacker Sam Acho said. "We came into training camp (this year) with a different mindset. We were more of a team so we're trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
"I think it'll help us out a lot, especially with the defense that we're in. It's not new anymore. We know it now. Now it's a matter of fine tuning it and doing all the little things to become a great team."
Chemistry is everything. Players came into training camp having met all the rookies and new faces. Punter Dave Zastudil noticed cohesiveness between guys that weren't there last year. He chalked that up to them spending more time together during the offseason, whether it was golfing or hanging out at barbeques.
And once in Flagstaff, that bond grew stronger. But, as coach Ken Whisenhunt pointed out, it could've only happened if the team got away from the Valley.
"I think anytime you go away, it gives you a chance as a team to grow," he said. "You can have training camp at your place and still have meetings at night and still have curfew but what happens is the players go back to their room and they don't necessarily hang around each other. When you're here and you're in this kind of environment, you're essentially living together and that's where the chemistry grows."
The Cardinals were together from 6:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. nearly every day of camp. Then there were the after-hours sessions of video games and talking that helped the teammates grow even closer.
"I think it was a faster mesh," offensive lineman Daryn Colledge said. "The plays are in, everybody kind of knows what they're doing now. It's one of those things where you kind of just hit the ground running, where last year everybody is trying to figure it out.
"You had a bunch of vets (last year) sitting on the sideline who couldn't practice because of the lockout. All that kind of stuff. So this year felt like much more of a productive camp."