The Cardinals work on third downs during an OTA earlier this week.
Last season, the Indianapolis Colts found themselves at their own 20-yard line in a tie game with just two timeouts remaining and 31 seconds left in the game.
Tuesday, the Cardinals found themselves in the exact same situation.
It was all part of the daily emphasis coach Bruce Arians puts on the moments he believes determine football games. From the day he was hired, Arians pronounced the need to excel on third downs, in the red zone, and in the two-minute drill. All three can be viewed through a larger prism – the results on third downs, Arians notes, is about time of possession – or in smaller instances.
That's why every organized team activity has a sequence where Arians is trying to teach about a moment. The moment may only come up once all season, but it's tied to Arians' key situations, and he wants his team prepared.
"Everybody can play between the 20s," Arians said. "Can you win situational football? If you can win situational football, you can be a really
Last season, the Cardinals, with their offensive struggles, finished last in the NFL in third-down conversions and next-to-last in red-zone efficiency. It is difficult to produce in two-minute situations without a solid passing attack as well.
But Arians is thinking less about what the Cards did last season and more about his philosophy. He walked in the door telling his players that situational football would be important and he and his staff preach it every time they talk to their team.
"There are times in a game where you want to understand the situation and be a smart football player," center Lyle Sendlein said. "A lot of situations are rules, or dealing with time, field position, time outs you have. There are a lot of factors that go into what we practice and why we practice it. It's not just about the playbook. It's being a smart football player."
If third downs are about time of possession, the red zone is about producing as a unit. In a league where many games are determined by four points or less, Arians said, the two-minute drill – and the ability to score within it – is important.
There are other moments Arians will work on later. Prepping to come off your 1-yard line, for instance. Or plays run on the goal line. But those are hard to replicate in the summer, when pads aren't allowed, players wear shorts and the running game isn't truly practiced. The rest, when the passing game is at the forefront, takes center stage in the summer.
"We do a different situation every day," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "End of the game, down by three, down by five, up by five, just a ton of different weird scenarios where you are thinking, 'How often is this going to happen?' It probably only happens once that year, but if you're not prepared for it and you haven't repped it, you're in a bad situation. He's covering all his bases and making sure his team is prepared for everything."
Without a realistic chance to work on the run game, Arians said, "I'll take 15 third-down plays instead of 15 plays of first-and-10."
Back to that Colts game last season. It was the second game of the year and Arians was the offensive coordinator. He watched rookie quarterback Andrew Luck chew up 20 yards each on two passes, using a timeout after each as the clock faded to 18 seconds with the Colts on the Minnesota 40-yard line. After a Vikings offside, Luck killed the clock with a spike to clear the way for Adam Vinatieri's game-winning 53-yard field goal.
Now the Cardinals wait to see if they encounter something similar this fall.
"You've got to do it as a group," Palmer said. "If you don't, the only time you talk about it is Monday after a loss, when you go, 'Well, we should have done this and this is what we will do next time.' And you've already lost that game you would have won.
"(Arians) is covering it now and we are prepared for it when it happens. Some of these may only come up once, but we won't be in there on a Monday. Hopefully it's a 'Victory Monday' (a players day off), because we covered the situation the right way."