Cardinals running back Elijhaa Penny and the other players have plenty of reasons to give full effort.
The future was a prevalent theme at the Cardinals facility this week, which was no surprise, really.
A Week 13 loss to the Rams dropped the team to 5-7, effectively ending any fairytale chance at a postseason run. While discussion of next season won't die down any time soon, there are still four games to play in 2017, and for the coaches and players, that's the central focus.
The Cardinals proved last year they could compete down an inconsequential stretch – beating the Seahawks and Rams on the road to end the year – and promise there is sufficient motivation to play hard again, beginning with Sunday's matchup against the Titans.
"We've got great character in our locker room," coach Bruce Arians said. "Our guys, they come to work. We have super leadership. Again, this week, there's no letdown in the preparation whatsoever."
There are myriad reasons for players to give it their all in this game and the final three. For star players like Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones and Larry Fitzgerald, there are great seasons to finish off. For free agents, there is the goal of maximizing their value. For the young players, it is to carve out a bigger role in 2018.
Take running back Elijhaa Penny, for instance. He advanced from the practice squad last year to the active roster this season on the strength of his special-teams prowess, and then showed his value as a goal-line back by punching in a 1-yard touchdown run last week. He could resurrect that role on Sunday because Adrian Peterson is going to miss his second straight game with a neck injury.
"Just continue showing it, in games and in practice," Penny said. "I also want to show them other aspects of the game, too. Let that goal-line, short-yardage be a start, and then hopefully it will lead to (more) potential action."
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert is the most high-profile of the players auditioning for next season. He had the poorest of his three starts last time out against the Rams, but has shown enough in this stint for Arians to consider him as a starting option in 2018.
Gabbert began his career as a first-round pick in Jacksonville, where he was coached by Mike Mularkey in his second season. It wasn't a memorable year for either of them. Gabbert went 1-9 before landing on injured reserve, while Mularkey was fired after that lone campaign with the club.
Mularkey has bounced back as coach of the Titans, leading the team to an 8-4 record and a first place standing in the AFC South. Tennessee will look to stay there with the win, but Mularkey sees a different Gabbert from the one he coached.
"He just looks much more comfortable," Mularkey said. "Obviously, his seventh year in the league, he's had a lot more starts now. He's seen a lot of football. I had him in 2012. That was a long time ago."
The Titans like to ram the ball on offense with the duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. The Cardinals have traditionally been up to the challenge against run-oriented teams, and they hope to show enough fight in that matchup to keep the Titans at bay.
That desire mirrors the team's need to push forward through the final quarter of the schedule, something Peterson plans on doing, which he believes will have others following suit.
"I still have four games to prove I'm the best in the business," Peterson said. "That's my mentality every single time I line up, no matter what the record is. … When the leader, the captain, has that mentality, it trickles down to the other players. That's why you'll never, ever see guys throwing in the bucket, planning vacations, because we've still got work to do. For the most part, there are going to be at least 25 of these guys coming back on the team next year. We want to make sure we continue building."
Images of key players on this week's opponent, the Tennessee Titans