Offensive linemen Lyle Sendlein (left) and Bobby Massie celebrate the Cardinals' win over the 49ers on Sunday.
Kevin Minter has been through countless practices in his football life, so it took a while to jog his memory. Once he remembered 2013's bye-week "bloodletting", as coach Bruce Arians called it, Minter probably wished he hadn't.
"It was hell," the second-year linebacker said. Even though the Cardinals beat the Falcons in the game preceding their bye last season, a 4-4 start was not what Arians envisioned, and a week without an opponent did not mean a week off. The Cardinals had a physical padded practice before the players dispersed for mandated time away, quelling the thought of a breezy midseason respite.
"That's how it is if you lose a few games before the bye week," Minter said. "It's been like that since I've
started football. If you're having a good season, going into the bye week is a little easier. If you lose a couple games, it's back to work."
The Cardinals responded impressively to the challenge from their coach, as Arians referenced that practice as one of the turning points of a 6-2 finish.
The Cardinals have retained that momentum in 2014 with a 3-0 start, capped by Sunday's important home victory over the 49ers. The bye week is here again, much earlier than in 2013, and the franchise is now in a different spot.
There will be no padded practices this week and many of the veterans are being given days off to recover physically for the final 13 games.
"I think last year was a necessity because we were still trying to learn the offense, and we all know what happened after the bye week," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "I think we are far more advanced now so we didn't have to beat them up."
Even though many of the key cogs were on the sidelines for Tuesday's practice, they remained tuned in.
"That's what a bye week is for," center Lyle Sendlein said. "You're supposed to use that time to rest, but that doesn't mean sit on your couch and do nothing. It's by no means an off week."
Arians' concern has now flipped from competitiveness to overconfidence. As one of three undefeated teams left in the NFL, the Cardinals have started to garner national attention. They are currently alone in first place in the NFL West, but it's way too early to draw any conclusions.
"We have to guard against that as we get better and people start patting you on the back," Arians said. "It's easy to start looking and talking playoffs and all that crap. There's still Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday that you have to take care of that day and not get caught up in looking ahead or counting wins."
Padded practices are at a premium with the most recent changes to the collective bargaining agreement, and Arians may have been more apt to use one this week if the rules allowed for more. He grudgingly kept the team out of pads Tuesday, but will always keep a discerning eye on the pulse of the club, ready to crack the whip at a moment's notice.
"There were times, even in camp, that we had the shoulder pads off, but he would change his mind to get more work in," defensive tackle Dan Williams said. "It's still going to be run the way B.A. wants it to be run. Things are going the way he wants them to go so far, but at the same time, if B.A. is not satisfied, he's definitely going to let us know. Right now we're in good standing."
Said Stepfan Taylor: "If we do good, he's going to tell us, but he also keeps us grounded. That's what a coach has to do. He's been around this league a long time, so he knows how to get his players ready to play."
So the players proceed cautiously, relishing the mini-reprieve but keeping their eyes on the goals ahead.
"You get to enjoy it a bit, but at the same time, you've got to stay focused," Minter said. "There's still 13 games. We really haven't done anything. This ain't vacation. You can't treat it that way."