The preseason doesn't count. But it matters.
That's the NFL cliché. Interpreting it, however, is something different.
What matters, in theory, is how young players develop. How guys play to earn their way on (or off) a roster. To find that famous rhythm quarterbacks like to talk about, whether it is Kurt Warner or Donovan McNabb.
The wins and losses can't really impact it. Too often the games are decided by players who are on the street by the time the games count for real. It's with that
mindset that Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt seemed to take with him, both after his team's final preseason game in Denver, and again the day after.
He understands there are fans who are concerned. And maybe Whisenhunt secretly has some concerns. But he sure doesn't sound like it.
"I had a friend who said his son was torn up because we didn't do well in preseason because he really didn't understand what preseason was all about," Whisenhunt said. "I think with the general public, that's the perception, and I understand that.
"All I can say is I feel good about our team and what we have done and where we are."
Understanding Whisenhunt's mindset is to understand where he came from. He talked about his days playing for Joe Gibbs with the Washington Redskins, where there were times when his team would be in a third-and-long situation and Gibbs would still call a formation best suited for the run. There would be no special play call to get the first down – not when a first down would mean nothing but the play call might be able to be dissected by a regular-season opponent.
Warner, struggling in the final preseason game, came up to Whisenhunt to suggest "seven or eight plays" to run, Whisenhunt recalled. "You have to say, 'Kurt, we can't run that. We're not going to do that.' "
Whisenhunt wanted to look at certain players in the preseason, judging them based on one-on-one situations and without help from a scheme. Besides – and more importantly – he wasn't going to give up any state secrets.
"All I can think about right now is, if an opponent is breaking us down or looking at what we are doing, what are they going to practice on?" Whisenhunt said.
And by opponent, he means the 49ers, who must visit Glendale in a few days.
Yes, there is tape from last year, with Warner at quarterback and Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald at receiver. But there is also a gleam in Whisenhunt's eye when he starts to talk about game-planning, to actually prepare for a team and unleash a little something Sept. 13.
Fans who are worried usually are smart enough to see past the losses. Those 0-16 Detroit Lions went 4-0 last preseason, for goodness sake, and too many times preseason records mean nothing. Whisenhunt remembers a 1-3 Redskins team he was on finishing with 10 or 11 wins in the regular season.
It was the way the Cards played in the losses, especially with the starters. The offense, in particular, started strong with Warner early in the month and seemed to stumble, something even Warner noted. Whisenhunt admitted he would have liked to see better efficiency on both sides of the ball.
Preseason, however, is over. Boldin should be back. The running game, with Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells, should be better.
And, while it might not have been by design, the Cardinals – with so many wondering exactly what they will do – suddenly find themselves in a place much like where they were prior to the playoffs last season. This is a group that seems to respond to being in such a spot.
"We will be a different team," Whisenhunt said.