Defensive coordinator Ray Horton reads off a play in practice to linebacker Paris Lenon.
In his office on Super Bowl Sunday, Ray Horton was drawing up potential plays for the 2012 season.
The Cards' defensive coordinator has ideas, a couple of things he says are "radical" for the NFL, and he's jotted them down on his dry-erase board.
"Everyone says 'You can't do that,' " Horton said. "Why can't you do that? I'm going to do that, because our players don't know you can't do that. They will just learn it as, 'This is what we're doing.'
"I think (the players) trust me now. I will try a couple things in the preseason. There is always room for growth. I am always trying to learn and expand and not ever say, 'We are there.' You always want to be creative and fresh and new."
The defensive unit is definitely in a different place than once upon a time. Horton's system turned out to be complicated to absorb, something that was somewhat of an unknown a year ago when Horton was hired. "I'd never seen 95 percent of our guys," Horton recalled, and that was just made worse by the lockout.
The struggles lasted well into the season, and then the defense finally clicked and was the backbone of a team that won seven of its last nine games. The Cardinals became one of the steadiest defenses in the NFL over those last nine games.
With a season to evaluate what exactly his players can do on the field and now an offseason to tweak, Horton is counting on a continuation of improvement.
"Every year is different," Horton said. "I know our guys well now, I understand what we can and cannot do, I understand where we need to improve at. It's going to be different challenges. We play Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady next year, instead of Cam Newton and (Andy Dalton). For me the challenge is how do we improve? How do we use that great base we had and start the way we finished and keep going up?"
Horton was pleased the defense did improve but wants the unit to find a way to force more turnovers (the Cards had 10 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries). He also wants the goal-line package to be more effective, although the Cards were tops in the NFL in red-zone defense over the last nine weeks of the season.
There will be change but the change defensively for the Cardinals may be minimal. Restricted free agent cornerback Greg Toler is coming back from an ACL tear. Defensive end Calais Campbell will be in Arizona, either with a new contract or a franchise tag. Richard Marshall, the starting corner opposite Patrick Peterson, is the only major unrestricted free agent other than Campbell – Horton called Marshall the defense's MVP because of his versatility and help this season.
(The Cards do have other free-agent defenders that could help by coming back, like defensive end Vonnie Holliday and linebacker Clark Haggans.)
The free-agent period doesn't start for another month, however. First Horton will continue to meet with his coaches and they will break down 2011, searching for ways to improve, and figuring out just how radical the Cards can be.
"I want to know if the play worked or the play didn't, or if the player won or the player lost the play," Horton said. "Look and see if this is why it didn't work, do we need better players or a better scheme."