Quarterback Kurt Warner and his Cardinals teammates all fight the mental strain of a long season as the playoffs approach.
At one point this season, explaining in part why he would at least consider retirement at the end of the season, Kurt Warner talked about the mental stresses of having to perform at a high level every week and the toll it could take.
The Cardinals quarterback wasn't complaining as much as stating reality.
The physical affect the game takes on players 18 games into the season (including preseason) is obvious and understood. The mental strain of the game is less tangible, but ultimately can affect a player as much if not more than, for instance, getting dinged in the arm.
"The thing is, everybody loves Sundays," Warner said. "Sunday is easy from that standpoint. It's the mental part that makes or breaks a lot of people, and I think that's the part that wears on people farther in your career. You have expectations, you have ways you prepare and you are always trying to push yourself and do more.
"A lot of times, as much as the physical break you get when the season is over, it's the mental break guys look forward to. To be able to step back and take a breath and wonder, 'Did I do enough?' "
The Cardinals are battling all three human elements going into their last two games before the playoffs: mental, physical and emotional.
Staying focused and fresh is not simple, not with the team having reported to training camp back on July 29. Having games that mean something help, but at the same time, it increases the pressure both externally and internally.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the mental fatigue is most obvious when the players return from their Tuesday off day to their first day of work on Wednesday. But, Whisenhunt said, "as the game gets closer, the juices start to flow."
Some see it as easier to deal with than the physical impact. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who may not play Sunday because of a sore shoulder, said the mental part of the game never changes for him and is never a strain.
Fellow Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald acknowledged the monotony of the season can grind on some players. In that case, he added, players must view the big picture.
"We haven't had the chance to be in the playoffs or play meaningful games this late for a long time," Fitzgerald said. "You really have to take advantage of the opportunity. Everyone has to get (mentally) stronger now."
Coming out flat – which Whisenhunt and his players universally admitted happened in the loss to the Vikings last weekend – is a pitfall that must be avoided, a pitfall that would seem to be more mental than physical.
Whisenhunt has said multiple times his squad has not dealt with success well. The learning curve has not been conquered.
Veteran defensive end Bertrand Berry said a player's mental fortitude can't be passed around by word-of-mouth in the locker room but only through "on-the-job training."
"The teams that are mentally tough are the ones that are getting in the playoffs and they are the ones who are going to succeed in the playoffs," Berry said.
The storyline this weekend for the Cardinals' trip to New England will usually be about the long journey East or the battle with the elements.
But the underlying theme will be the Cards' mental state as they move into the final days of the regular season.
"I don't know if you can really put into words how tough it is," Warner said. "But I think it's the toughest part of the game."
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 12/19/08.