Safety Adrian Wilson has played at a Pro Bowl-type level this season.
At 6:30 many mornings, Adrian Wilson walks up the stairs from the locker room and heads into the office of defensive backs coach Louie Cioffi.
There, the veteran Pro Bowl safety studies the video. He's already been studying it at home on his own and in meetings with his teammates. This gives him a chance to have some give-and-take with Cioffi, to find out what he can improve and to offer suggestions to the coaching staff.
Wilson is always looking to improve. He has for a long time, and with so many wondering if he could still be the same Pro Bowler he'd been, his resolve was steeled.
He wasn't going to let a frustrating 2010 season derail him, after dealing with a torn abductor muscle much of the year. He wasn't going to be put off by a training camp injury in August that could have kept him out – but never did, once the regular season arrived – or deterred by a new defense that was for him, like most of the unit, difficult to learn. Voices, whether from fans or media, suggesting he couldn't be as effective anymore simply became fuel.
The struggles of the early season have faded. He has played like the anchor he's expected to be. A website that breaks down video of every game – profootballfocus.com – said Wilson is having another Pro Bowl season and has been the best safety in the NFC. Wilson's surge has mirrored the entire defense, which only makes sense given his place as leader.
"It's like your dad," fellow safety Hamza Abdullah said. "He goes through some tough times at work, but he's not going to bring that on you, the kids. He's not going to say, 'Hey my hours got cut so now we can't have nice dinners.' He'll do everything he can to buy the nice dinners.
"Adrian is the same way. Regardless of what is going on, between the white lines, he's going to be the leader and take control. He's a brick wall and we love him for that."
Wilson would rather not have the attention, nor rehash some of his storylines. His interviews have been few and far between this season – he declined a request for this story – but others are quick to compliment both his effort and production. (Wilson later talked to Jim Rome about his season.)
"I sense the pride that is there," Horton said. "You don't want somebody to think you can't do it. I don't see him slowing down. I don't see the age factor at all. I see him playing better as the year goes on."
Both Horton and Cioffi acknowledge they put more on Wilson with the new scheme than he had ever absorbed before, between learning the playbook and directing the secondary, or knowing when to blitz. Wilson was at the Tempe facility the day Horton was hired back in February to get as much of a head start as he could.
The lockout undermined Wilson's efforts. Then, a week into training camp, with Wilson already itching to show people he was still great at his age (he turned 32 in October), he tore his right biceps. The initial fear of lost regular-season games never materialized – Wilson hasn't missed a start, making it 56 straight, the longest safety streak in the NFL – but lost camp time set him back. Both Horton and Cioffi lament that lost time, and Horton noted Wilson had his share of mistakes once games begun.
Those problems seem to have faded to black.
"He doesn't say a lot of things when things are bothering him, whether it is an injury he was going through or he was struggling with the defense," safety Rashad Johnson said. "He just put in the work. He actually told us, 'You guys just be patient with me. I am going to get this thing down.' I didn't have any doubt."
Horton said he had heard the rumblings that Wilson struggled in coverage, but when he watched video after being hired he thought Wilson could do a good job (and profootballfocus.com actually lauded Wilson's coverage skills). Wilson has one interception and should have another three or four if he had been able to hold on to some passes.
His total of 54 tackles isn't the kind of number he used to post in the Cards' old scheme, but then again, neither are the team-leading 12 passes defensed he has notched, along with eight tackles for loss.
With Wilson, it always goes beyond the statistics. Every defensive back says the same thing about Wilson – he's the captain, the leader – and it begins and ends with No. 24. Cornerback Richard Marshall, who often joins Wilson in Cioffi's office, said there was a day last week when the secondary was having a poor practice.
"Instead of him saying, 'Oh, you messed up,' he took it upon himself, 'That's on me, I'm the leader on the back end, and I should have said something when things were going bad,' " Marshall said. "That's what a leader is supposed to do."
Like Abdullah said, the rest of the noise isn't brought up. "He's got thick skin," longtime teammate Darnell Dockett said. "He hears all the negative, and both of us are kind of like, 'All right, hit us with something new.' "
The only thing new is old – Wilson's same old effectiveness, which has returned, even if it's in a different package.
"Next year, when we have had an offseason and he knows what we want and how we want him to do it," Horton said, "you'll see an even better player next year. I really believe that."