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Arizona Cardinals' rise didn't happen overnight; NFL-wide notes

In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

It'd be too strong to say that the Cardinals' trip to Super Bowl XLIII came by accident, but the confluence of events was -- in an honest moment -- something folks in Arizona will admit happened on the fly.

"When you're blessed to have someone like Kurt Warner, you have to understand those players don't come along all the time," Arizona Cardinals GM Rod Graves said from his office Monday afternoon. "Most often, you're looking for a quarterback that manages games for you. I'm from that old philosophy, you try to play great defense, opportunistic special teams, try and run the football."

First point to take away from that: Cardinals brass didn't anticipate building a high-wire, fast-break offense in the years leading into 2008, but found a way to adjust to what it had with Warner.

And second: What we're watching unfold in the desert now is a lot closer to the vision Graves and head coach Ken Whisenhunt have had for the franchise all along.

The brilliance of the Cardinals' stunning 4-0 start is in the details. They won in Foxborough. They crushed an otherwise unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles team. Most recently, they surmounted a 13-0 deficit to win on a day that wasn't their best.

Aesthetically, it looks considerably uglier than it did when Warner was the triggerman. Which, in fact, is kind of the idea.

"We're tougher," Graves said, when comparing the 2012 Cardinals to the 2008 version. "We're physically tougher, our mindset is tougher, we're mentally tougher. And I just think we're really a lot like the kind of team we wanted to be when we hired Coach Whisenhunt. The idea was to bring that Steeler mentality here. We're still working to get there. I don't feel like we've arrived. But we've taken huge steps, making this team tougher."

Whisenhunt, of course, came from Pittsburgh. And as Graves alluded to, the Steeler marks that didn't show up on the 2008 team -- because it was best to build that particular group in a different manner -- are all over this year's club.

They have the imposing front seven, with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Daryl Washington manning the area inside the tackle box, and young edge rushers O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho on the outside. They have the Pittsburgh-style enforcer at safety in Adrian Wilson. And as a bonus, they have a corner who's approaching "shutdown" status in Patrick Peterson.

The offense isn't spectacular. But Graves has a couple physical-type high draft picks at receiver and tailback, depth at tight end and a line that's suffered from the loss of tackle Levi Brown, yet has somehow been OK. No one's looking to rank 31st in total offense, as the Cardinals currently do, but they have limited turnovers (six total over four games) and won games against Seattle and Miami at the wire.

And even accounting for the issues, Graves thinks that clutch play from a struggling offense illustrates the importance of Arizona's emphasis on a certain type of player -- smart, physical guys who play hard and possess what he calls "great football character."

"I think it manifested itself (on Sunday)," Graves said. "It showed the maturity of this team, and that is really at the base of it all. When we were in a tough situation and had to come back and win a game, we did. I can remember the day when we couldn't do that; we just weren't strong enough mentally to pull that off. (The Miami game) shows me we're not only a talented team, but a determined one. And when you've got those two things working, you can be hard to stop."

Like so many others, Graves points to the second half of last season as a turning point for the team. At one point, the team had lost six straight, held a 1-6 overall record and, as the GM put it, there was an "opportunity for things to go south." But Graves saw leaders like Wilson and Dockett continue to show up at 5:30 a.m., and younger players continue to follow them, and the result was a 7-2 finish.

Of course, this year's team faces the same core issue as last year's installment: The quarterback position is unsettled. John Skelton's been out three weeks with an ankle sprain, and while Kevin Kolb has come through in big spots, he's been shaky otherwise. Still, Graves believes Kolb has a future in the desert.

"I think regardless of the fact that his start here was rocky, he has the tools necessary to be a winning quarterback and lead a successful team," Graves said. "Look across the league. You've got different shades of success, and some guys more gifted than others. But in my estimation, the difference between a player like Tom Brady and a (Joe Flacco) is partly in how the teams use the quarterback, what they ask them to do, how they manage the game. I think Kevin can do that for us. We're blessed to have two guys capable of winning for us."

To this point, Kolb's been good enough to get the Cardinals to 4-0. No, he's not in the stratosphere Warner was, nor is Skelton. But they don't have to be, which is very much by design.

Even given that new look, Graves is hesitant to say the Cardinals have rebuilt since 2008, because the way he sees it, the road to construct the program they wanted simply took a short detour, one that just so happened to get the franchise to its first Super Bowl.

"I'd rather use the term 'remodeled,' " he said. "We've been working to find the same characteristics and qualities, and Ken's done a great job of preaching the attitude and chemistry we want. We've lost certain players, hit a few bumps along the way trying to replace those guys, but the message never changed. We recognize we've still got a long way to go to be the team we want to be, but we've taken some strong, positive steps."

Having won 11 of their last 13 games, it sure seems like the Cardinals are well on their way.

Four things to look for in Week 5

1) Ryan Tannehill's next step. After Tannehill spent the majority of his time at Texas A&M as a receiver -- not a quarterback -- a lot of folks around the league felt like he was more raw than most and could benefit from a season on bench. Then came last week's trip to Arizona. Tannehill posted more passing yards, a higher completion percentage and a better quarterback rating than Mike Vick and Tom Brady did in the two weeks previous against the Cardinals' imposing defense. No, he didn't win the game, but internally, the Miami Dolphins were pleased with a couple things. First, he was able to lift the level of the players around him, a group that's fairly mediocre at the skill positions. Second, he continues to impress with his poise and general approach. As one club official said, "He's smart. He learns from the good, but the bad too. ... He comes to work, and he's trying to improve." Again, you're looking to win the game. And the Dolphins didn't. But seeing growth from a player like Tannehill wasn't a bad consolation prize. We'll see if he can keep it going in this week's visit to the Cincinnati Bengals.

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2) Cam Newton's reaction. Few draft prospects have ever entered the NFL under the level of scrutiny Cam Newton endured in 2011. But for as much as he was nitpicked, there was a pretty sizable hole in his résumé: dealing with losses. Between Newton's high school graduation and draft day, he dropped just one game as a starter, to Navarro Junior College in Texas in October of 2009. In fact, the last three teams he played for in college won national titles (Florida, Blinn College and then Auburn). So it was hard to tell how the eventual early failure that all young quarterbacks have to battle would hit Newton. And it turns out it has hit him hard. Veteran receiver Steve Smith got after Newton following the team's undressing at the hands of the Giants two Thursdays ago, and Newton's reaction to the heartbreaker in his hometown of Atlanta last week left plenty for interpretation. Newton also admitted similar problems existed last year. Look, competitiveness is great. Losing sucks, and guys should feel it. The best players don't just rally themselves, they rally everyone around them, too. And getting to watch whether or not Newton can do that makes this week's Carolina game, with an edgy Seattle Seahawks defense on the other side, an intriguing highlight of the schedule.

3) The state of the Steelers' offensive line. Pittsburgh went into last week's bye ranked 23rd in sacks allowed per pass play. The good news is that, at this point, the group is hardly a finished product. The team expected much more out of rookie tackle Mike Adams, and could've hoped for better health for first-round pick David DeCastro. Maybe things will change now. The time off gave Rashard Mendenhall a chance to get healthy -- which should help juice the ground game and bring better balance -- and Adams a chance to assess himself and get extra practice reps. The hope remains DeCastro can return this season. But there's little question that the line, which the club felt was bolstered with two first-round-level rookies in the offseason, is behind schedule in its development. And on Sunday, it'll have to deal with a fearsome Philadelphia Eagles front. That gives Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger a little more to worry about than all the hubbub about their relationship.

4) Brady v. Manning XIII. Let's keep this one simple. Over the past decade, this has become, without question, the greatest quarterback rivalry of all time. And when you turn this game on Sunday, my advice would be this: Appreciate it. We don't know how many of these are left. Two years ago, just before the last game these guys played, Brady told me, "I still look at us as young guys out there playing. I know his goal is to continue to play for a long time. It's not like it's coming to an end." As it turns out, the Colts-Patriots segment of this rivalry was, indeed, coming to an end. It's football. You never know. So enjoy this sport's answer to Bird-Magic or Ali-Frazier while you can.

Three conclusions

1) Jake Locker was coming along. The second-year quarterback's non-throwing shoulder issue will, eventually, be resolved. (The Tennessee Titans certainly hope this Nashville doctor's estimation isn't correct.) For now, though, it's robbing Locker of valuable developmental time, which is too bad since he has plenty to build on. Just a 53.9 percent passer as a collegian, with serious accuracy questions coming into the pros, Locker was handed over to offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, with Tennessee believing the coach could do the same things he did to help Eli Manning improve in that area. It seems to be working: Locker is a 63.2 percent passer and, until going down against the Houston Texas, was getting better by the week. One team official called the win over Detroit "his best game as a pro, a legitimately (well-quarterbacked) game. He's really been progressing the way we've wanted him to." The Titans aren't going to compete with the Texans this year. But if they can fix their O-line woes, it looks like a really interesting young offense is emerging in Nashville, with Kenny Britt, Chris Johnson, Kendall Wright and Jared Cook around Locker.

2) A week later, give Mike McCarthy credit for handling the Fail Mary aftermath correctly. I told McCarthy over the weekend I was impressed with his ability to keep himself in check through the mayhem in Seattle. I was more impressed with how, as he explained to me, he used it with his players: "We talked about integrity as a football team, our place here in Green Bay, as far as taking care of the game. And the great players that came before us, they established it. We're the stewards taking care of it for the generations that follow us. ... I have a responsibility to the Packer organization, our fans and, frankly, my family. You gotta represent yourself the right way. I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't act that way to the most important people, my players. I felt like I really didn't do anything different than I always do." You read that, and it's not hard to see how the Packers were able to put it behind them, come out firing six days later and find a way to outgun a red-hot Drew Brees at Lambeau.

3) Monday Night might not be must-win for the Jets. But it is a must-play well. This seems to have disaster written all over it. The Jets get an extra day this week to get beat up by the New York tabloids, and on the other end of that is a game against, perhaps, the best team in football: the Houston Texans. But Rex Ryan isn't lying when he says his teams have dug out of such holes before. Two years ago, riding a four-game winning streak coming in, they were humiliated by the Patriots in Foxborough in December, losing 45-3. The next week, still flat, they fell to Miami 10-6. A win in Pittsburgh followed, and the Jets wound up exacting revenge on New England in the playoffs and getting to the AFC title game. The key: That group found a way to stop the bleeding. Can these Jets control the problem, with Darrelle Revis almost certainly done for the season and Santonio Holmes potentially following suit? That remains to be seen. But just playing well against Houston -- forget winning -- would be an important step.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) West Virginia QB Geno Smith (at Texas, 7 p.m. ET, FOX): If you're reading this deep into the column, and you haven't been living under a rock the last week, you know about Smith's Heisman statement in a crazy, 70-63 win over Baylor last Saturday: 45-for-51, 656 yards, eight touchdowns, zero picks. I texted with an NFL executive after the game who said Smith "has a chance" to be the first pick in 2013, when you combine his torrid start this year with "a good junior year." There will be two criticisms in the spring. The first will be that he plays in a numbers-inflating version of the Mike Leach Air Raid offense. And second, that he's playing in the defense-deficient Big 12 as a senior, after playing in the just-plain-deficient Big East in his prior three years. This week, in fact, could be his biggest test from a competition standpoint. Texas, in case you're wondering, yielded 36 points to Oklahoma State last Saturday. "He'll put up big numbers against Texas," said one scout. "They are a much better defense (than Baylor), but nobody in the Big 12 plays defense. Everyone is horrible on that side of the ball." The scout added that Smith is "not nearly the athlete (Robert) Griffin (III) or Newton is," but is a more polished passer.

2) South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore (vs. Georgia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN): Before Lattimore shredded his knee last fall, he was reminding some of a young Adrian Peterson, with over 2,000 yards in his first 19 games as a collegian. He's been paced to some degree this year, but there are also clear signs that the process of coming back isn't complete. "He's not there yet," said one NFL executive, "but he'll get there." Lattimore's season high for carries through five games is 23, and the coaches really limited him in nonconference games against East Carolina and UAB. Presumably, there's an element of saving the stud tailback's legs until they're really needed, which would be this week, with the fifth-ranked Bulldogs visiting Columbia. According to the exec, the hoard of evaluators attending this showdown will be looking for Lattimore to showcase "yards after first contact and home-run speed" -- two elements that relate back to the health of that knee.

One prediction

The calls for Russell Wilson's benching will only get louder. Wilson's been a great story, and this is not an indictment on where Wilson is going as an NFL quarterback. But that Seattle team has the look of one ready to win now. It's hard for a group like that to endure the growing pains a rookie has to go through at that position.

Lombardi: Time to put Flynn in

Michael Lombardi knows folks love Russell Wilson, but he thinks the Seahawks will be better off if they start Matt Flynn. **More ...**

Wilson hasn't been horrific. He's completed 60 percent of his passes, and has a middling 4-4 TD-INT ratio. But his average of 5.94 yards per attempt is the second-worst mark in the NFL, with only Blaine Gabbert below him. This certainly makes you wonder if Matt Flynn could be a better fit for this particular team (potentially getting more out of the guys around him right now), even if Wilson is the right guy for the franchise going forward.

We'll see what happens. The Ravens and Jets got to conference title games with rookie QBs in 2008 and '09, so it's not like a club hasn't ridden out the bumps before. Maybe the Seahawks do the same.

Either way, their patience here could well hint at how committed they are to Wilson in the long term.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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