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Cardinals drafted right plan, right players to reach Super Bowl

Rod Graves spent 13 years in the Chicago Bears' personnel department and was a part of their Super Bowl XX championship season as a scout in 1985. By 1996, the Bears were struggling, and Graves knew his time in Chicago was up.

Graves talked with then-Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson about coming to Kansas City and continuing their work together, since both had been a part of the USFL's Philadelphia Stars. That could work, Graves thought.

But then-Bears owner Ed McCaskey presented another idea. If Graves no longer would work for him, McCaskey concluded, he persisted that Graves do so with one of McCaskey's longtime friends.

Basically, McCaskey told Graves to mine for football gold in the West.

"Ed McCaskey, who I had the deepest affection for, asked me as a favor to him to visit with the Arizona Cardinals and owner Mr. (William) Bidwill," Graves recalled. "I went there to do it just because he asked but was not expecting what I found. To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed the time. I came on board."

Graves joined the Cardinals as an assistant to Bidwill from 1997-2002, as vice president of football operations from 2002-07 and for the last two seasons as general manager.

Graves is back in the Super Bowl 23 years later. He became part of a leadership troika, one that includes president Michael Bidwill and second-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt, that has gutted the Cardinals' old way of business and transformed the Cardinals' ethos and customs.

In the three seasons before Graves arrived, the Cardinals went 8-8 under coach Buddy Ryan in 1994, 4-12 under Ryan in 1995 and 7-9 under Vince Tobin in 1996. In 1998, they went 9-7, earned a playoff berth and beat the Dallas Cowboys. But under Tobin, Dave McGinnis (2000-03) and Dennis Green (2004-06), the Cardinals didn't post another winning season after that 1998 uprising -- until now.

It was a steady, sometimes-painful-but-always-focused process that built the Cardinals from pitiable to proud.

"The two NFL models that I most appreciated were the Chicago Bears and the Pittsburgh Steelers," Graves said. "No one was more physical and tough and more imposing than the Chicago Bears. And from Walter Payton to Mike Singletary and so many others, you had extraordinary people. I've learned you've got to have that kind of character, the right kind of character in your locker room.

"The Steelers always got young players ready to play. They let go of guys in some tough choices to stay ahead. Yet, they always seemed able to insert players and keep going. Those are things I wanted for us, and those are things that have helped us get to this point."

A healthy view and an accentuation on the positives are key to turning things around, former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy said. He took over a 4-12 Bills team in 1987. Within two seasons, he had Buffalo at 12-4 and won the first of six division titles. He later claimed four consecutive AFC championships (1990-93).

"One parallel I see from our team and with where the Cardinals were is there can be fortune out of being bad for a number of years and getting high draft choices," Levy said. "We used them to bring in Bruce Smith and the others. It blossomed. When you make the right personnel selections with high picks, that can help you do it."

The Cardinals' manner and system in selecting personnel were overhauled, Graves said. It was a two- to three-year process that began around 2000 and re-educated scouts and the entire personnel department on what made a player a Cardinal. It encompassed every avenue of player acquisition, especially the draft.

Graves inserted a scouting department that meets for one week three times annually and dissects draft talent in the following ways:

» December: In this session, the team strictly concentrates on college players who it projects will not be drafted and ranks them, nearly 500 total. Once the draft is over, the team is prepared to pounce on the pool of undrafted free agents who are being intensely wooed.

» February: This meeting focuses on players who the team projects will be drafted in Rounds 4-7. There are nearly 300 players in this group.

» April: This session can turn into a nearly monthlong examination leading up to the draft on the top players. The team focuses on talent, character and background checks and ranks the players while also considering their importance to the team's needs.

This structure has helped the Cardinals identify and retain much of the talent that will be on display in Super Bowl XLIII.

The 2004 draft is the staple on which the current Cardinals are built. That year, Arizona took wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and defensive end Antonio Smith -- all starters, the first three Pro Bowl-caliber, with Smith a prime contributor. And the team has found star players in every draft, including the last one, which brought cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (1st round, 16th overall) and running back Tim Hightower (5th round, 149th).

Opening $450 million University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006 also did wonders.

"Part of the reason we could not maintain that success in 1998 is that we did not have the revenue to get or retain free agents like we would have liked," Graves said. "We lost that momentum. Michael Bidwill led the charge in building the new stadium, and it was a lot of hard work. Dennis Green deserves credit for giving us great ideas in the drafts when he was coach. As we kept moving forward, we all thrived off of Michael Bidwill's energy. He was very ambitious toward changing the performance of the organization and its reputation. He had faith in what we were doing, and that faith was critical.

"In 2007, we looked for a coach that could pull the group together. We interviewed seven coaches; we marched around the country. We knew what we were looking for, and Ken let us know right away he was it. He had charisma in his air of leadership. He came from a strong pedigree, having worked with guys like Joe Gibbs and Bill Curry and Ted Marchibroda and Bill Cowher."

The support of ownership is vital in any turnaround. Former Washington Redskins GM Bobby Beathard said that was his experience when he helped guide the team to three Super Bowl victories. He said solid ownership support colored his 38 years of NFL experience, which included trips to seven Super Bowls.

"I worked with Rod's dad, Jackie, on the road scouting all the time back then when we were road warriors," Beathard said of Graves' father, a former Philadelphia Eagles scout. "Rod has the intelligence and knack for analyzing football players like his dad did. Rod has so much experience, but the whole thing starts with ownership. When an owner hires people, he has to have the confidence in them and leave them alone so they can get you to your goals. Some owners tend to meddle, meddle, meddle. Having a productive relationship between owner, general manager and coach gives you a chance to be successful. The Cardinals must have that now to be where they are.

"To me, once the Cardinals got that, Kurt Warner was the key. Getting a guy like him brings it all together, not taking anything away from anyone else. They have really good football players, but that quarterback builds the confidence of everyone on the team. And they obviously have coaches willing to coach and teach anyone, from free agent to first-rounder. What they have done speaks to not only the team on the field, but the team in the organization."

So here are Graves and the Cardinals, in the NFL's biggest game after methodically building a team from ashes to beauty. The Cardinals have a new culture. They have a new reputation.

"Part of the real secret when you go from nothing to something is no big egos," Levy said. "Everyone works together. No one cares who gets the credit. Good patience from ownership. They (the Cardinals) must have that. They are a surprise in this Super Bowl. But the behind-the-scenes work that went into turning it around takes a certain level of commitment to a plan over time. To me, those are the best stories in the NFL."

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