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Lott provides strength, discipline as Cardinals power to Super Bowl

John Lott runs up a trail on Camelback Mountain at every opportunity. He times himself going up and coming down.

If you know Lott or anything about him, he doesn't use a sand dial to gauge his progress. He pushes himself to limits only he can describe because most of us would tap out when we saw buzzards circling.

The Arizona Cardinals' strength and conditioning coach doesn't view his decent from the two-mile trail, where some mountain climbing literally is involved, as coming down. To him, it's finishing. Coming down is easing up, getting comfortable down the stretch, knowing at some point that things will be over.

Finishing means there was a goal and a purpose to it all.

It's the message Lott keeps preaching to players who have cursed him, fought with him and tried every way to escape his Texas twangin', in-your-face training demands since he arrived in Arizona with head coach Ken Whisenhunt in 2007. There's a method to Lott's madness, with the proof being how the Cardinals are finishing their 2008 season, with one more game remaining: Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

"He should be the highest-paid strength and conditioning coach in the NFL," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "He's the only coach I have on speed dial. His whole philosophy is to wear teams down in the fourth quarter -- of games and in the season. Once you get into the [playoffs], there aren't any excuses for anything.

"He really drives us hard. He gets after it. A lot of power lifting, a lot of running. I'll say this, if there are any questions about how strong we are or how good of shape we're in, go ask Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia for answers."

The Falcons, Panthers and Eagles were vanquished by the Cardinals en route to the franchise earning its first Super Bowl berth.

Cardinals players have praised Lott's hard-driving ways, groomed and nurtured over 20 years in college and in the NFL under the likes of Bill Parcells with the New York Jets -- that's where Lott met Whisenhunt -- and working with track athletes Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and some from Indonesia and Japan. Lott, a former offensive guard, played one NFL season with the Steelers in 1987.

Lott, 44, is big on hokey sayings, squats, power cleans, bench presses (he has overseen the lift at the NFL Scouting Combine) and players being as lean as possible.

The most obvious examples of Lott's work with the Cardinals: quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, both Pro Bowl players. Warner, 37, has lost 14 pounds since 2006. Fitzgerald is playing around 213 pounds, down from 229 when Lott was hired.

Warner has been more evasive in the pocket and, as a result, he has started all 16 games and three playoff games this season. He hasn't taken the big hits that nearly ended his career a few times because he has managed to stay out of harm's way.

Fitzgerald, who has a playoff-record 419 receiving yards this year, has gained a step in speed, increased his vertical jump and combined his improved fitness with breakthrough toughness that has resulted in him fighting and gaining more yards after the catch, Lott said.

"I think everybody has got a good trust in him, a belief that he was going to lead us to this point," Fitzgerald said. "I think everybody bought into that over the last two years, and he delivered on his promises of making us a playoff team and getting us physically and mentally prepared for these types of games. You've got to tip your hat to him for what he's done for this program."

Lott said the Cardinals' offensive line has lost 417 total pounds in two seasons. What's big (or small) about that? The unit has been able to stay healthy and jell together during that span.

Lott understands that players must be of a certain physical makeup to endure life in the NFL, so he's not trying to peel weight off all of them and shape them into NBA small forwards. However, he does believe that too much weight equates to less speed, especially at the skill positions.

To emphasize his point, Lott will have a player he believes is too heavy to grab a 25-pound weight and run sprints with it. Then, he'll have the player drop the weight to show how much easier it is to move without the additional pounds. The point is usually well taken.

"What really gets them is I ask them what weight they played at in college," Lott said. "That kills them because it's usually a lot less. I ask them, 'Didn't playing at that weight get you into the NFL?'"

That point also is usually well taken, Lott said.

Not everyone needs to lose weight, like the 290-pound Dockett, who actually has added a few pounds since Lott's arrival. Lott's program is based on the players' needs, not a theory. However, when rookie running back Tim Hightower came in looking like a 225-pound, muscle-bound superhero last summer, Lott put him in check right away.

"He was walking around like a rooster, his feathers all up," Lott said. "I told him this ain't no pie-eating contest. This ain't the University of Richmond anymore. You'll be caught from behind the minute you get past a linebacker -- if you get past a linebacker. You get to 218, that's a good weight for you. It's turned out to be a good weight for him."

Lott's means of conveying his message are as raw as Chris Rock, minus the foul language.

"He substitutes curse words with all kinds of other words that don't make sense," Dockett said.

Lott gets his point across, though.

"Here is what I tell my guys," Lott said. "Once you leave your $1 million home and get in your $100,000 car and go do your $25,000 appearance and eat your free meal and pick up your car from the free valet, you have to come into my room. You can leave your checkbook at the door. I don't care what your cap number is.

"I try to get into their heads that my expectations are way up here, and I'm never dropping it. If you want to be a good tackle, then you better want to be Jumbo Elliott. If you want to be a good running back, my bar is Curtis Martin. If they're up to the challenge, I tell them, 'Let's do this.'

"I don't just coach running backs or kickers. I coach them all. I'm dumber than a sack of hammers, and those hammers have wood handles, but I know what my experience has taught me, and that's to challenge guys. I believe in something that Billy Jean King said: Pressure is a privilege."

Much of the heavy lifting, literally, takes place in the offseason. That's the case with all NFL teams. During the season, training often is measured by a player's health and wear, so certain aspects of lifting and running are curtailed. However, if a player dares to slack off, he's in for it, Lott said.

To help players to buy into his system, Lott runs and trains with them. He has hired young assistants who can do the same, he said. That lets players know he's not just a blowhard who enjoys torturing others.

On the issue of torture, players will become a little bit more familiar with it this offseason, courtesy of Camelback Mountain. The rookies joined Lott on his weekly excursions a few times last summer. Before training camp, the whole team will take the scenic route.

The success the team has enjoyed shouldn't require too much arm twisting to get players to the mountain, Lott said. Getting them through the course will be the hard part.

"Walter Payton had his hill, and Jerry Rice had his," Lott said. "There is no reason why, if you play for the Arizona Cardinals, that Camelback can't be yours."

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