Pro Bowler Wilson says Cards have a lot to prove

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -Coming off back-to-back 5-11 seasons, the Arizona Cardinals are no longer a trendy pick in the NFC West.

And that's fine with Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson.

He's tired of reading in the summer about how good the Cardinals will be, only to see them flounder in the fall.

"We don't want to have a whole lot of hype going into the season like the last couple years," Wilson said before Thursday's workout at Northern Arizona University. "These last couple of years, I think guys really bought into that, reading that stuff in the papers. We don't really need that.

"We want to establish who we are on the field, not in the newspapers," Wilson said.

In 2006, the signing of former MVP quarterback Kurt Warner generated false optimism. Last year, excitement over the team's new stadium proved to be an illusion, and the club fired coach Dennis Green at the end of another dismal season.

This year, Wilson is generating far more preseason hype than the Cardinals. But at least his publicity is deserved. Wilson, coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, has emerged as one of the NFL's top safeties.

"I've worked real hard the past few years to get (to the Pro Bowl)," said the 27-year-old Wilson, entering his seventh season. "That meant a lot. It was definitely a great accomplishment."

In defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's scheme, Wilson often moves into a linebacker slot, taking advantage of his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame and ferocious hitting style.

In 2005, he had eight sacks, a record for a defensive back. When Wilson didn't make the Pro Bowl, he used the snub as motivation.

"When I had the eight sacks, I thought I should have gone," he said. "I just took that year in stride and I told myself that I was going to work harder than what I did that past offseason."

Last year, a fired-up Wilson matched a career high with four interceptions, forced a career-high four fumbles and had five sacks.

Wilson also returned a fumble and an interception 99 yards for touchdowns, becoming only the fifth player to have two scores of at least that long in one season since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970. The other four who accomplished it did so with kickoff returns only.

Wilson was one of the few bright spots on a defense that ranked 29th in points allowed and 30th in yardage given up a year ago.

To opposing offenses, No. 24 often seems to be in two places at once.

"Certainly, he's a force that you have to account for," new coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

Whisenhunt, a former Pittsburgh assistant, had only seen Wilson briefly during the Cardinals' preseason game against the Steelers last summer. But he's come to appreciate Wilson's versatility on the field and his leadership off it.

"He's a guy that you want on your football team because he has that innate leadership ability because guys look up to him," Whisenhunt said. "And he wants to win. He has a desire to win, and his work ethic on the field and in the weight room shows that."

Whisenhunt also likes Wilson's durability. Though he plays with abandon, Wilson has missed only two games in six years, and none in the last four.

Wilson, the Cardinals' third-round selection out of North Carolina State in 2001, said he emulates former defensive back Rod Woodson, an 11-time Pro Bowler.

"I just tried to pattern myself after him, being a guy that can do everything," Wilson said. "I thought he was a guy who could do pretty much anything that the coaches told him."

Whisenhunt didn't have to tell Wilson to be a leader. After signing a five-year contract extension late in the 2004 season, Wilson is committed to turning around a woeful franchise.

"Whenever you're put in the leadership responsibility, it seems like you've got to get guys going around you," Wilson said. "But before you do all that, you've got to earn the respect of your teammates. I thought I've earned it from my teammates."

Wilson's main message in camp? He wants his teammates concentrating on improving their play instead of their visibility in the media. Wilson chuckled when a reporter mentioned that fewer national reporters have visited the Cardinals in the tall pines so far this year.

"That's our attitude: keep everybody away so everybody can stay focused," he said.

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