In the Cards

I learned everything I needed to know about Chris Johnson from one play. It was one of his first days with the team, back in training camp. We were doing a walkthrough and he was shadowing the starting tailback. A blitz came. The starter stepped one way, and Chris stepped the opposite way. The correct way.

I thought, Wow … that’s a pretty ballsy move.

Most guys in that situation — being the new guy learning a new system and not wanting to mess up — would just follow the guy in front of him. If he’s wrong, you’re both wrong. But Chris went the correct way because he knew the exact adjustment within that protection.

That play showed me how intelligent Chris is. That particular blitz was a tough one to pick up, even for the starter — a guy who’s been there a long time. Chris basically stepped off the plane and into a Cardinals uniform and got it right. Tailback is a very difficult position within our offense, and not only did he make the proper adjustment on that play, he literally learned the entire offense within a week.

That’s the kind of guy you want on your team.

Usually, a team that already has a lot of vets doesn’t spend money to bring in more vets, especially a tailback going on 30 years old. But Chris has been a tremendous addition because he’s brought a lot to the team with his play on the field, and because he fits this team’s mentality.

Chris isn’t concerned with how many snaps he gets, or his next contract. He wants to win. That’s it. And that’s the mindset of this entire Cardinals team. We’re not trying to build for the future. We’re trying to win now. We’re trying to win the Super Bowl this year. That’s all that matters to us.

It’s the same mindset we had a year ago, when we were 9-1 and in position to make a run at the top seed in the NFC. Personally, my body felt great. I was playing at the level I wanted to play at and we were winning football games. We were basically in the driver’s seat.

Then I tore my ACL, and everything changed. After my injury, we lost four of our last six games, then got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

I had been through that process before — the injury, the rehab, the comeback — but this one felt much different. Watching the team finish like that after a 9-1 start, it felt like we missed a huge opportunity.

I’ve been on teams that didn’t have a chance to compete for a Super Bowl. In Oakland, there was a lot going on with the organization and it was unclear what direction it was headed. They weren’t in Super Bowl mode. There were times when it didn’t matter how well we played, we were just overmatched by better teams. Every player goes through times like that in his career — where you just have to weather the storm and get through it, and the winning times will come.

You only get so many years to play this game, so when you find yourself in position to compete for a Super Bowl, you have to take advantage. That window closes so fast. And with my injury last year, I feel like that chance was taken away from us.

It left a really bad taste in my mouth.

Going through the rehab process a second time, I knew what to expect. I had no doubt I would be back playing at a high level this year. None. I was determined to get back to the point I was at last year, and I feel like I have. I feel great. I feel like I can make all the throws. I feel like I can move when I need to.

Maybe the urgency I feel to take advantage of this Super Bowl window is because of my age, but I think 36 is a good age for a quarterback. You have knowledge and experience, but you’re not on the decline just yet. Some people are surprised that — having just turned 36 and coming off a second knee surgery — I’m playing at this level. But I’m not surprised whatsoever. I always believed I would get back to this level, and believe there’s still a lot of room for me to get better. Confidence comes from the work you put in. Knowing how I attacked my rehab and how the rest of the guys came to work every day this offseason trying to get better gives us the confidence we can make the Super Bowl run we should have made last year. We just have to continue to work and continue to grind.

This team really is in a unique situation. You hear some teams say before the season that it’s “Super Bowl or bust.” That couldn’t be more true with this group, because we remember that feeling we had last season. We know we had what it took to make a run. But we’re a fighting group, and that’s why we’re right back in the position we were in a year ago. We have an extremely big challenge ahead of us, but when we play our best football, nobody can beat us. We know that. We expect to beat everybody we play. And at this point, there is no “next year.”

Winning is all we’re focused on. Nothing else matters.

In Week 12 against the 49ers, we suffered a pretty crucial injury when Chris fractured his tibia. It’s tough to see a guy like Chris go down when he’s worked so hard and given so much to this team in the short time he’s been here. But his season isn’t over just yet. He’s eligible to come back at the end of January. The first game in which he would be eligible to play would be Super Bowl 50.

And when that time comes, we expect to still be playing.