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A healthy Friday before the Lions

Posted by Darren Urban on October 9, 2015 – 3:53 pm

There is no real wood here at my desk – not sure exactly what it’s made of, actually – so there isn’t anything on which to knock. Normally, no biggie, although I’m going to go all mentioning-the-no-hitter-in-the-seventh-inning and say it: The Cardinals are really, really healthy. Four games into the season, and they are about as healthy as an NFL team can ever be.

Bruce Arians noted it when he said, thanks to the impending return of wide receiver J.J. Nelson from a shoulder injury, that the Cardinals will have “seven healthy scratches” Sunday in Detroit for the inactive list. When has that ever happened?

Arians admitted there will be tough decisions on who sits. If Nelson plays, you figure that’ll send Brittan Golden back to the bench. But with Andre Ellington back, someone else needs out, and it’s unlikely to be a running back. The inactive list will indeed be interesting to see – but again, it’s a good problem to have.

— The Cardinals have a long week ahead, staying in West Virginia to practice at The Greenbrier, which is where the New Orleans Saints hold their training camp. First comes the game against the Lions though, a team that’s 0-4 yet have the Cardinals talking all week about how dangerous they are.

“You forget they have Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, the cat from Nebraska,” linebacker Kevin Minter said. “This is a talented team. They are a few plays from being almost undefeated. Last week, I feel they got cheated (in Seattle). I wouldn’t sleep on the Lions. I know we’re not.”

— “The cat from Nebraska” is running back Ameer Abdullah, who has flashed some talent despite the Lions’ struggles running the ball. Arians said how much he liked Abdullah coming out, and he was in consideration by the Cardinals at draft time. Things would be different with Abdullah instead of David Johnson, although the way Johnson has played, I don’t think the Cardinals would want to make any swaps.

— Speaking of running backs, the trio is back together and healthy. How will it play out? Ellington isn’t sure, exactly.

“Coach doesn’t really share too many of his thoughts,” Ellington said. “So we’ll see.”

Ellington said he’d play his role. The guess is that Chris Johnson starts, and Ellington splits time (I don’t think CJ gets the vast bulk of the work, but like Ellington said, we’ll see.) David Johnson will do something, you’d figure. But it’s nice to have options.

— A big reason the Cardinals are running the ball so well – and they really are at this point – is the offensive line. Yes, there are things to improve with communication and such, but the line overall has been better. Profootballfocus.com ranks the Cardinals after four games as the 11th-best line in the NFL. That hasn’t happened in recent memory. And to think, Mike Iupati has a game underneath him and the Lions are missing their defensive tackles.

— Arians said he will “wait and see” who does punt returns Sunday. If Nelson is healthy, does he get it back from Patrick Peterson? Nelson did muff his last punt catch attempt. But given Peterson’s defensive importance, I would think it’ll be Nelson’s duty sooner rather than later.

— After the craziness of the end of the Lions-Seahawks game and the fact Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright didn’t know the batted ball rule (and nearly cost his team a dramatic win because of it), Arians said coaching assistant Wes Goodwin (no relation to OC Harold) goes through every game each week to “find something crazy” so it can be a teaching moment for the Cardinals.

Goodwin took over the job from James Bettcher, when Bettcher was elevated to defensive coordinator. The team goes over the plays every Thursday morning, teaching as best as possible.

— For the record, Arians said he knew the batted ball play was a penalty as it happened, which would have made for an interesting moment had he been coaching the Lions.

“It would have been a hell of a fight on that sideline,” Arians quipped.

— Left tackle Jared Veldheer, a Michigan native, is playing in his home state for the first time in his career. Veldheer estimated he attended three or four games at Ford Field growing up, and not surprisingly, he’s expecting a pretty large group of his family and friends at the game Sunday. He shrugged off the idea it’d make him nervous.

“I think it’s better,” Veldheer said. “It fuels me. It’s fun to be able to have guys you played college football with in the stands, high school football with, friends. That stuff is cool to me.”

— A big matchup, considering a) Patrick Peterson has played so well and b) Calvin Johnson has done little for a struggling Lions’ offense: P2 versus Megatron.

— A final statistical note: The Cardinals have only had four three-and-out possessions this season. And they had none in their lone loss last week.

The Motor City awaits.


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Cards really (really) making most of turnovers

Posted by Darren Urban on October 1, 2015 – 12:27 pm

The Cardinals lead the NFL in interceptions after three weeks. They have seven (Mathieu 2, Peterson, Powers, Rashad Johnson, Bethel, Jefferson). They have yet to recover a fumble. On the other side, Carson Palmer has thrown two interceptions, and the Cards have lost two fumbles. Their plus-3 in the turnover ratio is fine, but not overwhelming.

What is overwhelming is how the Cardinals have dealt with both sides of the equation.

Of the four turnovers, the Cardinals have allowed a mere six points — the two field goals at the end of the first half in Chicago, despite the Bears getting the ball in the red zone twice after a Palmer pick and a J.J. Nelson muffed punt. Yet the Cards have turned their seven takeaways into 41 points. It doesn’t hurt that three of the interceptions have been returned for touchdowns, but the Cards have scored every single time they have stolen the ball. The ultimate underscore of this three-game stretch came against the 49ers. Palmer threw an interception — a bad one — near the end of the half. Yet Tyrann Mathieu picked the ball back moments later, setting up a field goal (on what was headed to be a touchdown drive if the Cardinals hadn’t run out of time.)

It’s a ratio that isn’t going to be sustained all season (you wouldn’t think.) But it’s a crucial way to give you leads in games, and yet another thing to point at with a 3-0 record.



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Friday before the Bears – not shopping

Posted by Darren Urban on September 18, 2015 – 4:12 pm

Two franchises remain from the original NFL that was created in 1920: The Cardinals and the Bears. The Cardinals, by the way, were named for the color of their original jerseys and not the bird. As long as we were talking history, I thought I’d throw that out. All that, of course, was long before now, long before the Cards moved to Arizona and long before any of the players in Sunday’s game were born. Long before their parents were born.

This is about 2015, of course, and the Cardinals’ first road trip of the season.

“We’re not going to shop on Michigan Avenue,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We’re going to play the Bears.”

— On paper, the Cardinals should win this game. Those odds should get better if the Bears are without wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and linebacker BearsCardsUSEPernell McPhee, who both could miss the game. Yes, the Cardinals are without Andre Ellington, but they are actually fairly well equipped to weather that issue.

— Could they weather the absence of safeties Tony Jefferson and Deone Bucannon? Both those guys are game-day decisions with a bad hamstring and groin, respectively. I think they’ll give it a go, but we’ll see how they feel. The way the Cards’ defense works these days, those top four safeties are crucial.

— Then again, if Bucannon can’t go, maybe that means more work for Sean Weatherspoon, since Bucannon plays so much linebacker. No Jefferson, and that could mean more Justin Bethel or more Chris Clemons.

— That picture to the right is from a Bears-Cardinals game in November of 1959. It’s Soldier Field – you can tell by the columns – but the Cardinals were actually the home team in the photo (which is courtesy of the Chicago History Museum; J. Johnson, Jr., photographer.)

— Cornerback or not for Bethel, he will still play special teams, which he did for 26 snaps in the first game – even if he wasn’t happy enough with his key downed punt late in last week’s game.

“The special teams stuff is something I know I still need to do and make plays on,” Bethel said. “I wish I would’ve made a tackle or two. I hate when I go a game and don’t have a tackle, it makes me feel like I had a bad game.”

— The short pass/screen game didn’t go all that well for the Cards’ defense last week. Now they run into a running back in Matt Forte who is the centerpiece of the Bears’ offense. For defensive coordinator James Bettcher, he was confident in the correctable mistakes the Cards made – one cover was on linebacker Alex Okafor, a miss the linebacker insists won’t happen again –and that should start this week.

“Teams are going to get plays,” Bettcher said. “We understand that. When they do, it’s tackle (them) and go on to the next down.”

Said cornerback Patrick Peterson, “We have to get all 11 hats to whoever has the ball.”

— Bettcher did rave about Okafor’s first game, and not because of his two sacks. “I thought there were a couple snaps where he was so violent setting the edge (against the run),” Bettcher said. “You can see that. That’s the first thing that stood out watching the film.”

— Best quote of the week, at least from the Bears locker room: Cornerback Alan Ball, after watching the Cardinals-Saints game, said in total earnestness that Carson Palmer “is at his best moving.”

Palmer’s playing at a high level. That’s not a debate. But I don’t know if I’d say he’s at his best on the move. Palmer made sure he heard correctly when I brought it up. “Frightening,” he said. Even Carson understands a clean pocket is the way for him to go.

— The Bears have moved to a 3-4 defensive alignment this season. It’s going to be weird to see veteran Jared Allen as an outside linebacker.

— Arians decided to weigh in on the proposed Larry Fitzgerald-Darren Fells one-on-one basketball showdown. “I’ve never seen either one of them play, but I could probably take them both,” Arians said with a smile.

“But I ain’t playing for no checks.”

— The last time the Cards were in Chicago for a regular-season game: It was the 2009 season. Kurt Warner threw for five touchdown passes, including a pair to Fitzgerald (Nine catches for 123 yards that day). The Cards dominated.

We’ll see how it plays out Sunday.


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“Nine More,” and Saints aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on September 13, 2015 – 7:03 pm

Rashad Johnson had already pulled off his jersey and shoulder pads as he made his way off the field Sunday, the Cardinals’ 31-19 win official. The shirt he wore under his jersey for the game, now drenched in sweat? None other than one that proclaimed “9 More” – or the saying the veteran safety uttered back in 2013, after the last time the Cardinals played the Saints and Johnson lost a fingertip.

He was back with the team a couple days later, telling everyone he was fine because he still had nine more fingers.

It was kind of cool that Johnson got the Cardinals’ lone interception Sunday – he nearly had a second later on. He wasn’t going to get his finger back, but he was able to extract a small revenge.

The offense got gutsy with their playcalls and ended up putting 31 points on the board, but the new James Bettcher defense did a lot of the same things the old Todd Bowles defense did, including stiffening in the red zone to force field goals instead of touchdowns. The defense must be better – as acknowledged by many, way too many yards surrendered on short passes-and-long-runs by running backs – but it was a good enough start.

— The right knee injury to Andre Ellington was scary-looking. But as we got into the postgame, both Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer sounded optimistic that the injury – Arians said the belief is that Elllington hurt his PCL – wouldn’t sideline Ellington permanently.

— That said, we see where the running back depth makes so much sense. Ellington goes down, and you turn to a veteran who still has a little juice left in Chris Johnson. Then you let speed merchant David Johnson loose on the pass – I was down on the sideline when the rookie blew past everyone, and I have to say I didn’t expect that kind of speed – and you figure the Cards can weather an Ellington absence.

— Bruce Arians said he was “anxious” to make the play call that ended in Johnson’s 55-yard touchdown. Which is odd because few do such a thing. ESPN’s Mike Sando tweeted this great stat: From 2010 through last season, NFL teams ran 94.8 percent of the time on second down in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter when leading by six or fewer points.

— Then again, Arians does not lay up. He goes for the pin.

— There were many upset at the sequence at the end of the first half that ended with two incomplete bombs and a Palmer scramble as time ran out, costing the Cards a field-goal try. But remember, that’s the mentality that led to the Johnson touchdown. No risk it, no biscuit. That’s B.A.

— The offensive line did solid. There were hiccups. There always are. But there were not a lot of them and for the most part, there is little to complain about. Earl Watford hung in there at right tackle against the very talented Cameron Jordan. Jonathan Cooper had a rough start but rallied. Most importantly, Carson Palmer was not sacked.

— Backup center/guard A.Q. Shipley played fullback and was lead blocker on Ellington’s touchdown run. Fantastic, and good use of the 46-man active roster on game day.

— Tyrann Mathieu kept promising his savage season and he was all over the field Sunday. He had a team-high eight tackles and three passes deflected while the Cardinals went heavy with their four safety-packages.

— I thought Patrick Peterson played well. Yes, he got beat once by Brandin Cooks for a 30-yard gain. But mostly, Cooks – the Saints’ best offensive weapon – was a non-factor. And mostly, Cooks was covered by Peterson.

— It’s hard to find a better story or more likeable guy (and the Cardinals’ locker room is filled with likeable guys) than tight end Darren Fells. To see him break out is cool, and reinforces what Arians has been saying about his development. There are times when Arians moves into hyperbole with his players, but Fells is proving his coach right on target.

— Michael Floyd played, and had an 18-yard catch early. Arians said he wasn’t on a “pitch count” to hold down his plays, but Floyd certainly didn’t play as much as he normally would.

Road game in Chicago next weekend. One down, at least 15 to go.


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CJ’s tears, and Friday before the Saints

Posted by Darren Urban on September 11, 2015 – 4:00 pm

Big picture, there are a lot of expectations around the Cardinals this season, as the games that count begin Sunday against the Saints at University of Phoenix Stadium. But sometimes, there is the smaller picture, the one of the journey traveled by individual guys to get to this point, like with Carson Palmer’s intense ACL rehab or Earl Watford’s roller-coaster career to suddenly starting right tackle or rookie Rodney Gunter going from nobody to nose tackle.

There is running back Chris Johnson, who everyone knows as the 2,000-yard rusher (way back in 2009) and the guy who didn’t quite fit in with the Jets. But now he’s the running back who was shot in a drive-by in March, his shoulder still carrying the bullet and leaving him mentally shattered.

“Lot of nights crying myself to sleep,” he said Friday.

Johnson was in mourning at that point, fearing the loss of his career. When he was forced into bedrest for six weeks, “that’s when I wondered about what direction my life would take.”

Flash forward to today, where he’s part of the three-pronged running back attack with Andre Ellington and David Johnson, prepping for the Saints. Chris Johnson may not be running for 1,000 yards this season, but he certainly sounds motivated to make yet another one-year deal for a vet by GM Steve Keim look like a bargain.

— Speaking of Johnson, he switched from jersey number 27 to 23. Why? He just didn’t like 27. Neither did Palmer, it turned out.

“It didn’t look good,” Johnson said. “Playing in it, always knew I didn’t like it but once Carson said something to me I knew it was time for me to get out of it.”

The two were playing cards on the plane during the road trip to Denver, and Johnson said Palmer asked him point-blank, “Twenty-seven? You going to stay in that number?” Johnson made up his mind then. “I was like, ‘Nah, I gotta get out of that number.”

— Arians said Michael Floyd was a game-day decision, but it certainly seems like Floyd is trending toward playing. Whether he’d be the “normal” Floyd in terms of gameplan, I don’t know.

— The tight end situation, and the iffy status of both Jermaine Gresham and Troy Niklas, is the more interesting injury watch. Those two are also game-day decisions. If I had to pick one, I’d say Gresham would play, but we’ll see. If a choice had to be made is a gimpy Gresham or Niklas better than the just-got-here Joseph Fauria?

— There is a lot of talk about how Watford will hold up or the pressure on Palmer or the pass rush, but honestly, one of the top things I’m watching for is Patrick Peterson versus Brandin Cooks. Peterson has set himself up for a big year, a big year that’s needed. Cooks is a tough draw with his speed. Peterson said a key is to stay close, so a simple Cooks wiggle won’t let him get away and race for a big gain. The spotlight has never been brighter on Peterson, whose 2015 confidence is apparent.

— Bruce Arians had to be careful with the game plan this week. Don’t want to make it too hard on the players because of volume.

“You have so much offense and defense from training camp,” Arians said. “A lot of times you feel you have to use it all. That’s a bad feeling when you can’t practice everything you have. Then you have way too much in there.”

— Arians said the offensive prep remains the same with Palmer. Palmer gets to pick the top 15 pass plays with which he is most comfortable, and Arians puts in running plays for the top 30 calls for the game.

— If it’s the Saints, then you have to always tip your cap to the fingertip-less Rashad Johnson, still plugging away after that fateful day in New Orleans almost two years ago. “I’ve got nine more” remains one of the best quotes ever.

— The Cardinals have only lost once in nine home openers at University of Phoenix Stadium. That was 2009, a 20-16 loss to the 49ers coming off the Super Bowl appearance. Oh, and the Cards have yet to lose a home game to a non-NFC West team since Arians took over.

— There’s been a lot said and written the past week. If you missed Cardinals Underground, or Kyle Odegard’s story about the Saints-Cards trade that netted the Cards John Brown or my story on Fitz and where he is in his career, please check them out.

— Otherwise, it’s time for an actual game that counts. (OK, first I have to write a story about the facility renovations and the cool new Tillman locker tribute, to be posted soon). There’s been plenty of talk about it.

See you Sunday.


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Watford, Sendlein start; Cardinals name their captains

Posted by Darren Urban on September 8, 2015 – 1:46 pm

The offensive line is set. Bruce Arians said Earl Watford will be the starting right tackle against the Saints and Lyle Sendlein will be the starting center, joining guards Jonathan Cooper and Ted Larsen and left tackle Jared Veldheer. What’s more, Arians said the plan is for Watford to remain the starting right tackle even after Bobby Massie returns from suspension. That doesn’t mean Watford can’t lose the job, but it’s a huge statement for Watford, who has been looking for a starting role.

As for Sendlein, I felt since he was signed he’d find his way into the starting lineup. A.Q. Shipley provides depth at center and guard, but he’s had a hard time holding on to starting jobs thus far in his career and Sendlein played well in the preseason. More on the offensive line later on the homepage.

— The Cardinals named their captains. Offensively, it’s Veldheer and Carson Palmer. Defensively it’s Patrick Peterson and Calais Campbell. On special teams, it’s Justin Bethel and Mike Leach. Arians said more than 20 players received more than three votes, which spoke to the depth of the candidates and leadership for the Cards.



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Smokey on the move, and #CardsCamp notes

Posted by Darren Urban on August 12, 2015 – 8:46 am

Tangible evidence of the relationship last season between Carson Palmer and John “Smokey” Brown was seen every day after practice. The locker room at the team’s Tempe facility is generally separated into position groups — except Palmer insisted Brown’s locker be installed next to his, so his mentoring of Brown could find easier access. That’s changed. The locker room has been redone in Tempe — it’s really quite nice — but now Brown has been moved back to the wide receiver side.

“Drew (Stanton) said I’m not Hollywood anymore,” Brown said with a smile.

I think Brown would have been just fine staying where he was. That tight bond with Palmer isn’t changing anytime soon — and here’s where I point out if you haven’t had a chance to read my story about the two, please check it out: azcardinals.com/smokesignals. It’s also our first attempt at a special long-form layout.

— Palmer bounced back in a big way at Tuesday’s practice. The defense “won” Monday, and Palmer had three interceptions — one by Patrick Peterson, two by Tyrann Mathieu. It was really Palmer’s only not-good (he wasn’t bad, per se) practice, and he looked great Tuesday. The Cardinals worked on the deep ball, and he was on point all afternoon.

— One more story to see, in case you missed it: I thought Adrian Wilson had some interesting comments about Peterson. The fact Peterson weighed 203 coming into camp — after coming into the league at 219 — is pretty significant too.

Lyle Sendlein’s deal was for $1.4 million on one-year, $500,000 of that guaranteed. He reportedly was offered $1.5M non-guaranteed back when he was first released. The battle between he and A.Q. Shipley will be interesting (Ted Larsen hasn’t worked at center at all since Sendlein arrived, instead staying at guard.) I still think Sendlein ends up as the starting center when we get to the regular season, but we’ll see.

— No new news on the running back/Chris Johnson front. I could see Johnson taking his time on a decision, especially with the entire preseason still to go. I don’t know if he is concerned about money, as has been suggested, but I highly doubt the Cards are going to be upping their offer.

— Drew Butler kicked Monday in place of Chandler Catanzaro. Bruce Arians wanted to give Catanzaro a day off, but the Cards also wanted to work on extra points. If Butler made the team, it’d give the Cards a true emergency kicker. And make no mistake, as much as it seems many don’t want to hear it, Butler has a chance to beat out Dave Zastudil.


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Red-White aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on August 8, 2015 – 5:48 pm

There was a pretty big crowd for Saturday’s Red-White practice, to wrap up the first week of training camp. The crowd was announced at 23,750, the largest crowd the Cards have gotten on this Saturday practice — which has always been the biggest draw of camp. They got to see the first live goalline work, and a few nice throws by Carson Palmer.

It wasn’t all good. The Cards lost cornerback Jerraud Powers early in the practice and cornerback Darren Woodard later. Woodard went down with a non-contact injury, although he did walk off in a manner that maybe it was a groin or hamstring more than a knee. There won’t be any injury updates before Monday — the Cardinals get Sunday off.

As for the football, some things I noticed:

— Palmer looked sharp yet again. He found J.J. Nelson on a nice out pattern early, putting the ball in a perfect place, and Nelson may have made and even better catch. Later, Palmer hit Jaron Brown with a bomb of 45 or so yards, beating Patrick Peterson over the top. With Michael Floyd out and Larry Fitzgerald limited, Nelson and Brown getting a real chance to shine. They are doing a pretty good job of it.

— Kerwynn Williams, who had a tough practice Friday with a couple of fumbles, had a pair of tough moments again Saturday. He dropped a pass when he was wide open on third down, and that’s an area Bruce Arians said Williams needs to improve to get on the field. Later, Williams took a shot in that place that a guy would rather not get hit, and he had to come out for a few plays while he recovered.

— In the goal line drill, the defense looked stout. With the ball at the 1, the first-unit kept Williams out of the end zone on two of three plays. Ed Stinson blew up Jonathan Cooper on one play so Kevin Minter could make the tackle for loss. Williams did score going over the right side on the final play, helped by a pulling Mike Iupati. On the second unit, Paul Lasike was deemed just barely in the end zone on the first play, but he couldn’t break the goal line in the next two, Paul Lasike was stopped short in all three tries, although just short of the goal line. (On the first play, the official on my side of the field called touchdown, but watching the video it was clear he was just short, just like the official on the opposite side called.

— The defense won the “live scrimmage” of the third units to end the practice. Linebacker Edwin Jackson, whom Arians had just praised at lunchtime, slammed into Lasike for a big tackle that was probably the highlight of the practice. Then the practice ended when tight end Gerald Christian made a catch but fumbled when linebacker Alani Fua drilled Christian and the ball, and the defense recovered.

It’s been a long week. Time for a day off.


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DBs live the scooter life — for now

Posted by Darren Urban on August 5, 2015 – 9:15 am

When the Cardinals were in Flagstaff for training camp, Segways became popular with a few of the players so they could maneuver their way around the NAU campus. There isn’t as much walking to do now with camp at University of Phoenix Stadium and the Renaissance next door, but that didn’t stop Patrick Peterson from getting his defensive back mates (like Justin Bethel, pictured below) some hands-free scooters they are using for camp.

They are pretty cool. But it’s tough not to have an initial reaction of, well, yikes. The last thing you’d want to see is a player fall off one of those things and get hurt. Back in 2009, Antrel Rolle took a tumble on his Segway. He was OK, but it did make you hestiate seeing guys like Adrian Wilson and Larry Fitzgerald tooling around on them. Bruce Arians hasn’t banned the new toys, but there is a no-tolerance policy.

“One falls off they are all gone,” Arians said, noting a long-ago accident in a training camp where a player got hurt. “(Back then) all those brand new scooters got sold back for one-tenth of the price. The next day.”

That was in 1990, when Arians was coaching with the Kansas City Chiefs and linebacker Percy Snow — a former No. 1 pick who had a good rookie season — fell of his scooter and suffered season-ending injuries to his knee. He never was able to come all the way back, playing just four NFL seasons.

Peterson knows Arians’ concerns. All the players do.

“Everybody has been very very cautious and safe about it,” Peterson said. “We don’t have any bonehead players around here trying to put their career in jeopardy. It’s just something to keep our legs fresh. Everyone is being smart about it right now and hopefully we can keep it that way.”


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Peterson does celebrity golf tourney again

Posted by Darren Urban on July 15, 2015 – 8:08 am

The American Century Celebrity golf tournament has been a place where the Cardinals have been well-represented over the past few years. Ken Whisenhunt was a regular there when he was head coach, and quarterback Carson Palmer has also played there (not this week though, not with ACL rehab and his time in San Diego this week working out with John Brown, Drew Stanton, Troy Niklas and Ifeanyi Momah.) Patrick Peterson has also played before, and this year, he’s officially landed in Lake Tahoe.

Clearly, Peterson has been working on his game:

Peterson was a minus-28 last year — which sounds like a good score, except that the tournament is scored with the modified Stableford system, meaning you get points for good holes. Former NFL QB Mark Rypien won the tourney last year at Plus-76.


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