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The Cardinals Pull Back the Curtain

Reviewing Arizona’s new Amazon series ‘All or Nothing’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Today, Amazon released eight one-hour episodes of the NFL Films production All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals. The series follows the Cardinals from the 2015 draft through their loss to the Panthers in the NFC championship game, and it marks the first time in nearly 50 years that a video crew has been embedded with a team for an entire season. After going through the highs and lows of all eight episodes, here are eight reasons that you should sit back and binge to your heart’s content during this holiday weekend.

1. Bruce Arians’s Casino 2 audition.

As soon as this show was announced, my first thought was, Oh shit, this means eight full hours of Arians with a live microphone. Arians is known as one of the more quotable head coaches throughout the league, so it makes sense to think he’d be a star here. He doesn’t disappoint.

Arians spits out the word “fuck” the way Michelangelo shaped marble, or the way Mozart played a piano. He’s an artist. Not only are we talking Scorsese-level “fucks” per minute, but Arians’s creativity is unparalleled. During one episode, Cardinals team president Michael Bidwill relays the story of Arians’s job interview, which involved the coach using the word as three parts of speech — all in the same sentence. That’s not profane. That’s majestic.

Arians’s bombastic persona provides entertainment, and it also offers ample evidence for why the Cardinals have been so damn good since he arrived in 2013. In one 10-second span, safety Tyrann Mathieu goes from recalling a lesson that Arians taught him about second chances — by recounting the story of his coach getting kicked out of high school — to noting that both he and Arians “have crazy swag.” There are layers to the respect the Arizona players have for Arians, and it’s born of his nearly 30 years in the NFL and complete lack of patience for bullshit. That quality has helped make Arians’s teams what they’ve been, and it’s what makes him such a compelling TV figure for eight straight hours.

2. Every moment of Tyrann Mathieu.

Mathieu’s story — which is still very much unfolding — will never get old. College football’s most exciting player is booted from LSU, misses an entire season, gets plucked by the right team in the third round, and turns into one of, I dunno, the 10 most valuable defensive players alive?

It’s no surprise, then, that the show features plenty of Honey Badger. But even the stories we know hit hard. Putting ambient guitar music behind the scene that flashes back to draft night three years ago, with Mathieu pacing, taking Bidwill’s call, and then getting mobbed by his family and friends after being selected, simply isn’t fair.

The clips highlighting Mathieu’s on-field successes are enough to snap the heartstrings, but the glimpses the show provides of Honey Badger in his downtime, hanging around his teammates, give some insight into what he represents throughout the Cardinals’ building. There’s a speech Mathieu delivers to the defensive-backs room at a midweek meeting, about halfway through the series, that would have turned me into the Kool-Aid Man. Even for general manager Steve Keim, that scene revealed a lot about a guy he knows intimately.

“To be able to see Patrick Peterson or Tyrann Mathieu behind the scenes, addressing his own players, it’s powerful, man,” Keim said on The Ringer NFL Show yesterday. “It’s intense — you see the way that they talk to their teammates, you see the brotherhood and the love that they have for each other, and to me, that was impressive.”

That elevated role — and all that Mathieu has overcome to this point — makes the moment when he hits the turf in Philadelphia, grasping his left knee in pain, that much tougher to watch. Two minutes after Mathieu went down against the Eagles last December, the Cardinals were in the locker room, passing around NFC West champions hats and T-shirts. But the way Keim describes it, no one was celebrating.

“Here everybody was in the locker room after the game putting on hats and T-shirts to celebrate winning the division, yet at the same time, everybody had long looks on their face because they understood the ramifications of losing Tyrann Mathieu to this type of an injury,” Keim said. “That right there, in itself, told me what he meant to this team and this organization.”

I won’t spoil any more of the Mathieu scenes, but what follows between Carson Palmer and Mathieu — two men all too familiar with ACL tears — is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Finding reasons not to root for the guy isn’t easy.

3. The Garbage Can Game.

A staple of NFL culture is the Garbage Can Game, which involves quarterbacks, one at a time, throwing a football from about 15 yards out toward a big can in the back corner of the end zone. The Cardinals QBs — and cornerback Patrick Peterson, for some reason — conclude every week of practice with this game. Whoever tallies the lowest score is forced to later wear an outfit of the others’ choosing — the warm-up attire for home games, or the plane outfit on a road trip.

This may sound like monotonous and terrible TV, but in reality it’s fascinating. Teams should know: If you put this drill online somewhere each week, I’ll watch it.

4. Another installment of NFL Films being cool as hell.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the show was produced by NFL Films, but the football scenes in this series are enthralling. The musical cues are on point, and the best parts are the angles and vantage points that aren’t visible on game broadcasts or the All-22.

A few moments that stand out:

  • The series of snaps when Peterson faces off against the Lions’ Calvin Johnson during the Cardinals’ trip to Detroit last October. A matchup between those two guys represents a showdown between the most physically gifted cornerback and receiver we’ve seen in a generation. Watching them go toe-to-toe is a reminder that these players are made of different stuff — a combination of alien tissue and Wolverine bones — than the rest us.
  • Palmer chucking balls downfield. Before a game against the Seahawks, Arians tells opposing coach Pete Carroll that if you could build a perfect quarterback, it would look like Palmer. Watching him hit Michael Floyd down the sideline — immediately after Floyd tells Arians “Twenty-six [Cary Williams] can’t cover me” — is downright beautiful.
  • Larry Fitzgerald’s romp toward the goal line against Green Bay in the playoffs, which brings us to …

5. Reliving the craziness of Packers-Cardinals.

I’ll never forget how insane those final few minutes of last season’s NFC divisional matchup were, but their depiction on All or Nothing is a potent reminder. Images of Aaron Rodgers’s Hail Mary are spliced together with Arians slowly losing his mind on the sideline, Arians’s wife slowly losing her mind in a suite, and David Johnson’s wife slowly losing her mind in the stands. The collective shock on all of their faces when Jeff Janis comes down with the football is amazing.

Rodgers spinning away from would-be tacklers and launching prayers toward the end zone has become commonplace. With Palmer, not so much. But Arizona’s veteran QB pirouetting away from the defenders in yellow is only the first incredulity-inducing moment on the opening play of overtime, when Fitzgerald somehow traverses the entire field, stiff-arms Morgan Burnett out of existence, and puts the Cardinals on the doorstep of the NFC championship game. Defensive end Frostee Rucker says it best when watching the replay of Fitzgerald rumbling toward pay dirt: “Look at him.” Playoff Larry Fitzgerald really is the best humanity has to offer.

6. The perfect moments provided by football’s downtime.

The entire series reaches its hilt with Fitzgerald’s catch-and-run, but most of my favorite parts of All or Nothing happen in those quiet moments when the players get together. These take place everywhere — from the practice field to the locker room to various meetings — and are tiny pieces of football nerdery that fans rarely get to see.

For instance, during Dwight Freeney’s first week with the Cards, the then-35-year-old defensive end is filmed standing next to rookie offensive tackle D.J. Humphries before the start of a drill. As the players prepare to clash, Humphries tells Freeney that when he was in middle school, he completed a project about the veteran for a class.

It is both hilarious and humanizing, and it shows why the awe fans feel about certain players is justified — because sometimes the players feel that awe, too. Fitzgerald, unquestionably bound for the Hall of Fame, has a similar moment: On the day he gets a call from Bidwill informing him that he has been selected for his ninth Pro Bowl, Fitzgerald admits to a coach that he wants to go to one more. The only receiver who ever got to 10 Pro Bowl appearances was “The Great One.” It will always be cool to find out this type of stuff matters to players.

7. Michael Bidwill’s dog.

During a scene set in Arizona’s draft room — one that reveals that the Cardinals were interested in running back Ameer Abdullah before he was selected by the Lions — we get a shot of a dog calmly laying in its bed near Bidwill’s feet. We later come to learn that it’s the team president’s dog, Reilly, a pit bull–mix rescue he adopted a day before she was set to be euthanized. There isn’t much else to say here, except that Reilly seems like the world’s greatest dog, and that the way she follows Bidwill around is I-can’t-even inducing.

8. A glimpse of the ride.

Amazon and the Cardinals have branded All or Nothing as an unprecedented look at an NFL team’s journey through every twist and turn of a season. HBO’s Hard Knocks makes for appointment viewing every fall, but its scope is inherently limited: The training-camp stakes can be high for players vying to earn roster spots, but that show mostly offers a look at what happens before a team’s rise or fall. All or Nothing chronicles that rise and fall.

As a reporter, I’ve been in losing locker rooms at both Super Bowls and conference title games, and the vibe following conference championship losses is always bleaker. The immense buildup to the Super Bowl makes it hard for players to feel anything but exhausted afterward. When players lose in the NFC championship game, though, that oh-so-close feeling prevails. That disappointment is clear on defensive end Calais Campbell’s face as Arians addresses his team one final time after Arizona’s season-ending loss in Charlotte.

The scene is a reminder that the stakes are real for these guys. And by following a team from start to finish, All or Nothing shows the same.