GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Coaches have different ways of getting their points across, but one way is pretty uniform across any sport on any level.
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians fired a warning shot in left guard Jonathan Cooper's direction on Saturday afternoon when he said he was “disappointed” in Cooper’s progress since he returned from a broken leg suffered last August. Arians then said second-string guard Earl Watford was making a push for Cooper’s job.
But Arians showed he wasn’t playing around during practice by alternating Cooper and Watford at first-team guard on consecutive plays and later giving them each an entire session to work with the starters.
Cooper got the message.
“He called me out and now I have to just work that much harder to kinda get over that hump and be the player I can be,” Cooper said.
Expectations were already high when the Cardinals picked Cooper with the seventh overall pick in 2013. Those just kept increasing every week as the offensive line struggled to start last season. It didn’t help when Arizona signed left tackle Jared Veldheer in free agency to combine with Cooper's potential to form a formidable left side of the line. Anticipation of having Veldheer and Cooper protecting Carson Palmer's blind side was growing.
But the chances of Cooper returning at a level far below the one he was drafted at were high. That’s what a year away from football will do without even considering the effect Cooper’s injury had on his game. He’s still readjusting to planting and pushing against defensive linemen, and Arizona has its first preseason game in less than a week.
Without any doing of his own, the expectations on Cooper were too high. His return has been compared to Arizona having a second first-round pick this year. While he quickly dismissed the idea last offseason of this being a second rookie year, it’s technically true because of Cooper’s inexperience. Except now the hurdles that come with a rookie season will be compounded with the issues that’ll arise from return from a season-ending injury.
“I have my ups and my downs,” Cooper said. “I just have to make sure I’m more consistent. There are some times when I’m showing flashes and I’ll feel and look like the old player I was prior to being injured, but then there’s some times where you can look and see that’s not the guy we picked up.
“I definitely have a lot of work to do, whether it’s physical [or mental]. I feel like the mental’s fine as long as I can make sure emotionally I stay sound and no matter what’s said, no matter what happens, just keep pushing forward I’ll be OK.”
This was the first sign that Cooper might not be returning to the level many thought he was at. Arians, who believed Cooper had overcome some of the mental hurdles after Arizona put on pads last Monday, gave him a week to prove himself in camp. But if Cooper’s not playing at the level of a top draft pick, Arians has to keep the best interest of the team in mind.
Through his short time in Arizona, Arians has proven that he believes in a unified starting lineup. He hasn’t shied away from establishing them early in the offseason and staying with them until they warrant a replacement. But Arians’ actions on Saturday shows that Cooper’s job isn’t guaranteed.
“I have those moments when I am feeling pretty good and I’m like 'All right I’m over the hump, I’m good to go' but then there’s those reps where it’s like old Cooper would’ve done this or done that, and been able to make this move or that move,” Cooper said.
Arians has said throughout camp that Watford was competing for a starting job, but Cooper and right guard Paul Fanaika didn't give him an opportunity to win one. That’s changed, for now at least, and it might not be a bad thing. Cooper might benefit from some time away from the first team so he can regain his confidence while not trying to block Calais Campbell on every play.
A warning shot was a fair way to show Cooper that he needs to start improving fast, but giving Cooper time to do so might be better for the Cardinals’ future.