On the Cardinals and Max Hall's leadership

Max Hall was able to rally the Arizona Cardinals and stun the New Orleans Saints. Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Undrafted rookie quarterback Max Hall approached 11th-year linebacker Clark Haggans in the Arizona Cardinals' locker room three hours before kickoff Sunday.

"He told me to get my mind right," Haggans said.

Haggans was about to make his 80th regular-season NFL start. He had played in 138 regular-season games and 13 playoff games, including a Super Bowl. He knew something about getting his mind right. And here was Hall, about to make his first NFL start of any kind -- against the defending champion New Orleans Saints, no less -- offering pregame counsel.

Haggans loved it -- just as his defensive teammates loved the linebacker's mentality Hall brought to University of Phoenix Stadium. Arizona's defense, left for dead following embarrassing defeats to Atlanta and San Diego, picked off Drew Brees three times and scored two touchdowns during the Cardinals' 30-20 victory. Haggans & Co. had their minds right, apparently.

"Against a high-powered offense, it feels good to go out there and play the way we did," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "I think it has a lot to do with how our offense played. We saw life in them and it kind of sparked us a little bit more too."

Don't bother looking at the stat sheet for supporting evidence. The Cardinals managed only 12 first downs and 194 total yards. The Saints picked off Hall's second pass, sacked him four times and limited Arizona to 1.7 yards per carry. Nothing about the numbers suggested Hall, or anything remotely related to the Cardinals' offense, sparked anything beyond additional debate over Arizona's handling of the quarterback situation.

Just remember that the Cardinals, not the rest of us, get to decide what sparked them -- particularly following a victory that left them alone atop the NFC West with a 3-2 record. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has been searching for the right mix of intangibles at quarterback. Hall is the Cardinals' fourth starter in 10 months. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 168 yards, one interception and a 65.0 rating. It wasn't pretty, but Brees' rating was only 68.2.

"Max made some big-time throws for us," Whisenhunt said. "He missed some things, but what I sense for Max is that he will get better as he gets more reps. ... What I also like is his understanding of what is going on. A couple times, when we made mistakes, he came off the field saying, 'Why wasn't this guy here?' and to me that shows a guy who's dialed in."

Mistakes were made when Hall scrambled to his left on third-and-1 at the New Orleans 2-yard-line with 2:31 remaining in the first half.

The Cardinals were supposed to have another receiver on that side of the field, but an alignment error left Hall to fend for himself. A more experienced quarterback might have thrown the ball away and settled for a field goal. Hall led with his head and took a crushing hit that separated him from his helmet. The ball came loose and the Cardinals were fortunate tackle Levi Brown recovered in the end zone, tying the game at 10-10. They were fortunate Hall avoided a concussion or worse. They were fortunate guard Alan Faneca recovered another Hall fumble on a sack later in the game.

"I have to work on my ball security and pride myself on that," Hall said. "This bye week, I have time to fix that, study film and get better. I also don't think that I need to take some of the shots that I took. Learn from those lessons and get better."

The collision near the goal line reflected the sometimes reckless, often inspirational, ultimately successful and physically unsustainable play Hall brought Sunday.

"He's a tough little guy that has a big heart, plays hard, takes his chances," linebacker Joey Porter said. "He doesn't sit back there and play nervous. He's a guy who's going to go down swinging."

The Cardinals saw Hall bounce back from the early interception to complete a 25-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald, setting up a field goal (Fitzgerald caught seven passes for 93 yards). They saw Hall keep fighting after the Saints rag-dolled him for a 10-yard sack. They saw Hall come back after another hit left the quarterback limping off the field with a sore knee. They saw Hall lead with his head on that scramble near the goal line. They saw Hall stay in the game after limping off a second time, this time after 360-pound guard Deuce Lutui planted on Hall's foot.

"I'd have to be out cold to not go back in a game ," Hall said. "It's going to be hard to keep me out."

It's also going to be hard to keep a 6-foot-1, 205-pound quarterback healthy if he's going to invite punishment the way Hall did against New Orleans.

"I talked to Max when he first got here and he was so fired up," Haggans said. " 'Wiz' came in and I told Coach Wiz, 'You might want to put Max on the wedge because he's so fired up. He wants to bust some heads himself.' It seems like he has a defensive head-hunting mentality and I'm excited, I'm happy for him. He made plays. He had a lot of poise out there. You couldn't even tell he was a rookie today."

Hall brings the fire that was never Matt Leinart's style (Haggans calls the rookie Maximus, from the Russell Crowe character in "Gladiator"). He showed more accuracy than Derek Anderson, who finished the half following Hall's scramble and missed Stephen Williams high, exposing the receiver to punishment (Williams leaped high and landed hard on a defender's foot).

Whisenhunt has hit on a familiar theme since training camp. He wanted a quarterback his team could rally around. Hall was that quarterback Sunday.

The defense played its best game of the season. Darnell Dockett forced a fumble and Kerry Rhodes returned it for a touchdown. Porter pressured Brees into the throw Greg Toler intercepted. Paris Lenon picked off Brees to set up the touchdown on Brown's fumble recovery in the end zone. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sealed the outcome with a late interception return for a touchdown.

The Cardinals needed this result, but it's fair to wonder if their methods were sustainable. Hall must avoid taking so many hits. The defense isn't going to score multiple touchdowns every week. The running game must improve. The entire offensive identity remains in flux.

But it's clear Whisenhunt trusts Hall. He put the ball in the rookie's hands on third-and-1 and third-and-4 when handoffs would have run off more clock time. Hall failed to produce on either play, but Whisenhunt applauded the quarterback's decision to throw incomplete when New Orleans covered one of the plays better than anticipated.

Hall emerged from the game with mediocre stats, more than his share of bruises and a 1-0 record as the Cardinals' starter.

"Like I said, I need to fix my mistakes, but I think those guys trust me," Hall said. "I think when they look at me, they know we have a chance to win."

As long as they keep their minds right.