- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. | Only 23,790 fans attended his second NFL home game.

In his first year as a starter, the Arizona Cardinals allowed 30 or more points seven times.

He was on the field for the “They are who we thought they were” meltdown against Chicago that marked the beginning of the end for coach Dennis Green.

But most of all, Adrian Wilson lost. A lot.

The longest-tenured Cardinals player hadn’t experienced a winning season until this year. Never even sniffed the playoffs until this month. And didn’t receive adulation for his play at safety until the two weeks leading into Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“It’s been a rough road,” he said. “To be on this team and be with these guys means a lot because a lot of them weren’t here when the times were tough.”

In his first six seasons with Arizona, Wilson’s teams went a combined 32-64. The last two seasons under Ken Whisenhunt: 17-15 and then three playoff wins in January.

The Cardinals’ surprising playoff run validated Wilson’s decision in 2005 to sign a long-term contract with the club. Wilson remained optimistic that Arizona would acquire enough talent in the draft for a possible turnaround, but that didn’t keep people from weighing in.

“They called me stupid and crazy,” Wilson said. “I always thought it could change. You have to believe that and you have to have confidence in the [front office].”

Wilson had two sacks and a forced fumble in the NFC championship game against Philadelphia.

“He’s the best safety in the game based on the game-changing plays that he can make,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.

Wilson has 18 interceptions and 651 tackles in 118 regular-season games, but it took a run to the Super Bowl and three nationally televised games for most people to associate Wilson with other top safeties.

“I’ve been with him the last five years and I’ve always seen his ability,” Pendergast said. “Now because of the stage, people have been able to see throughout the playoffs the kind of player he really is.”

A third-round pick from N.C. State in 2001, Wilson played every game but didn’t start as a rookie. He learned the pro game from Pat Tillman, who left the NFL after that year to join the Army Rangers.

Wilson took over the starting position and has been entrenched ever since. Tillman was killed in action in April 2004.

“The main thing was he showed a lot of character,” Wilson said of Tillman. “He really looked out for others before himself. To leave the game and what he did showed what kind of man he was. Being around a guy like that was special.

“He helped me learn how to practice and do a lot of things I didn’t know how to do. I think Pat eventually knew that I was going to be the guy who would take over his spot, and he didn’t have any problems with that.”

Wilson has developed into a leader for the younger players in Arizona’s secondary, such as safeties Antrel Rolle and Aaron Francisco and rookie corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Rolle and Rodgers-Cromartie are first-round picks who have complemented such holdovers as Wilson.

“We didn’t have the talent we have now,” Wilson said of his early years. “It took us a while to build a team. Now we have a team that can compete on every Sunday.”

Rolle had been a cornerback, but his shift to the back line allowed the Cardinals to use Wilson in a variety of spots. Wilson isn’t a freelancer, but rather a quality blitzer who also can play the deep ball.

The Cardinals play a lot of five-defensive back sets because the 230-pound Wilson can hover in the box to act as a linebacker against the run.

“His ability to make impact plays is tremendous,” Pendergast said. “We try to use him as much as we can to utilize his skills so he can be that impact-type guy.”

Wilson’s impact plays have helped Arizona to its first Super Bowl. But he said a win Sunday wouldn’t automatically change the perception of the Cardinals.

“We have a long history of being bad, so it’s hard to change people’s mindset,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. After we play in this game, it’s probably still not going to change. It’s going to take a lot of hard work to change the Cardinals’ persona.”

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