Superbowl XLIII Preview: The Cards in Tampa?
Looking back on the year in sports that was, this makes perfect sense.
And, let’s face it, the sports “year” changes after the Super Bowl. Sportswriters are always churning out “Year in Review” pieces during the days after Christmas and before New Year’s Eve, presumably to fill space during what’s usually a slow news cycle. But how can you look back on the year while the NFL is still sorting out its playoff mess? The college and pro hockey and hoops seasons don’t really pick up until after the Super Bowl, and there also remain a slew of college bowl games to be played and complained about. So, from now on, let’s just say that Sports New Year’s Eve bash is the first Sunday in February.
Anyway, we’ve already had a “year” in which the Phillies beat the Rays in the World Series, Doc Rivers coached a team to the NBA title, Brett Favre played for the Jets, the Atlanta Falcons made the playoffs with a rookie QB, Al Davis emerged from his cave and publicly removed all doubt of his utter insanity, Michael Phelps won eight gold medals and decided to cash in on his celebrity with an endorsement deal for a foreign language instruction program, the Cowboys choked away their season but didn’t fire Wade Phillips, the Chargers were 4-8 after 12 games but hosted a playoff game, Heath Ledger died and then won a Golden Globe/was nominated for an Oscar for playing the Joker, the Detroit Lions fired Matt Millen and then out-Lioned themselves by going winless, Plaxico Burress ruined the Giants’ chances for a repeat by shooting himself in the leg, Mike Singletary dropped his pants at halftime in his first game as head coach, and a commercial jet crash-landed in the Hudson River with no casualties.
What else? Oh right, and a black guy was elected president. So as you can see, this has not been the most orthodox year, in sports or in general.1
1. Incidentally, the inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20th meant amending my All-Presidents basketball team. Gone is George H. W. Bush; in steps Obama, who, we already know, has an affinity for the sport and wants to put a court in the White House. I can’t wait to see how this affects foreign policy – will Vladimir Putin or Gordon Brown be asked to lace up for a game of Horse? And before you suggest I’m plugging Obama into the lineup because of his race, consider that he is probably the most athletic president we’ve ever had, or at least since Teddy Roosevelt. We’ve all seen the guy with his shirt off by now, and I think we can agree that he’ll win most loose ball battles. Obama’s only downside is that it’s been hinted he still smokes cigarettes. Obviously, we want him to be able to play both ends of the court and not get winded, so the smoking has to go. Otherwise, Obama is all upside, and probably capable of some Garnett-like numbers. I know I’m excited.
But getting back to the Cardinals… when a depressing franchise like this finally gets to the big game, it’s always exciting for me as a sportswriter because I get to write about something new. Consider that their opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are in their SEVENTH Super Bowl. Nothing against the team or the city, but from a historical perspective, everything and anything has already been written about them. The Cardinals, on the other hand, is that rare organization that has been around since before the inception of the NFL, but has very little to show for it in the ‘Win’ column. This is even more exciting than an expansion team making it, because there is a long history here already—a history of almost total incompetence. Who wants to read about Joe Greene and Terry Bradshaw for the millionth time when there are nuggets about Timm Rosenbach and Buddy Ryan to be unearthed and examined?
I suppose a good place for me to start is what I wrote about Arizona in my 2007 NFL Preview (and we now can be certain that previewing the NFL is a waste of time):
It’s the 88th season for this franchise, which can best be described as “not particularly storied.” Their new coach is a guy named Ken Whisenhunt, former offensive coordinator for the Steelers. That makes him the 36th head coach in team history. Thirty-six! On average, the Cards hire a new coach every 2.44 years. Start making plans for early 2010, Ken.
Well, Whisenhunt will probably get a contract extension after this season, but could you blame me at the time? If there had been one thing as certain as death and taxes, it was the Cardinals finishing in third or fourth place. Call them Detroit Lions West. Last year they scrapped to an 8-8 record and second place before 2008’s 9-7 juggernaut. And let’s examine the 2008 season a bit, shall we? This is a team that got smoked by 40 points by New England in week 16. Philadelphia hung 48 on them in a Thanksgiving win. Arizona did score 35 on the Jets… but the Jets returned the favor for 56. The Cardinals won the NFC West, probably the worst division in football, by two games. In so doing, they scored one more point than they allowed. This team is a gossamer’s thread better than mediocre.
Now they’re in the Super Bowl against the franchise nearly synonymous with that game, a club gunning for its sixth Lombardi Trophy. David versus Goliath? Not quite. The Cards are not 1-15 pushovers looking to take down the world champions. They’re good. Sort of. Sometimes. Sometimes they’re terrible. And they are taking on Excellence. If there were ever a Super Bowl that could be billed as Salieri versus Mozart, it’s this one: LXIII.
When you look at this team’s history, you’ll see that mediocrity was usually the best it got. The Cardinals are, along with the Chicago Bears, one of two remaining charter members of the NFL from 1920. The franchise has two NFL Championships, although one, from 1925, is considered questionable at best: The Pottsville Maroons finished with the best overall record that year (when no championship games were played), but league president Joseph Carr gave the title to the Cardinals when it was discovered that Pottsville had allegedly played in an unsanctioned exhibition game with Notre Dame. Whatever the legitimacy of the claims, the Cards’ first championship was completely by default.
The second was in 1947, when the Chicago Cardinals defeated the Eagles at Comiskey Park. Since then, the team moved to St. Louis, won a couple of division titles (but no playoff games) in the ‘70s, moved to the Phoenix area in 1988, cobbled together a winning season in 1998 and upset the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs. Since then, their most notable events were tragically losing a former player in Afghanistan, and the Dennis Green press conference meltdown. In the span of 60 seasons, they had won one playoff game, and now they’ve reeled off three in a row.
How bad is the club’s history? The Chicago Cardinals had ten straight losing seasons from 1936-45, a stretch that included 29 consecutive losses and two 0-10 seasons. (Interestingly, it was during this stretch when player shortages due to World War II forced the Cardinals to merge with Pittsburgh. The team, still awful, was known as “Card-Pitt”; most people preferred to call them the “Carpets.”) The 1947 title and 1948 title-game loss, were aberrations of success. The club slipped back into the doldrums for much of the ‘50s before pulling up the stakes and heading to St. Louis. Still, there were no playoff appearances until 1974 and again in ’75. The team slipped into the expanded tournament after the strike-shortened 1982 season, then slipped off the radar again until that 1998 upset of Dallas. It’s arguable that the Chicago-St. Louis-Arizona Cardinals’ most famous moment of the past half-century was Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s role as a wide receiver for the team, in Jerry Maguire. (You’re chuckling. But it’s possible.) This is typical Cardinals-style success. Yeah, he won an Oscar for the role, but it is almost universally looked upon as an aberration, like the Cards’ two NFL titles. If 1947 was like Jerry Maguire, then the years since are like a continuous loop of Snow Dogs and What Dreams May Come.
When the team you root for is being compared to Salieri and Cuba Gooding, Jr., it’s not a good sign. But these are bright, sunny days for fans in the desert. Hell, even John McCain is smiling again. At least, I think he’s swearing less. These are not your father’s Arizona Cardinals. For starters, they have two of the best receivers in football, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Commentators and writers are suddenly anointing Fitzgerald as the best receiver in the game, and not without some merit. Fitzgerald’s been on a tear since the postseason began, with 6 receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown vs Atlanta, 8 receptions for 166 yards and a TD vs Carolina, and 9 receptions for 152 yards and 3 touchdowns against Philadelphia:
Arizona’s rookie cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (and I can’t wait to hear Emmitt Smith bungle that name on ESPN), is blossoming into something fearsome himself. He had a so-so day against Atlanta’s Roddy White in the wildcard round (White caught 11 passes and a touchdown). But in the game at Carolina, Rodgers-Cromartie was assigned to Steve Smith, a receiver who rivals Fitzgerald as one of the game’s best. Smith had burned the young corner in a regular season matchup, but in the playoffs, Rodgers-Cromartie (with some safety help) kept the ball away from Smith, who caught just two passes, neither for a score. Rodgers-Cromartie also collected one of Jake Delhomme’s (ridiculous) five interceptions in the big upset.
Of course, the big storyline for this team in Tampa will be quarterback Kurt Warner, finding a second act after years in the wilderness. Even casual fans might remember Warner’s story with the 1999 St. Louis Rams: How Warner had been out of football, stocking shelves at a supermarket, when he tried out for the Rams; how he fought for a backup spot in preseason only to find himself the starter in week one, when Trent Green was knocked out; and, of course, how Warner led the Rams to an unlikely win over the Titans in the Super Bowl. Warner is 37 now, but his shelf-stocking story follows him everywhere. It’s up there in the rags-to-riches pantheon with Oprah smoking crack and Jewel living in a van. But that doesn’t mean we won’t hear it over and over again until we feel switching to “American Idol” for some originality. This is what happens when the NFL goes 13 days without a game.
Now, about those Steelers.
I already wrote plenty about the Pittsburgh Steelers in the run up to Super Bowl XL in early 2006. Suffice to say that it’s a franchise whose history might offer some hope to long-suffering Cardinal fans (although the Cardinals never seem to stick around one town long enough for the fans to be considered “long-suffering”). Prior to the 1970s, the Steelers, like the Cardinals – and, during WWII, WITH the Cardinals – totally sucked. They weren’t even lucky enough to win a title by default. All of that changed, of course, with the hiring of Chuck Noll and the assembling of one of the greatest teams ever to play football. Since the early ‘70s, the Steelers are one of the most successful franchises in all of sports. They’ve won five Super Bowls in six tries. They churn out Pro Bowlers like Oscar Mayer makes hot dogs. They’re on only their third coach (Mike Tomlin) in nearly 40 years. Their fans follow them to every road game in huge numbers. They’re as consistently successful as the Cowboys, only far less hated outside their division.
The Steelers of 2008 are much better than that wild card team from three years ago. The defense, in particular, will give Arizona’s coaches cold sweats: First in points allowed, first against the pass, second against the run. The AFC Championship Game against hard-hitting Baltimore looked like the Battle of Verdun. The Ravens “Verdun,” indeed, as Pittsburgh held them to just 198 yards of offense and delivered one punishing blow after another. When the smoke cleared, and poor Willis McGahee was carted off the field (he’s okay), the Steelers were bloodied and exhausted 23-14 victors. In Arizona, they’ll face an aerial assault, but Pittsburgh’s defense had 20 interceptions in the regular season (led by safety Troy Polamalu’s 7). It allowed just 12 touchdowns through the air, and seven on the ground.
In fact, based on their 2008 performances, Pittsburgh has an advantage in passing defense, rush defense, rushing offense, and special teams. Arizona has the advantage in the passing offense. I’d put coaching at about even (Whisenhunt versus Tomlin, both 2nd year men in their first head coaching gigs).
If I had to pick an advantage in intangibles (and we love intangibles, don’t we?), then I’d give that to Arizona, the underdog on the hot streak. Going into Charlotte and beating the Panthers in particular seems to have these Cardinals showing their plumage. All Whisenhunt has to do on Saturday night is show his team the NFL Films tape of Giants 17, Patriots 14 to get them foaming at the mouth. Fitzgerald can catch a ball on his helmet, Warner can win the MVP and retire, Cris Collinsworth can blow his cerebral cortex from over-praising the team and be carted out of the studio, Springsteen can attach himself to one of the greatest upsets in NFL history, and the beleaguered citizens of the Grand Canyon State can enjoy a little ray of sunshine to get them through their brutal, unforgiving winter. It could be a storybook end to an unlikely journey.
Can it happen?
Pittsburgh by 7.