In Arizona, It's Not Easy Being Coach Green

"What's gnawing at me is the fact that I've not done as well as I expected to do," said Dennis Green, shown here at his first Cardinals news conference in 2004. (By Roy Dabner -- Reuters)

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By Darren Urban
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The day Dennis Green was introduced as the new coach of the Arizona Cardinals in January 2004, he stood next to a huge chart listing the records of all the active coaches in the NFL. After 10 seasons in Minnesota, his was 97-62 -- one of the best -- and that's why, he said, he was going to be successful in Arizona.

But as Green's second season with the Cardinals winds down, he has been proven wrong.

Despite an overhaul of their roster, the Cardinals under Green have played much like the Cardinals before Green. The Cardinals beat the lowly San Francisco 49ers 17-10 Sunday, but their 4-8 record this season is miserable for a team many thought would make a run at the playoffs. Green's winning percentage has been torpedoed by a 10-18 overall mark since taking over in Arizona. The Cardinals host the Redskins on Sunday.

Green, who once challenged anyone who questioned his coaching decisions, has become less defiant as the losses pile up. "What's gnawing at me is the fact that I've not done as well as I expected to do," Green said. "When I show up for work, whether it be today or the first day, I expect to be successful."

That's certainly what the Bidwill family was expecting when it handed Green a four-year, $10 million contract to turn around the franchise. Michael Bidwill, a team vice president and the son of owner Bill Bidwill, was running the day-to-day operations, and he wanted to bring in an established coach to make a splash.

The Cardinals couldn't afford not to. With a new stadium opening in 2006 and a season ticket base hovering around 22,000 (the team will not divulge season ticket numbers), the Bidwills wanted Green to create wins and a buzz that would fill the new building.

After going 6-10 in 2004, this season was arguably the most important for the franchise since it moved from St. Louis to Arizona in 1988. The team had a young, aggressive defense. Green brought in veteran Kurt Warner to play quarterback and throw to one of the best pairs of young wide receivers in the game, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The team drafted J.J. Arrington to run the ball.

The plan seemed promising.

"I came in here with high expectations, that I could add something to the mix and we could make a run," Warner said. "There is a little bit of shock value, and a lot of it is, 'Why haven't we got to that point yet? Why has the process not been faster?' "

Some things have been out of the Cardinals' control. Injuries have sidelined four defensive starters -- Pro Bowl end Bertrand Berry, nose tackle Russell Davis, middle linebacker Gerald Hayes and rookie cornerback Antrel Rolle -- for a large chunk of the season, although Rolle is expected to return against Washington.

But that doesn't begin to touch on many other problems, many of which are self-inflicted.

Green wanted to revamp the underachieving offensive line. But his current group may be worse than when Green took over. Former No. 2 overall pick Leonard Davis has struggled, with 12 false starts, at left tackle, free agent Oliver Ross has been up and down at right tackle, and the middle of the line -- thanks in part to injuries -- has never come together.

That has had a direct impact on a running game that is the worst in the NFL. Arrington has been a disappointment, and the Cardinals have rushed for only two touchdowns.

Even the Cardinals' best story of the season -- a record-breaking year for place kicker Neil Rackers, who made his first 31 field goals and with 32 was on pace to break the NFL record -- soured when Rackers tore a calf muscle last week. He was replaced by former Redskins fill-in place kicker Nick Novak.

"The season is not going to be what we had hoped it would be and it's not going to be what we expected it to be," Green said.

Warner has played well, fending off those who said the two-time most valuable player couldn't play anymore. He has thrown for eight touchdowns and 1,647 yards in five games since returning to the starting lineup after injuring his groin. In Arizona's victory Sunday over San Francisco, Warner completed 29 of 45 passes for 354 yards and a touchdown. He was intercepted twice.

Fitzgerald, who caught eight passes for 129 yards Sunday, has already cracked the 1,000-yard mark, with 1,128 yards on 82 catches. Boldin, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2003, has 68 catches and is only eight yards shy of 1,000 for the season, despite missing two games with a knee injury. He caught 11 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown Sunday.

Fitzgerald has "been playing great," Boldin said. "I love having that guy on the other side. It's taken a lot of pressure off me, and I am thankful for that."

Warner, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, wants to return to Arizona next year, but the Cardinals -- who will almost certainly release free agent quarterback Josh McCown -- aren't completely sure what they will do at the position for 2006.

Whatever they do, they'd better be in position to win.

The new stadium, located in Glendale, will be the Cardinals' crown jewel. But there is a fear the building -- financed by a public vote that barely passed two days after the Cardinals upset the Redskins in Sun Devil Stadium in 2000 -- won't have anybody in it when its novelty wears off.

That could be sooner rather than later, given the Cardinals' continuing struggles. The team, which downgraded Sun Devil Stadium capacity this season by about 10,000 seats, to 63,000, still can't come close to a sellout. Tickets distributed this year for home games (not counting the 103,467 for the team's "home" game in Mexico City earlier this year) has been about 41,000. The Cardinals haven't had a home game televised in the Phoenix market since Green Bay visited in September 2000.

Green was supposed to change all that.

"Coach Green talked about teams in the league, how some teams are going to get better, some teams are going to level off and pack it in," Boldin said Sunday. "We don't want to be one of those teams. We want to build on this going into next year."


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