Finally, Cards Take Desert by Storm

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ken Harvey remembers posing for a picture at the Pro Bowl in the mid-1990s with Tim McDonald and Jay Novacek.

Harvey, a linebacker, was with the Washington Redskins. McDonald, a safety, was a member of the San Francisco 49ers, and Novacek, a tight end, was with the Dallas Cowboys. Their bond was that they'd all made it to Hawaii as escapees from the Phoenix Cardinals, as the franchise was named when the three were teammates in a pro football wasteland in the desert.

"We were all there," Harvey said this week of the trio's Hawaiian reunion, "because we'd left the Cardinals."

The Arizona Cardinals will take the field tomorrow with a Pro Bowl quarterback and two Pro Bowl wide receivers. They'll host the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game before a packed house at their still-glistening, three-year-old jewel of a retractable-roof stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

"For a long time, I didn't think I'd ever see it happen," Harvey said in a phone interview. "Then when they got the new stadium and got out of the NFC East, I thought it could happen someday. But I didn't expect this, not now."

Few did. The fourth-seeded Cardinals began these playoffs as a mildly compelling success story: One of the league's woebegone franchises was making a rare postseason appearance. But they seemed to be in the playoff field mostly because of their participation in the weak NFC West, having posted a 9-7 record during the regular season while losing all five of their East Coast road games by an average margin of 20 points.

Now they're coming off a home win over the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the playoffs and a stunningly lopsided triumph at Carolina last weekend over the second-seeded Panthers in an NFC semifinal. They have two victories in the same postseason for the first time in franchise history. They're in their first NFC title game and they're on the franchise's best run of playoff success since the Chicago Cardinals won the NFL championship game in 1947, back in the days when the postseason consisted of a single game.

If they beat the sixth-seeded Eagles tomorrow, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill will be hoisting the George Halas Trophy given to the NFC champions and his team will be headed to the Super Bowl.

"It's great," Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson said during a midweek news conference.

How great?

"Super great," Wilson said.

The Cardinals are not totally without tradition. They're a charter member of the NFL. They have 16 enshrinees in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They returned to the NFL championship game in 1948, a year after winning the title, but lost. The franchise moved from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960 and had some good seasons there. Don Coryell coached the club to NFC East titles in 1974 and '75. Jim Hanifan coached the team to the playoffs in '82.

"For me and people my age, what's happening now is the completion of a cycle," former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said by telephone this week. "I had a chance to play against some excellent Cardinals teams with people like Dan Dierdorf, Jim Hart, Mel Gray, Ottis Anderson, Neil Lomax, Roy Green and on and on. It seems like it's been so long ago because when they moved out of St. Louis, they really changed their identity.

"It's like talking about the Baltimore Colts. A lot of young fans only know the Arizona Cardinals and the bad rap that Bill Bidwill gets: 'He doesn't spend money.' Well, it's not about spending money. It's not about being the New York Yankees."

The franchise got a reputation for being one of the league's laughingstocks after the Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988. They played at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium. Bidwill was accused of not spending what it took to field a winning team, and the Cardinals certainly didn't win. Entering this season, they'd managed only one winning season and one playoff appearance since 1984.

Harvey said the criticism heaped upon the team and Bidwill for years was deserved "to a point." He and other Cardinals players during his tenure always had been skeptical, he said, of management's commitment to winning.

"When I was there, we played on a field that was always torn up because ASU had played there on Saturday," said Harvey, who played for the Cardinals from 1988 through the '93 season for teams that had a combined record of 32-64. "We had this huge, long walk to the tunnel. There was no feeling that the place was ours. There was a core fan base, but it was small, maybe 25,000. We didn't have good teams but we charged these high ticket prices, so the games weren't sold out and they were always blacked out on TV.

"We gave a lot of teams a lot of battles. But you always had this feeling in the back of your mind that something [bad] was going to happen. I'm not going to bad-mouth them. They did try to keep me there. But you always wondered what they were going to do to keep us from having a good team."

The seeds for this season's revitalization were planted in November 2000 when voters in Maricopa County approved funding for a new stadium. The Cardinals got out of the NFC East when the NFL realigned for the 2002 season.

"Getting a new home, that was big," Harvey said. "Building that stadium said, 'We're willing to do what it takes.' And getting out of the NFC East, that was important, too. When you have that feeling that you're always going to be last in your group, it's hard to get rid of that."

Ken Whisenhunt, admittedly against the advice of some associates, took the team's coaching job before last season. He's a former NFL tight end who played for Joe Gibbs with the Redskins, and he was a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator while with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Things started looking up with an 8-8 record last season.

"Ken Whisenhunt has done a great job of going out there and changing the culture," Theismann said.

Whisenhunt handed the starting quarterback job for this season to veteran Kurt Warner over youngster Matt Leinart, and Warner, a two-time league most valuable player for the St. Louis Rams, made the most of the immense talents of wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Suddenly, here the Cardinals are. Whisenhunt said this week he's particularly pleased for Bidwill, a Georgetown University alum whose family has owned the franchise since 1932, and Bidwill's son Michael, the team's president.

"I am excited for Michael and Mr. B because it has been a tough road here in Arizona for this football team," Whisenhunt said at a midweek news conference. "Playing all those years at Sun Devil Stadium in those conditions is very difficult. I think it is a credit to Michael and all the work he has put in to get the stadium built. This is a part of the result of that. . . . It seems to be happening and I think it is gratifying."

The Cardinals, after needing two one-day extensions of the NFL's normal 72-hour deadline to sell out the Falcons game in the first round of the playoffs to avoid a local television blackout, announced last Sunday they'd sold out this game six minutes after tickets had been put on sale to the public. They indicated they expected a crowd of more than 70,000 at tomorrow's game.

"It has been so long and they [the team's fans] deserve it just as much as we do," said Wilson, who has spent his entire eight-year NFL career with the Cardinals. "They've been through a lot. The players have been through a lot. The players' families, the coach's families and everyone's family has been through a lot. So to see us turn that corner, it's great."

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