By Michael Wilbon
Friday, January 30, 2009
Thank God something good finally has happened to the football Cardinals.
It has taken only 61 years and two relocations. That a franchise that has lost more games than any in the NFL has reached the Super Bowl after decades of comedic mistakes, chronic mismanagement and notable tragedy is overwhelming even to some of the men who spent years trying to make the Cardinals winners.
Roy Green, who played for the Cardinals in both St. Louis and Arizona and on offense and defense no less, follows the Cardinals closely from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Asked this week how he feels seeing his old team so close to being a champion after such epic failure, Green said: "It's damn exciting. But to a man, as much as we love the Cardinals, we're all asking ourselves: 'Is this real? Are we crazy? Are the Cardinals really in the Super Bowl?' We're talking about the Cardinals and the Super Bowl. All of us are living it through these guys."
It's one thing for an expansion team that's been around 40 years or less to be bad, but nobody has been as tragically bad and as consistently, comically inept as the Cardinals until now. It's the oldest professional football franchise in the United States, dating from the turn of the 20th century, and a charter member of the NFL. Yet the only thing the Cardinals have won since 1947 was Cuba Gooding Jr.'s best actor Oscar for his portrayal of fictional Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell.
Forty years in Chicago produced one disputed championship in 1925 and one legit title in 1947. Another 28 years in St. Louis produced only three trips to the playoffs and not a single postseason home game. Another 20 years in Arizona had produced one playoff victory until this January, when the Cardinals won three of the franchise's total of five playoff victories to reach Sunday's Super Bowl.
They had 10 straight non-winning seasons, from 1936 to 1945, and won only 33 games in the decade of the 1950s. Until this month, the Cardinals had as many relocations as playoff victories.
The story in Chicago is that they took their uniforms from the University of Chicago Maroons. They began as the Morgan Athletic Club, which would turn out to be one of Al Capone's hangouts on the South Side of Chicago. The Bidwill family, which has owned the Cardinals since Charles Bidwill purchased the team in 1932, wanted to move the franchise to Evanston, a north shore Chicago suburb, and not to St. Louis after the 1959 season.
But Bears owner George Halas, whose franchise Bidwill had saved from creditors with a $5,000 investment in 1931, enforced an agreement that the Cardinals could never play north of Madison Avenue (the dividing line between the North Side and South Side), so the Cardinals trundled off to Missouri, helping the NFL keep the fledgling AFL out of St. Louis.
Their entire time there, the team was known as the "football Cardinals," to avoid confusion with the real Cardinals, the team of Stan Musial and Bob Gibson and World Series victories.
There were some flashes of greatness in St. Louis. Don Coryell's teams, the "Cardiac Cards," had three consecutive winning seasons in 1974 (10-4), 1975 (11-3) and 1976 (10-4). And there were certainly great players, including quarterbacks Jim Hart and Charley Johnson, Hall of Famers Dan Dierdorf, safety Larry Wilson and cornerback Roger Wehrli. Even in the 1980s, the Cardinals had quarterback Neil Lomax, running back O.J. Anderson and Green, who made the Pro Bowl playing wide receiver and cornerback.
But the football Cardinals never held on to their players, and Bill Bidwill, who took over sole ownership after sharing it with his brother Stormy in 1972, was the reason. It was Bill Bidwill who dumped Coryell to hire Bud Wilkinson, 15 years removed from his tenure as a college football coach. Stupid personnel decisions were a trademark for the Cardinals.
Toward the end of their time in Chicago, the team traded Ollie Matson, who would go on to the Hall of Fame, to the Rams for nine players. They let Dick "Night Train" Lane, perhaps the greatest defensive back ever, go to Detroit. And it's not like the Cardinals left their bad decision-making back east. In Arizona, they let go players such as Jamir Miller, Simeon Rice and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Cheapness was another trademark, to the point of being legendary. Place kicker-turned-broadcaster Pat Summerall (1953-1957) tells the story that the Cardinals were once threatened, "If you don't beat the Bears, you won't get paid next week." The Cardinals won. But coaches who worked for the Cardinals recount incident after incident of Bidwill promising to improve the roster, scouting, the personnel department and delivering on none of it.
Some episodes were a lot more painful. Tight end J.V. Cain died in a training camp heat tragedy on his 28th birthday in 1979. Just three years later, Coach Jim Hanifan wasn't happy about the production from his first-round draft pick, place kicker Steve Little, and decided to conduct a kicking contest between Little and Neil O'Donoghue. After losing the contest and being cut, Little drank himself into a stupor and smashed his car on a local highway. He was paralyzed from the neck down and lived the final 20 years of his life in an Arkansas hospice.
There's just not much good that's been associated with the Cardinals all these years. In a story reported by Bloomberg this week, a New Jersey-based market research company indicated the Cardinals have the weakest brand of all 32 NFL franchises, and rank 116th of 122 sports franchises in North America.
The Steelers, Sunday's opponent, by contrast, rank third behind the Packers and Boston Red Sox. How much one Super Bowl trip will change that is open to speculation, especially because one community has produced 75 years worth of Steelers fans while the Cardinals alienated a great number of folks, particularly in St. Louis, who identify with former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner more than the Cardinals.
While thousands of Steelers fans troll Tampa looking to buy game tickets, the cheapest round-trip, nonstop airfare from Phoenix to Tampa yesterday was $877. Ex-Steelers are popping up everywhere. Ex-Cardinals? Not so much, not yet anyway. Still, Green, who will watch Sunday's game on television in Las Vegas, is encouraged.
"Dennis Green started the football part of all this," he said. "Remember, he and Rod Graves [the team's GM] acquired the foundation of this team. But let me say that I was really impressed with Michael Bidwill [Bill's son and the club president]. He initiated getting a stadium where people could attend games and not broil [as they did on the aluminum seats of Sun Devil Stadium]. He told me a few years ago he would change the culture, and that if he got a new stadium it would be full, and he'd be able to re-sign guys and go into the free agent market, and he's done that."
Bertrand Berry, the defensive lineman who has played for 12 years in the NFL and the last five with the Cardinals, talked earlier this week of the franchise's struggle and credibility. "I've had to hold back tears," Berry said. "To be here now makes it all worth it. I remember when I told people I was going to sign with Arizona. They said: 'Are you serious? You're going to the Cardinals? They're cheap. They've got bad management. They're never going to win.' But here we are, on the verge of turning the perception of a whole franchise around. We're on the cusp. One more game."