In his 14 years at the St. Louis Cardinal quarterback, Jim Hart has taken -- many times unfairly -- the brunt of the fans' criticism for the team's failures.
Such is the case again this season, as late field goals by last year's Super Bowl combatants, Pittsburgh and Dallas, have left the Cardinals with a 1-2 record going into Sunday's 2 p.m. game against the Washington Redskins.
Much of St. Louis believes the Cardinals should be 3-0. Hart is the first to admit that he has not performed to his standards this season. But he is not the only culprit and, finally, he has hit back at his critics.
The vehicle he chose was a weekly sports call-in radio show on KMOX in St. Louis. The host is a good friend of Hart, but on this night, he picked the wrong time to throw a friendly jibe at his buddy.
"Well, since you brought it up. . ." Hart began. He finished his remarks some 60 seconds later, and afterward recalled that the essence of what he said was: "I don't feel my performance led us to 1-2, at least not along."
The quarterback, who has more than 2,000 career completions and 27,000 yards gained, said he has felt better since venting frustrations that night about a team whose foremost weapon over the years -- a terrific offensive line -- has been devasted by death and injuries.
"It's really the people who don't know who are doing most of the criticizing," said Hart. "At first you bristle under it. But the people who count are our coaches. And I don't hear a gripe from them about my play calling or how the passing game is going.
"I feld a whole lot better after that radio show. You have to live with yourself. It's still tough to take after 14 years."
In his second season as Cardinal coach, Bud Wilkinson gave Hart the opportunity to call his own plays this year. Hart's percentage is only 46.7, well below his career average, and his rating of 53.2 ranks him 11th among the 14 starting quarterbacks in the NFC.
The Cardinal offense has been receiving all kinds of accolades nationally because of rookie running back Ottis Anderson's fast start, including 193 yards rushing against the Cowboys. In St. Louis, it's a new style of aggressive defense that is getting the praise.
Even Wilkinson has been somehwat surprised that his team has forced 10 fumbles and four interceptions in three games.
"We had more fortunate things happen to us in the way of turnovers than we had any reason to expect," Wilkinson said about the latest loss, to the Steelers. "The turning point came early on when we had a chance to score and didn't. The failure to score those points caused us to get nipped in the end."
However, Hart has not been operating with a full flock:
Since the death of J. V. Cain in training camp, Al Chandler has been playing tight end. He is a strong blocker, but is not the deep pass threat that Cain was. On the best NFL teams today, tight end is a key position; Chandler is not a star, but a journeyman.
Deep threat Mel Gray, has been hampered with a leg injury. He is expected to play this week.
Dan Dierdorf, one of the league's best offensive linemen, went down in the Giant game with a knee injury and center Tom Banks also has been sidelined by injury.
"I'm the first to agree," said Hart, "that I didn't throw well in the first two games. I've been disappointed in my performance. But I don't feel my performance led us to 1-2, at least not alone.
"I didn't throw well under pressure the first two games. It's something I've always prided myself in doing. I was knocked around in throwing it and I was feeling the pressure a little bit. I was standing in there a lot better last week."
A lot also has been said about the fact that kicker Jim Bakken summarily was retired and that Mike Wood is only two for seven, none outside 29 yards.
"Kicking is not the thing that lost the Pittsburgh game," said Joe Sullivan, the Cardinal vice president of football operations and a former aide in Washington under George Allen. "We got only 37 yards total offense in the second half."
"There's no reason why we shouldn't be 3-0," said inside linebacker Tim Kearney. "We've played the best two football teams in the league and we've played 'em close. That ought to tell you something."
What it tells Sullivan is that Wilkinson was correct when he brought in Tom Bettis, who had served as interim head coach at Kansas City before Marv Levy was appointed, to install the 34 defense that Wilkinson made famous at Oklahoma.
"The defense has shown great improvement and it's continued," Sullivan said. "He brought in a completely new style of play. It was like George Allen's style of playing aggressively. We had the feeling in the past that we'd lay back and bend and bend and bend and not give up the points.Now, we go for the ball."
"We're more attack-oriented," was the way strong safety Ken Stone, a former Redskin, put it. "It boils down to several things -- the coaching staff, the game plan, how we carry it out. Using the 34 instead of the 4-3 enables you to be more aggressive in terms of blitzing. The opposition never knows which linebacker will blitz. We're also using a lot of nickel defense.
"We're still learning, but we're so much farther ahead than we were last year."
The Redskins' left defensive tackle, Dave Butz, who missed the Giant game with a knee injury, resumed full workouts yesterday. "We might be able to get him back for part-time duty," Coach Jack Pardee said . . . Wide receiver Chris DeFrance, the rookie cut by the Cowboys and signed by the Redskins the week of the season-opener, is looking sharp in drills and Pardee said he will not hesitate to use him in spot situations.