What It Takes To Be Super: The Arizona Cardinals
By Jeff Falconio
The reality hasn't quite set in. The mantra has been repeated over and over since January 18 but it still doesn't quite sound right. The Arizona Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl. It would appear that the Cardinals have come out of nowhere to be the feel-good overnight success story of professional sports. But a closer look at Arizona reveals that this team has been on an upward trend for quite some time.
Prior to 2008 the Cardinals had long been considered a laughingstock. Banished to the desert in the late 1980's the Cardinals had very little history and even less of a fan base. Over two decades Arizona stumbled at every turn with poor draft picks, a revolving door of failed coaching tenures and an inability to attract key free agents. The result was only one playoff appearance, in 1998, when the Cardinals won their first postseason game since 1947.
But early in this decade Arizona's fortunes very slowly started to turn. Thanks to a number of high draft picks the Cardinals quietly put together one solid draft after another. The Cardinals hit the bullseye in the second round of the 2003 draft with Anquan Boldin and then again with their first pick in '04, Larry Fitzgerald. Indeed, Arizona's 2004 draft class would help put the Cards on the path to the Super Bowl. Aside from Fitzgerald, Arizona picked up Karlos Dansby, the team's leading tackler in 2008, and defensive mainstays Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith. The drafting prowess would continue right up to 2008 when the Cardinals nabbed Antonio Cromartie-Smith who would lead the team in interceptions. 13 of Arizona's 22 starters in the NFC Championship game were drafted by the Cards and that doesn't include offensive contributors Tim Hightower and Steve Breaston. Arizona's top four tacklers in '08 were April pickups. Of course, so was the NFL's most impressive trio of wide receivers.
The Arizona Cardinals resurfaced after years of futility on March 12, 2006. That's the day the Cardinals reeled in Edgerrin James from the free agent pool in a stunning move. Arizona had long since replaced Green Bay has the one destination no NFL player wanted to go to but landing James legitimized the Cardinals as a team serious about improving. Edge would be a 1000 yard back in 2006 but the Cards finished 5-11. Something was missing.
The final two pieces fell into place in 2007. First, the Cardinals named Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt as head coach. The Cardinals finally eschewed hiring retreads like Dennis Green, who famously melted down after a Sunday night loss to Chicago, and instead hired an unproven but hungry coach. Whisenhunt brought a much needed no-nonsense approach to the Cardinals. Even though the Cardinals were loaded at wide receiver and James was in the backfield, the Cardinals offense wasn't taking off. But in Week 5 Matt Leinert, one of the few draft misses, went down with an injury, opening the door for another free agent pickup, Kurt Warner. In the final month of '07 Warner got into a groove and Arizona finished 8-8.
Finally, it had come together for Arizona. When the Seattle Seahawks, perennial division winners, opened the season as banged up as a team could be, the Cardinals took advantage by racing out to a 7-3 start. Included in that stretch was a breakthrough overtime win over the Cowboys, which sent Dallas into a tailspin. The Cardinals faced a brutal stretch that began in late November with games against the Giants, Eagles, Vikings and Patriots. Only December wins against St. Louis and Seattle prevented the Cardinals from becoming the first NFL division winner with a losing record.
Thanks to the late slide the Cardinals were expected to be one-and-done in the playoffs. Arizona opened the wild card round against the red-hot Falcons but there were two factors in Arizona's favor. First was the fact that the Cards were at home, where they were 7-1 during the season. The second factor was that for the veteran Warner the playoffs were old hat while Atlanta was led by rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. The Cardinals forced Ryan out of his game and James re-emerged from the bench to help pace Arizona's lightning quick offense. The key moment came when Warner & company took over with four minutes to play holding a tenuous six point lead. The Falcons didn't see the ball again.
Beating the young Falcons at home was one thing but surely Arizona's run would end on the road against the veteran Carolina Panthers. Jake Delhomme picked a very bad day to have his worst game as the Cardinals pounced all over Carolina, forcing six turnovers. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald solidified himself as the game's premiere wide receiver with a monster 8 catch, 166 yard performance. In those two wins the Cardinals proved they can be physical, they can run and they can force turnovers. Furthermore, Warner proved again that when surrounded by good receivers, he can out up Hall-of-Fame like numbers. It all came together in the NFC title game against Philadelphia. The Cards forced 3 turnovers, piled up more than 100 yards on the ground and again Fitzgerald was the go to guy.
After decades of frustration, the Cardinals finally started doing things right. The fruitful drafts and free agent pickups came together at the right time, setting up this monumental run to the Super Bowl. Now the Cards roll into Tampa with an opportunistic defense, an offense that's clicking and a sense that they can play with the NFL's elite.