Monday, January 19, 2009

Once-Blind Cardinals Finally Find Their Nut

My, my -- look who they're letting into the Super Bowl nowadays. Have they lowered their standards in the NFL?

Another one of the league's ugly ducklings finally made its transformation to swan. It only took them six decades, but they did it.

The Lions, by that measure, have ten years still to go. But there IS hope.

The Arizona Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl. In uniform and everything; I don't mean as guests of the league in a private suite. They're one of the last anomalies of nature: somehow, their metabolism slowed and came to a halt.

There is now one less member of the Never Been To The Super Bowl Club.

Sitting at the table now are the Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans. Oh, and the Lions. In fact, the Lions are at the head of the table. They're the chairmen of this board.

The Lions supplant the Cardinals now at the head -- of the table, that is.

The Cardinals captured the NFC Championship yesterday, their first title of any kind since 1947. They did it with their third straight playoff win, all achieved against conventional thinking. The surprising Atlanta Falcons were supposed to run around, over, and through them. The Carolina Panthers, at home, were supposed to make mincemeat of the desert team who weren't supposed to be able to win games played in the Eastern time zone. And the Philadelphia Eagles, battle-tested and used to these sort of situations, were supposed to put an end to this Cardinal Mania, for goodness sake.

None of that happened. The Lions are now, officially, by fact, numbers and irrefutable evidence, the most dysfunctional team in the NFL.

The Cardinals used to be that team. Their drought since 1947 was liberally sprinkled with slapstick and foolishness. The owners are the Bidwill family, and that was once as knee-slapping as the Ford ownership in Detroit. The Cardinals tried Chicago, then St. Louis, then Arizona. They tried calling themselves the Phoenix Cardinals for a while, before deciding to indict the entire state.

Their players used to race to the bank, to cash their paychecks, before they bounced. This was the 1950s days of the Chicago Cardinals. They once hired Bud Wilkinson as coach, some 15 years after he coached his last game -- in college. Their once-promising quarterback, Neil Lomax, broke his leg and was never the same. They had a player die in training camp of heat exhaustion (JV Cain). They would wear white jerseys at home against the Dallas Cowboys, forcing the 'Boys to wear blue -- thinking that the dark tops would function as the Cowboys' Kryptonite. Their leading pass receiver was regularly a running back (Larry Centers). They tried Buddy Ryan as coach. Now THERE was some Kryptonite. They lined up against Barry Sanders, who was playing his first game in nine months, without any practice, and gave up a 17-yard run on his first carry.

They have been the league's vagabonds, nudged out of two cities and a few time zones along the way.

But, the Bidwills have been a constant -- the common denominator. Just like the Fords in Detroit.

So what did the Cardinals do right?

Well, they caught lightning in a bottle, which happens from time to time in the NFL. But beyond that, they made some shrewd personnel moves, and had some draft success.

I know, I know -- that's like saying Charlie Brown has a chance, too, if only he'd pick a different holder for his placekicks. And Bill Ford is the Lions' Lucy Van Pelt.

But that's what happened: acquisitions of Kurt Warner, Edgerrin James. The drafting of Larry Fitzgerald. And others. And that all-important intangible: getting hot at the right time.

The Cardinals, to be fair and square, were not a great football team all season long. In fact, they were downright awful at times. They might even have had trouble beating the Lions on some weeks. They went into the playoffs as arguably the least attractive girl at the dance.

Now they'll be boogeying with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There was a time when the Steelers were ragtag and the Keystone Kops of the NFL. Many of the youngens can't fathom that; to them, the Steelers have always been good -- strong championship contenders. But throughout much of their existence -- from the late-1920s to the early-1970s -- the Steelers were almost as comical as the Cardinals. Owner Art Rooney, thank goodness, lived long enough to see his team finally win the Big One in 1975.

The Cardinals and the Steelers, for the whole enchilada. Likely not a popular choice in Las Vegas back in September.

Then again, despite as bad as the Lions have been, how many thought they'd pull off the imperfection of 0-16?

It's tempting and maybe even comforting to say that, if the Bidwills can make it to the Super Bowl, just about anyone can.

That's pretty much what we're down to in Detroit: living vicariously through other franchises.

No comments: