Thursday, July 8, 2010

The ChiStlAz Cardinals, For Better Or ... Better? What Am I Saying?

If the Cardinals were a car they would be a Fiat. The gear shift would come off in your hand, the steering column would disconnect randomly, the windshield washers would spout brake fluid, the motor would turn over only on French holidays, and you could watch the highway go by through the holes in the floorboards.

In all fairness, the Cardinals have not always been a Fiat. At times they have been a Hillman Minx.

From this you should gather that not only have the Cardinals been abysmal, but that they have been wantonly, willfully abysmal, so much so that you expect to learn that the Cards’ GM for the last 50 years has been Sacha Baron Cohen.

This has not been the case, of course. The Cardinals have for most of their history been controlled by the Bidwill family, which is to inept football management what the Kennedys have been to bed-hopping Irish machine politics only with fewer assassinations, though not for lack of want-to.

The result of this despotism is remarkable: One world championship in 89 seasons, and that clouded by the state of the post-WWII NFL. Seven playoff appearances. A .413 winning percentage. More losses than any other team in NFL history by a margin of 100. Six Hall of Famers who spent the bulk of their careers with the team (coaches not included, and Bill Bidwill definitely not included).

Besides moving and losing, the Cardinals are known for three things: kick returners, defensive backs and offensive linemen. Of these, only offensive linemen are not commonly found on stinkers. In the post-1960s game, the weaker your defensive line the more time your quarterback has to throw, the more pressure put on the defensive backs, and the better the defensive backs appear by sheer dint of workload. The Bears have had no better than mediocre defensive backs since 1960, and they’ve not only been largely successful, they’ve earned a reputation as a defensive powerhouse because no one throws on the defensive backs – not because the defensive backs are so good but because the quarterback has no time, because the defensive line and linebackers are so good.

As for kick returners, if returning kickoffs is a big part of your game you either have Gary Hogeboom as your quarterback, Freddie Joe Nunn as your defensive anchor, or both. The Cardinals have had four or five of the top 50 kick returners in the league since 1960 – Stump Mitchell, Vai Sikahema, Abe Woodson, Terry Metcalf, and Ollie Matson, depending on your yardstick, with Willard Harrell and Eric Metcalf in reserve. A good team has one or two, and then only if they hang around for a decade out of sheer inertia, like Brian Mitchell or Troy Brown.

It is a lie that the Cardinals have never been able to run the ball except when it is kicked. There have been five distinct periods when the Cardinals have been able to run. The first was when they had Ernie Nevers and everyone ran the ball. That lasted three years. The second was when they won a championship and everyone on their team ran the ball. That lasted three years. Then there was the Ollie Matson Era, when King Hill and Sam Etcheverry gave the ball to Matson and watched him run. That lasted five years, until Matson was traded to the Rams for nine football-team parts. (Incidentally, trading one player for nine football-team parts makes sense if the team getting the parts is the Monongahela Pig-Iron Ingots of the Wyoming Valley Industrial League. It makes less sense for an NFL team, or the Cardinals.) This was succeeded by – surprise! – the John David Crow Era, which was numerically more impressive than the previous era – but, oh, King Hill and Sam Etcheverry were still the quarterbacks. And finally, there was the Ottis Anderson Era, which lasted most of six seasons, until Anderson’s yards per carry could be measured in microns. And then they traded him. To the Giants. Where he was MVP of the Super Bowl.

There you go. Twenty years out of 90 when the Cardinals really ran the ball. Heck, we’ll throw in Stump Mitchell’s thousand-yard season and Jim Otis’ good year and the year MacArthur Lane led the league in rushing TDs and call it 23. Twenty-three years out of 90. One-quarter of all seasons yay, and the remaining three-quarters populated by failed scatbacks like Leeland McElroy and mud-slow fullbacks like Earl Farrell.

The D-line and linebackers have been more a story of bad luck. Andre Wadsworth blew out a knee. E.J. Junior got hurt. Eric Swann got hurt. Seth Joyner got old. Dave Butz woke up in Washington. So did Ken Harvey. Darryl Sims never woke up at all. Jamir Miller and Simeon Rice wanted market value. Bad luck, that’s what it is. There are signs this may be changing, but the minute you say that Darnell Dockett chafes at the franchise tag and there you are, snakebit again.

There’s a lesson here, namely: It’s all about the lines, but not always. The Cards’ D-line has been a botch from the get-go. It could not have been worse had it been manned by the Backyadigans. But sometimes one line is all that’s needed to ensure a lifetime’s mediocrity, especially when the word from the Bidwills on high is that Joe Childress and Willis Crenshaw is a perfectly acceptable backfield tandem and that Edgerrin James in his Wile E. Coyote/legs-churning-furiously-in-midair phase is worth $9 million a year. In that case it doesn’t matter if Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler, and Tom Banks are blocking. Anthony Munoz and Jonathan Ogden could pitch in and Tootie Robbins could be the H-back and they’d still average -3 per carry.

There are signs of a turnaround in the desert, but there are always signs in the desert. They’re mirages, or small voices of dissent crushed by a Buddy Ryan hitting town or an Aeneas Williams pulling out. It’s Tienamen Square, with Solomon Wilcotts as the sideline reporter.

No, we simply ought to consign ourselves to the reality that the Cardinals have always been bad and will always be bad. The perpetuation of the species depends on it. And there, at last, is the justification for King Hill.

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