It’s a measure of how little sympathy plays in professional football that we want to think of the Arizona Cardinals as some new franchise. We don’t think of the Cardinals in terms of their deep history — we just think of them in terms of losing.
And we still do. Once the Cardinals punched their ticket to the Super Bowl with a 32-25 win against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, who among us said, “Well, the Cardinals must be pretty good?”
We said nothing of the sort, we still haven’t said it and we won’t say it unless or until the Cardinals win the Super Bowl. And even then, we’ll complain that the best team didn’t win, just like we said it after the Cardinals beat Atlanta and Carolina in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
But, you know, it was kind of like that about 35 years ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers finally won a Super Bowl. From their founding in 1933 until 1972, the Steelers made one playoff appearance. A lot of people laughed when the Steelers finished 1-13 in 1969, then used their No. 1 draft pick on a quarterback from Louisiana Tech named Terry Bradshaw. Those people, by the way, weren’t football scouts.
The second half of Steelers history, of course, is written in the ages. They’ve won five Super Bowls, going for No. 6 against the Cardinals in Tampa on Feb. 1. The Steelers now have been the home team for more conference championship games than any other team in NFL history, and they have 17 players and coaches in the Hall of Fame.
Who’s to say the Cardinals can’t be on the verge of writing an entirely new section of their history? Well, the Steelers certainly have something to say about it.
Anything can happen in one football game. We know that, because we’ve already seen the Cardinals beat Carolina and Philadelphia in the playoffs. What’s really interesting about this Super Bowl is that, if the Cardinals win, it will be due to their inside knowledge of the Steelers.
Ordinarily, for example, a wag would argue that the Cardinals finished last in NFL rushing this year with 73.6 yards per game, while the Steelers finished second in rushing defense by allowing only 80.3 yards per game.
Case closed: The Cardinals won’t be able to run, so the Steelers can work out a way to deal with quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who have dominated the playoffs.
But what if you knew that the Cardinals’ coach, Ken Whisenhunt, was the offensive coordinator who helped Ben Roethlisberger win the Super Bowl four years ago? And what if you knew the Cardinals’ offensive line coach, Russ Grimm, was passed over by the Steelers when they hired Mike Tomlin as the head coach right after that?
Do Whisenhunt and Grimm know something about how Dick LeBeau runs the Pittsburgh defense? They know what everyone knows, that the Steelers will blitz and execute. But they also know what makes the Steelers tick, and they know who the Steelers are.
So don’t be too surprised if the Cardinals show up with a tire iron and pry open the Steelers a little. And if they can pry open the Steelers a little, they have the powder to blow it up.
The Cardinals are the No. 2 passing offense in the NFL (292.2 yards per game) and the No. 4 offense overall (365.8 yards per game). They’ve got three 1,000-yard receivers in Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.
In the playoffs, though, the Cardinals have blown through three NFC opponents without using all their weapons. During those three games, the Cardinals totaled 770 passing yards, with Fitzgerald accounting for 54 percent of them in 23 catches.
Running back Edgerrin James, signed by the Cardinals to be a star, has only 203 rushing yards in 52 carries during the postseason. Boldin has caught only six passes in the playoffs, and Breaston has caught seven.
It could be, in other words, that we haven’t even begun to see what the Cardinals can do offensively. What if Warner and Fitzgerald are as sharp as ever, what if Edge shows up, what if Warner can spread the ball around to Boldin and Breaston? If all that happens, the Steelers can’t keep up in this track meet.
Just pipe dreaming here. Nobody thinks the Cardinals can actually win this game. They’re helpless and always have been.
They don’t even get the cuddly slack of a baseball team with an even worse history. How many people know, for example, that the Cardinals are the oldest football club operating in the U.S., founded at Chicago’s Morgan Athletic Club in 1898?
Of course, the Cardinals were overlooked in Chicago, where the Bears were always kings. About 50 years ago, the Cardinals made one of the most remarkable trades in sports history, dealing star running back Ollie Matson to the Rams for nine players. It didn’t help. They moved to St. Louis two years later.
One side note: During World War II, the Cardinals and Steelers briefly merged because they both lost so many players to military service. The NFL called the team “Card-Pitt.”
Those days have long been gone in Pittsburgh, but the Cardinals still carry that historic taint of being not quite a whole football team. And when the Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC championship, the world already knew they would win the Super Bowl.
That doesn’t mean the world is right. It just means no one’s going to think the Cardinals are the better team even if they do win it.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org