No matter where you go on the AM dial, it’s the time of year where NFL talk simply dominates the airwaves. Oh, it’s hockey season? Well, that incredible hat trick and the pace of 3-on-3 overtime are going to have to wait; we’ll try to shoehorn that 90 seconds of NHL coverage between our fluff interview with the head coach of our local team and our commentary on another team’s quarterback’s reaction to being called names. Oh, there’s basketball too? Let’s see, the playoffs start in April, so we’ll see you at the end of May. The NFL season has made the turn for the back 9, so let’s keep that conversation going, ad nauseum.
Only I’m not nauseous. We only get 17 weeks of these regular season games, so give it to me, from every angle you’ve got. Just about every game serves up its share of intrigue, even if it’s just because the NFL has taken a page out of the Oregon Ducks playbook and decided to make uniforms part of the side show. We have heard a lot of talk about paper tigers, and that kind of thing sells when you’re dealing with more that just the football purists.
Here in Arizona, the tailgate was a bigger deal than the games until the Cardinals started playing respectable football. While the pregame parking lot party lot is still a huge draw, the curtains are really pulled back to start the show once you get inside University of Phoenix Stadium and witness the product the Cardinals are putting on the field.
Sure, we can find our Suns and Coyotes in action on any given night of the week, but the locals suddenly find themselves longing for Sunday in these parts. Let’s face it, there’s a lot more to say about a dysfunctional organization, and that dysfunction was the epitome of the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals for many years after they landed here from St. Louis almost 30 years ago, but the casual fan is more interested in talking about success.
For the Bruce Arians’ Cardinals, defining success and turning the corner from being the team that was blacked out locally for over a decade isn’t about their accomplishments, but their potential. They reached the Super Bowl, and almost won the damn thing, if not for an incredible Santonio Holmes toe-tap to give the Steelers their 6th title, but that’s in the past. What have they done for you lately?
Kurt Warner’s retirement after the 2009 season put the Birds into a bit of a tailspin, leaving people to look back on the team that reached the post-season in consecutive years for the first time since the 70s as a fluke. It’s no wonder; since Warner, the Cardinals marched Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer out under center, with limited to no success for the team in that time frame.
So, why not throw Oakland a 6th-round pick for the services of a washed-up Carson Palmer? He’d spent the better part of two seasons in Oakland, after retiring rather than returning to the Bengals for the 2011 season. Speaking to the numbers, Palmer wasn’t as bad as most of us remember him being in Oakland, it was that his play didn’t add up to Raider wins, but the Cardinals were arguably one Peyton Manning away from being a Super Bowl team, the way the roster was built a year earlier.
Despite starting out 4-0 in 2012, the bottom fell out after the hot start, and the team would go on to lose 11 of their last 12, which equaled a 5-11 record and a pink slip for head coach Ken Whisenhunt. After that, enter Palmer and Bruce Arians, stage left.
At that point, they were playing meaningful football, going into the month of December. That first year, 10 wins weren’t good enough to make the tournament in 2013. Come 2014, you could have made a case for Arizona being that one team in the National Football League that no one wanted to play, provided the Cardinals stayed healthy at key spots. They were not able to do that, and the net result was Ryan Lindley marking himself as one of the worst quarterbacks in post-season history in a loss to the Carolina Panthers.
With a recent history that does garner some looks from football people that wouldn’t normally give their organization the time of day, Palmer and the gang entered this season with a chip on their shoulder. What they’ve done before this season is inconsequential, especially if you want to be taken seriously in discussing their Super Bowl aspirations. Through nine games, a 7-2 mark has given some weight to those thoughts previously thought to be outlandish, but who have they played?
But, They Haven’t Played Anyone
It took a big play or two at the end to put away the New Orleans Saints in Week 1, and the Saints seem to be a continuation of the mess that was the 2014 Saints. Okay, crossing them off the list. How about the Bears in Week 2 on the road? Forget about the Bears you’re seeing now, now that Jay Cutler and Adam Gase have found their groove, the Cardinals are awarded no points for a 48-23 win at Soldier Field.
It wasn’t that long ago that voices behind the microphone your drive home were trying to sell Niners and Cardinals as a rivalry. Sometimes, you have to reach for the narrative in the NFC West, which is seemingly void of natural rivalries. Sure, maybe players have told the teams’ flagship stations that they don’t like the other team, and maybe those two teams were at the top of the division, but that pairing never screamed, “throw the records out the window when these teams square off”.
Seattle and San Francisco had a little thing going, when they were the top 2 in the division, with the Cardinals playing games with the likes of Derek Anderson, John Skelton, and Kevin Kolb running the offense. It made for exciting marketing for the games, but the 49ers regressed, and the edge was taken off of all their division games. So, the Cardinals score defensive touchdown after defensive touchdown at home against the Niners, and no one cares about their 3-0 start.
They’d lose to the Rams, obliterate the then-winless Lions in Detroit, and lay an egg in Pittsburgh to fall to 4-2. They still haven’t played anyone and they’re way behind the pace of all these unbeatens we’re covering in the NFL. No denying they were a good football team, but there were just too many great teams to get hung up on the pretty good one in the desert.
Let’s put them on Monday Night Football. The Ravens making their first trip to University of Phoenix Stadium, that should make for compelling TV. I’m sure a 1-5 Ravens team isn’t what ESPN had in mind, but they made it a football game, right up until the end. Kudos to the Ravens for showing up in prime time, but surviving a 1-6 team at home doesn’t sell anyone on your Super Bowl prospects.
A second half comeback, after trailing 20-10 at the half, in Cleveland had some people inspired, not just in these parts, but on the national scene. There were some skeletons rearing their ugly heads from the loss in Pittsburgh, that this team couldn’t handle adversity, and while the Browns are absolutely nothing to write home about, a 24-0 whitewash in the 3rd and 4th quarters of that game in Cleveland had everyone feeling this team was on the right track headed into their bye week. Even though there was no game to talk about that next weekend, terrestrial radio gave you your fill of Birdspeak, whether you wanted it or not.
Who could blame them? The Seattle game hung in the balance, and at 4-4, the Cardinals could potentially throw something of a knockout punch to the 2-time defending NFC Champions. Now, the Cardinals have been able to crack the code for winning in front of the Sea Chickens rowdy fans, but Carolina figured out that formula in Week 6, so the task may not have seemed so daunting. We’ve learned, from our talk-radio hosts, that you can dismiss some of the negatives with Seattle, namely their mediocre W-L record, and that the Cardinals have not proven they are a better team than the Seahawks until the show they can beat them.
Well, beat them, they did. The 39-32 final score doesn’t really tell the tale of how that affair went. Arizona got out to a big halftime lead, had a complete meltdown with Palmer putting the pigskin on the turf twice, deep in their own territory, and when they needed the big play, Jermaine Gresham and Andre Ellington were happy to oblige.
Leading up to this game, the sister stations up in Washington were calling these Cardinals “paper tigers”. They haven’t played anyone, they said. Now, the joke is on those who reside near the Puget Sound. Those Sea Chickens that went down at home to their division rival, they’re 4-5; at the end of the day, I guess the Cardinals still haven’t played anyone.
Is Anyone Out There?
Remember, what they’ve done means nothing. We see no rings, therefor the job isn’t done. What does 7-2 get you? Nothing, but maybe prime time games. The NFL flexed this weekend’s contest with Cincinnati into Sunday Night Football, the Cardinals second-straight appearance in NBC’s prime time slot and the Bengals third-straight under the lights. The Bengals look a lot less intimidating after their stripes were exposed by the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football, and the big baby that is Andy Dalton showed a complete void of maturity, based on hearsay.
The travel Palmer and company face isn’t as severe as it was in their first nine games, what with Seattle out of the way and those three of their four games in the Eastern time zone in the books. They’ll travel to play the Niners and Rams in consecutive weeks, pretty much with a chance to lock up the division before a lot of people even get their Christmas trees up, but that division title isn’t the long game.
Unlike the old days, where you’d know who was in town because of the dominance of visiting jerseys at Sun Devil Stadium, this team has a distinct home-field advantage, and they want that in January. They’re still two games behind the 9-0 Carolina Panthers in the loss column, but they’re going to see the Vikings and Packers at home, with home playoff games and maybe a first-round bye in the cards, so there are no breaks.
If they take any, they might be stressing over their home finale with those pesky Sea Chickens in Week 17. In that case, I’m sure talking heads on the radio dial will have plenty to talk about, but topics for discussion are never in short supply in an NFL market. Though, you already knew that.