The Arizona Cardinals Made It, No Matter How Illogically They Got There
It's important to understand something before we get all tangled up in the boatloads of storylines of the Super Bowl.
The 2008 Cardinals are the perfect-yet-illogical culmination of five nail-biting, heart-wrenching, lovable yet demonic seasons. They were difficult, exciting, depressing, and encouraging--sometimes separately, sometimes simultaneously.
But, they set the precedent for what has delivered the Cardinals tickets to the Big Show in Tampa.
The Cardinals, as a team, hit rock bottom following the departure of Jake Plummer, the recently named "Greatest Arizona Cardinal" by ESPN.
Following that 2002 season, the Cardinals vested the [immediate] future of their team in one Jeff Blake, who, like other Bengals quarterbacks such as Jon Kitna and Akili Smith, (who?) will be recognized forever for his unquestionable mediocrity.
His career 39-61 record as a starting quarterback certainly was not going to help make the Cardinals contenders. And he lived up to the promise, carrying the team to a 3-10 record before getting yanked late in the season.
It was that season's finish that seemed to plant a new age of Cardinals existence. The team established their long-term status as a talented passing team when a young Josh McCown along with the budding rookie Anquan Boldin created a lot of energy in the Cardinals' old digs at Sun Devil Stadium.
An element of their turnaround—not exactly a cause or a defining moment—was their regular season finale victory against Minnesota in 2003. One could say the Cardinals had no business to win the game; said Minnesota radio guy Paul Allen: "What do you have to play for, you're 3-12!". Moreover, it cost them a high draft pick. But the high intensity and grit of Josh McCown emanated into the team that day (knocking the Vikings out of the playoffs in the process) and one could trace much excitement and promise back to this day.
The win set a precedent for the Cardinals, a precedent that still holds true: Arizona can play with the best, particularly at home. And they can really screw things up for other teams.
The excitement of a proven coach (Dennis Green) in 2004 along with the excitement of a new stadium instilled in the souls of both Cardinals fans and players alike.
Even with the addition of Green, the team still clearly lacked consistency. No one will dispute that. What changed in Arizona? They wanted to win, and sometimes they even did. Sometimes they won without any good reaso.
Four seasons of complete madness followed. There were times the Cardinals were clearly on the brink of greatness, only to be followed mere seconds later by incompetence and idiocy. What Denny Green couldn't get rid of were those nasty 4-12, 5-11, and 6-10 seasons. They just didn't go away.
The 2006 season in particular was the penultimate "shoulda, woulda, coulda" for the Cardinals. In Denny Green's final year, they posted a 5-11 record that, in defense of Green, reflected poorly the real talent of the team. The clear story of the team, of course, was their inability to finish and win close games.
Let's not forget what could have been. The Cardinals were two missed field goals and a fumble away from second in the division. And let us not forget the infamous Bears game, a microcosm of the spontaneous and psychotic changes in Cardinals fortune and performance.
2007 was almost a carbon copy of 2006, but with one clear difference: At the helm was Ken Whisenhunt, a man with a plan. This time, three missed game winning field goals literally meant the difference between the Cardinals making and missing the playoffs.
So along comes 2008. Boldin? On the brink of holding out, though he never really did. Did they solve their running-game issues? Nope, still Edge and this rookie Hightower. Any other new players? Sure, a few holes here and there that filled, but not really.
Who's the quarterback? After nabbing USC pretty boy Matt Leinart, it was thought that, for sure, Leinart is the future of the franchise (and he is). And Matt Leinart really wanted to lead this team (and he does).
So it's the logical choice to pick him over the old, worn out, fumbling and bumbling Kurt Warner, right?
Wrong. 2008 saw Warner beat out Leinart for the starting spot. It seemed inconceivable, almost illogical, that Warner would have the job. Probably another Jeff Blake kind of year.
Well, they didn't miss the playoffs in 2008. Let's dismiss the obvious counter-argument that no other team in the NFC West was competent enough to win besides the Cardinals. They went 6-0 against the division—including two strangely logical victories against the 49ers, a team that seems to elude their grasp year in and year out.
They were 6-2 at home and got to win the division at home, too. They did what they had to.
And not much more than that. Fourth seed firmly in hand, the Cardinals wandered aimlessly around in November and December, dropping a loss to the Giants before getting absolutely dominated later by Philadelphia, Minnesota, and New England.
It was these losses that made the Cardinals a permanent underdog in the playoffs. Rightfully so, being outscored by such margins as 40 will do just that. It made sense to the logical world that these Cardinals were a hapless fluke.
Certainly they were the Cardinals of every other year, but they were out-Cardinal-ed by the rest of their division. Surely they would be one-and-done.
What the press didn't know was that the Cardinals angrily realigned themselves with their purpose and determination after the Patriots game. A solid victory at Seattle was overlooked by some, but the game so clearly turned the Cards around and provided to them the momentum they needed.
And so came Wild-Card Weekend. They were underdogs to the Falcons. Yet they came out on top and the sports world was pleasantly surprised. But okay, it made some sense. And they only won by six.
But the Cardinals had no business winning in Carolina and were already an afterthought for the 2008-'09 playoffs. The numbers? Completely against them. Cardinals: 0-5 on the East Coast. Carolina? 8-0 at home this year, the only team to do it. Carolina had the obvious momentum. Carolina had the obvious advantage.
Five interceptions and a fumble later, the Cardinals took the game right out of Jake Delhomme's hands in a 33-13 victory, a victory so strangely decisive for a Cardinals team who seldom beat anybody (save for St. Louis and San Francisco) by any double-digit number.
It shocked the world in a manner that nearly won over the media. It made no sense, yet was so elegant and beautiful: The Cardinals playing for a Super Bowl.
The Arizona media called it for what it was: a chance to show the world that the Cardinals were ready to be a real football team and were ready to leave the past—Vince Tobin, Jeff Blake, Dennis Green, and the rest—behind them.
The rest of the nation saw it as such: "Aww, cute, the Cardinals are in the NFC Championship."
But surely the Cardinals couldn't mess up destiny, for destiny, thy name is Philly. (at least in 2008/2009!) The 9-6-1 Eagles had so much of it, what great stories could have resulted from McNabb's Renaissance. What's more, what would the sports world enjoy more than a second Philly sports championship. It made so much sense.
Yet the sense of it all seemed to be exactly their downfall on that fateful day.
If the Carolina game was a shock to the world, what happened Sunday in Glendale was akin to an asteroid colliding with a thermonuclear weapon during a magnitude 8.0 earthquake.
McNabb's unshakable talent and relentless attack faltered.
The Eagles defense was left in a smoldering heap almost exclusively by the torching hands and feet of Larry Fitzgerald.
The more-than-typically reliable David Akers missed a field goal and, get this, an extra point, too.
In the midst of the generally professional and conservative playcalling that occurs in the playoffs, the Cardinals pulled off a flea flicker.
And the 32-25 victory was sealed by the Cardinals stopping a horribly executed hook-and-ladder play (is there any other kind?) which exhibited both football's great excitement as well as its great idiocy and hilarity.
Cardinals radio put it nicely: "The Cardinals HAVE shocked the world! Tried and true, they're going to Super Bowl XLIII!"
Maybe they'll go hit up Raymond James Stadium and lay an egg against Whisenhunt's former team. Maybe the Cardinals will come back to earth and show the world how much of a fraud the media continues to claim them to be.
Or maybe we'll see the Cardinals confront the top defense of the past few years. Maybe it'll be as terribly unpredictable and maddeningly tense as the Eagles game was, and then some. And maybe the Cardinals, those 9-7, inconsistent, illogical, Cardinals, can pull it off.
Actually, the way the last five years have gone in Arizona, there doesn't seem to be any other possibly option.
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