No Longer Cheap, Arizona Cardinals Still Have Business to Take Care of

Chris CluffCorrespondent IIMay 11, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 18:  Owner Bill Bidwill of the Arizona Cardinals holds up the George S. Halas trophy after winning the NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles on January 18, 2009 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Eagles 32-25 to advance to the Super Bowl.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

For 30 years under Bill Bidwill, the Arizona Cardinals were viewed as one of the league's cheapest and worst run franchises. From St. Louis to Phoenix, Bidwill was known as "Dollar Bill" for his frugal management of the Cardinals, and...not coincidentally, the Cards were known as one of the league's longtime losers.

Only in recent years has that reputation changed, as Bill's son Michael has taken more of a leadership role and made the team more competitive using revenue from University of Phoenix Stadium, which opened in 2006 and reportedly brings in more than $200 million per year.

The seeming culture change culminated last season in the team's first Super Bowl appearance.

But in the wake of that franchise first, the Cardinals now face some of the same problems that many Super Bowl teams encounter—dealing with players whose perceived value has gone up based on the accomplishments of the team.

The future of the Arizona franchise depends on how the Cardinals handle their business during the next couple of months.

So far, they've had plenty of problems. The Cards flirted with losing quarterback Kurt Warner in free agency before finally signing him to a two-year deal worth $23 million.

They have yet to resolve the contract issue of Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin, who has been unhappy with his contract for more than a year because he makes $6 million less than fellow receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

On top of that problem, the Cardinals have not been able to get extensions with franchise linebacker Karlos Dansby or Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson, and now defensive tackle Darnell Dockett has asked for a trade because he's unhappy with the deal he signed in 2006.

At least the Cardinals finally released running back Edgerrin James.

Everyone knew they no longer wanted him, yet the Cards held him until they found insurance in the form of 2009 first-round draft pick Chris Wells from Ohio State.

Darren Urban, who has covered the Cardinals for most of this decade, explained the reasoning behind the James situation in an e-mail to

"They needed to make sure they took a back high in the draft before dumping [James]," wrote Urban, who now covers the Cardinals for "Last year everyone assumed they would take a back in the top two rounds."

But the Cardinals ended up not getting a back in 2008 until they drafted Tim Hightower in the fifth round.

"If it would have happened again, Edge may still be with this team," Urban wrote. "There was no reason to cut him, and there was a reason to keep him for a while."

James surely sees it differently, considering he was released after most teams had filled their rosters. But you can probably chalk it up as a savvy business move by the Cardinals.

That still leaves major issues with Boldin, Dansby, Wilson, and Dockett—four of the team's very best players.

In the past, there would have been no question about how the Cardinals would have handled these guys: The team simply wouldn't have dealt with them and would have let them go when their contracts expired, like Bill Bidwill did in 1998 with linebacker Jamir Miller, fullback Larry Centers, and tackle Lomas Brown.

But Michael Bidwill and general manager Rod Graves have built the core of this team for coach Ken Whisenhunt, and they have promised him they will try to keep it together.

"Michael has been a huge influence on how this team does business," Urban wrote. "His arrival meant a change in most of the things in the organization, to bring it mostly up to speed with the NFL's current ways of doing business."

The Cardinals still seem to have problems thinking outside of the box, however.

They are one of the only teams in the league that does not take advantage of a salary cap loophole that allows clubs to carry unused money into the next league year.

And they seem to have a problem planning ahead.

Fitzgerald's rookie deal was horrible for the team and is what created the issue with Boldin, and the Cardinals have been remiss in not getting extensions for Dansby and Wilson.

The Cardinals admitted last month that they would listen to trade offers for Boldin, who wants a better deal than the one he signed in 2005 that averages $4 million a year. Boldin has gone back and forth on whether he wants a new deal from Arizona or just wants to be traded.

The genesis of that problem was the mistake the Cardinals made in Fitzgerald's rookie deal, which contained unwieldy escalators that would have spiked his 2008 salary beyond $14 million.

To avoid that, the team was forced to guarantee him $30 million in a new four-year, $40 million deal in 2008.

And that's what set Boldin off.

Dansby is in his second year as the team's franchise player and is eating up $9.7 million of the salary cap, leaving Arizona with just $5.5 million to sign rookies and do anything else.

The Cardinals balked at giving Dansby an extension prior to 2007, because they weren't sold on him. But he has played well the past two years, and the team wants to keep him now.

The two sides reportedly were close to a deal in early April, but Dansby fired his agent, Kirk Wood.

Wood was thought to be asking for at least $22 million in guaranteed money, but Dansby might be thinking even bigger than that.

"There was an extension all but done when Dansby up and shocked everyone by firing his agent," Urban wrote. "He's never been to a Pro Bowl, but I think he wants serious money...and he sees dollar signs in next year's uncapped year."

Urban said Dansby might want to be one of the 10 highest-paid players in the league. His new agent, Todd France, is expected to start talking with the Cardinals on a long-term deal soon, but Urban isn't so sure Dansby wants to stay with the Cardinals.

Wilson might not stay, either, if the team doesn't re-sign him soon; he's headed into the final year of his contract, with a scheduled salary of $4.75 million.

"They have to get a deal done with this guy," Urban wrote, "and in my opinion they need to do it before camp. He has been the good and loyal soldier. He has earned new, big money. But again, cap space could be an issue."

The Cardinals typically have been one of the teams that spend as little as possible on players. But with $30 million promised to Fitzgerald, $15 million guaranteed to Warner over the next two years, and $9.7 million tied up in Dansby this year, the Cards can't be accused of being cheap anymore.

As Urban wrote, "The Cards have come a long way from where they were."

But they still have a long way to go if they are going to turn into a perennial Super Bowl contender.

As Michael Bidwill told the New York Times in January: "What we do going forward is really going to set the tone."

Check out for "From the Top," a weekly look at issues involving coaching, management and ownership of the NFL's 32 franchises.




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