- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

Perhaps the only NFL team more inept than Arizona during the first 13 seasons of the free agency era was Cincinnati.

The Bengals, however, turned it around by assembling a potent offense under coach Marvin Lewis and then winning the AFC North last season. The Cardinals finished 5-11 but may be the next league laughingstock to watch, on and off the field.

Arizona made the biggest free agent splash by signing perennial Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James to a four-year, $30 million contract and is moving into its own stadium after 18 years as a tenant at Sun Devil Stadium.

“We’re serious about winning,” said Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill, whose team last made the playoffs in 1998. “The new stadium allows us to do some things that we haven’t been able to do before.”

Season-ticket sales, which were already on the rise because of Cardinals Stadium and the dynamic receiver duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, have “gone into overdrive” since James signed March 12, according to Ron Minegar, Arizona’s vice president of marketing. Minegar said sales had topped 40,000, an attendance figure the Cardinals failed to reach in three of seven home games last year (the other was played in Mexico).

The Cardinals’ Web site crashed the day James signed because of traffic 10 times higher than the previous record, the day former safety Pat Tillman was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan in 2004.

The Arizona Republic editorialized, “The Cardinals have invested, hugely, in a player with the potential to alter the team’s moribund status quo. … For years, the Bidwill family has argued that to seriously compete, a serious stadium was necessary. With the signing of James, we now see a real consequence of all that concrete and steel in Glendale.”

On the cheap — The Bengals’ Mike Brown was one of just two owners to vote last week against the critical extension of the collective bargaining agreement with the players association that will give the NFL another six years of labor peace. And unlike Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson, Brown is no befuddled 87-year-old man.

“This is a very good deal for the players, it’s a good deal for the high-revenue clubs, [but] it’s a challenging deal for the low-revenue clubs,” explained Brown, who pays his key players well but never has been one to spend big bucks on free agents. “We didn’t feel it was in the best interest of our team financially. I would have preferred at this time no deal. … We have a contract for two more years when we made this deal. I would have wanted to bargain for a better deal in the future.”

And the ever-thrifty Brown wanted to head into 2007 without a salary cap and compete against Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones for talent? Please. There’s only so much Lewis that can achieve with an owner like that.

Winners and losers — It’s not hard to evaluate the winners and losers in free agency. The signing period is less than two weeks old but most of the top-tier talent already is off the market.

Winners: Besides Arizona, Cleveland (LeCharles Bentley, Joe Jurevicius, Willie McGinest); Washington (Antwaan Randle El, Andre Carter, Adam Archuleta); Tennessee (David Givens, Kevin Mawae, David Thornton); Minnesota (Steve Hutchinson, Ryan Longwell, Chester Taylor); and Carolina (Justin Hartwig, Damione Lewis, Maake Kemoeatu). Bentley could become just the Browns’ second Pro Bowl player since they were reborn in 1999.

Losers: Indianapolis (lost James, Thornton and Larry Triplett but signed Adam Vinatieri); San Diego (lost Drew Brees, Ben Leber); New England (lost Givens, McGinest, Vinatieri); and Cincinnati (basically stood pat). All but the Colts have money to spend and haven’t spent it.

Miami and Dallas also could be winners if their respective high-maintenance newcomers, Daunte Culpepper and Terrell Owens, behave. Philadelphia has made some questionable moves while its NFC East rivals have been aggressive. Chicago also has been too passive.

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