- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Saturday was a good day for the Arizona Cardinals alumni, a fraternity bonded by futility, a club whose members’ main qualification is the ability to endure.

Washington Redskins running backs coach Stump Mitchell played for the Cardinals from 1981 to 1989.

“Tremendous,” Mitchell said of his old team’s wild-card playoff victory against Atlanta. “I’ll always be a Cardinal at heart. I’m definitely happy they won.”

Former fullback Larry Centers said he found himself “quietly” pulling for Arizona even though he left the Cardinals on a sour note when he joined the Redskins as a free agent in 1999.

“I’ve got a special place for them because that’s where I started and spent a long time there,” he said. “I buried the hatchet a long time ago.”

It was the first time the franchise, known for its varied and interesting ways to define failure, hosted a playoff game since winning the NFL championship in 1947 as the Chicago Cardinals. It also was the first postseason win in a decade, unexpected by many given a late-season swoon after clinching the NFC West.

Lurking, too, was the Cardinals’ sad, sordid history in Arizona, neatly marked by 10-year increments. They moved from St. Louis in 1988 and had their first winning season in the desert in 1998 and second in 2008. Losses filled the years in between.

“Just to keep it simple, there was a tradition of losing,” said Centers, who played for the Cardinals from 1990 to 1998. “Losing can be a tradition just like winning. When you get that certain level of negativity in the locker room, it takes a major change. I don’t think the Cardinals did a good job to quiet the negativity in the locker room.”

The Cardinals went 7-4 to start their first year in Arizona. It was just a tease. Pro Bowl quarterback Neil Lomax hurt his knee, and that, along with a degenerative hip condition, ended his career. The Cardinals lost their five remaining games, a clear point of departure. From 1989 to 1994, the Cardinals went 33-63. Even making the playoffs and beating Dallas in 1998 led to nothing. The team went 49-95 from 1999 to 2007.

Playing at Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium, a bare-bones facility, the Cardinals’ honeymoon quickly soured. During their first 10 seasons, they used 15 different starting quarterbacks. Coaches came and went. Owner Bill Bidwill, who maintained one of the lowest payrolls in the league, fought with politicians over a new stadium (it was built in 2007).

At one point Bidwill sent an emissary to Los Angeles to discuss the team moving yet again.

“The team was basically pinching pennies then, which put a bad taste in everybody’s mouths,” said Centers, who claims that players had to pay for T-shirts and gloves. “It seemed like we were never able to break through, and it becomes frustrating over time. That attitude was kind of passed down from generation to generation.”

The draft produced spotty results. Players like Emmitt Smith were brought in at wrong times, while guys like Ottis Anderson, Tim McDonald and Aeneas Williams left.

“There were a lot of guys who were Cardinals who ended up playing in Pro Bowls and Super Bowls with other teams,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s NFL career ended early in the 1989 season when he was tackled by New York Giants linebacker Carl Banks and blew out a knee. Mitchell, who remains No. 1 in combined yardage in Cardinals’ history, said it happened because fullback Earl Ferrell missed a blocking assignment, a frequent occurrence during the game. It might have been a coincidence, but Mitchell said Ferrell was out partying the night before with Lawrence Taylor, the legendary Giants linebacker whose drug history has been well-chronicled.

“To a lot of my teammates, football wasn’t the most important thing,” Mitchell said. “If you go back and take a look at the record, see how many got busted for one thing or another.”

An inordinately high number of Mitchell’s teammates were frequent drug users. Under the league’s substance-abuse policy, Ferrell received a lifetime ban, and Freddie Joe Lynn was suspended for 30 days. Luis Sharpe dealt with drug problems in the 1990s and spent time in prison after a 2002 drug conviction.

The problems with drugs didn’t start in Arizona. Jim Hanifan, who coached the team from 1980 to 1985 in St. Louis, wrote in his book, “Beyond Xs & Os: My Thirty Years in the NFL,” about the troubles of the 1985 team, which collapsed after a 3-1 start to finish 5-11.

“Early in the season our drug problem really began to escalate,” Hanifan wrote. “By the third game, at the New York Giants, one player was all messed up and didn’t play. When we got back to St. Louis, I went in and told the team management, ‘Here’s the deal. I’m cutting him. He’s out of here, and here’s the reason.’ At that point in the season, I believe nearly one-third of our team, about 15 guys, were on drugs. I honestly believed that if we cut this one guy, it might send a message to the other guys that we were serious about cleaning up this problem and we could possibly keep those others under control.

“Bidwill didn’t want to cut him. Even then he was thinking seriously about moving the Cardinals to another city, and our image around the country was that we were a good, young, exciting team. He was worried that if it got out that this team had a big drug problem, some of those cities that were interested in the Cardinals all of a sudden would not have been so interested. The young man stayed, and our drug problems got worse.”

The painfully shy Bidwill, whose family has owned the team since 1932, has had many critics (and some defenders). He has been the one constant, presiding over everything from hiring to personnel decisions to money matters.

Little seemed to work. Even the drafting of quarterback Jake Plummer, the local college hero, failed to pan out. But stability has seemed to exist under Bidwill’s son, Michael, now team president; general manager Rod Graves; and coach Ken Whisenhunt.

But even that stability hasn’t kept the Cardinals from being perceived as perpetual underdogs. The players appear to enjoy that.

“If you listened to all the media, we didn’t have a chance [against Atlanta],” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said Saturday. “They didn’t give us a chance in no category. … We had a serious chip on our shoulder because of talk like that, and look what we did out there today.”

Look, indeed. The defense held up as veteran quarterback Kurt Warner outperformed rookie flash Matt Ryan, and running back Edgerrin James, grouchy over his limited duties, had his best game since early in the year.

“A lot of people coming into this game said that we were the worst playoff team ever to get in, and no one ever gave us a chance,” Whisenhunt said. “I think we rallied around that. I think we played well.”

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