Friday, January 30, 2009

Super Sunday: A Long Time Coming for the Cardinals

I love it when two small market teams play one another for the world championship in any of the four major sports but particularly for football or baseball. Even though the networks always bemoan small market match-ups they usually provide first rate competition in terms of pure athletic performance.

Even though there seems to be less hype for this Sunday’s Super Bowl game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals than there was for last year’s match-up between the unbeaten New England Patriots and the New York Giants, Super Bowl XLIII should be a well-fought game between two enduring NFL franchises.

The Steelers have had their fair share of Super Bowl triumphs (indeed their last Super Bowl appearance and victory was in 2006) but for the Arizona Cardinals this marks their first ever Super Bowl appearance.

It’s been a long, strange trip for the Cardinals. The last time they ever appeared in an NFL championship game was in 1948 (where they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles ironically enough the same team they beat two weeks ago to get to the Super Bowl). The last time the Cardinals ever won an NFL championship was in 1947 against the very same Philadelphia Eagles—and that was when they were the Chicago Cardinals.

The Cardinals franchise (like the Green Bay Packers) pre-dates the NFL itself. Until 1960 (when they moved to St. Louis) they shared the Windy City with their East Side rivals the Chicago Bears, playing in Comiskey Park while the Bears played in Wrigley Field. They won their first NFL championship in 1925 under slightly dubious circumstances. They were awarded the NFL title because another team the Pottsville Maroons (that’s right football fans Pottsville, Pennsylvania had an NFL franchise) violated league rules by playing an unauthorized exhibition game and were stripped of the NFL title. The Cardinals were granted the title instead.

Until 1947 the Cardinals were eclipsed by the Bears, usually playing at a mediocre level. During World War Two the Cardinals had to endure a temporary merger with the Pittsburgh Steelers ironically enough just to survive for one season (they were called the Chicago-Pittsburgh Carpets and they were treated like carpets—losing all their games in 1944).

The Cardinals experienced an all-to-brief revival when they won the 1947 NFL title with the Dream backfield of Paul Christman, Charley Trippi, Elmer Angsman, and Pat Harder. Sadly for the Cardinals though they reverted to their mediocre status and never made it to an NFL Championship game until now.

Despite all these slings and arrows the Cardinals always had some great football players who rose above the mess left by their teammates. NFL legends like Ernie Nevers, Ollie Matson, Larry Wilson, and Dan Dierdorf played for the Cardinals. Top-flight players like Jim Hart, Jackie Smith, Charley Johnson, and Jim Bakken earned their wings for the Cardinals too.

But even moving to St. Louis wasn’t good enough so the Cardinals moved to Phoenix and swiftly became the dumping ground and the cheapest franchise in the NFL.

The fact that the Cardinals have made it to the Super Bowl seems impossible to believe but there they are and it feels wonderful to see such an incongruity in professional football.

Emotionally I want the Cardinals just to end their role as the NFL franchise with the longest championship drought (after the Cardinals are the hapless Detroit Lions who haven’t won since 1957). Pittsburgh has already won their Super Bowl three years ago. I also want the Cardinals to win for the uniquely historical fact that Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner will attempt to become the first NFL quarterback to lead two different teams to Super Bowl victories. Warner won Super Bowl XXXIV for the Rams. Now he will try to win for the Cardinals. The only other NFL quarterback I know who led two different teams to Super Bowl appearances was Craig Morton who led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl V appearance and the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl XII appearance losing both in the process.

If the Cardinals win on Sunday then it will be a well deserved return to glory for Kurt Warner whose NFL career has been a roller-coaster ride from obscurity to glory back to obscurity before returning to glory again. Warner is living proof of the Roman poet Virgil’s phrase, “adversity has a way of eliciting talents which otherwise would have lain dormant.”

It’s going to be a fun game.

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