The latest in a series of offseason posts looking back:
The Cardinals were sitting with the third overall pick in a draft heavy with quality quarterback options, so when the just-hired Dennis Green decided to cut incumbent veteran Jeff Blake in early February of 2004, it didn’t really raise any eyebrows (although it did lead to one of the greatest quotes I have ever collected, from Blake when talking about his career: “It’s not like I’ve played bad ball. I’ve just been on bad teams.”)
That changed quickly. So too did the future of the Cardinals.
Less than a week later, I happened to be at the Cards’ facility when Green was going to give what was expected to be an innocuous TV interview. No other reporters were there. Denny proceeded to say odds were “slim” the Cards would take a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft.
“Josh McCown, I think he is going to be a great one,” Green said. Wait … what? I was stunned.
(So were a couple of other print reporters, who worked around their absence by coming the next day in an attempt to get Denny to repeat himself. He wouldn’t – not as strongly. At one point one reporter said, “We’re trying to get you to say what you told Darren yesterday.” Denny’s response was classic Denny: “That was yesterday.”)
McCown’s résumé wasn’t long. He had made the miracle pass to beat the Vikings in the season finale of 2003. He had five touchdowns and six interceptions in a three-game starting stint, but with a new coach, it just seemed like the Cards would nab someone like Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger.
The new coach was Green, however. As became evident soon, his belief in Pitt wideout Larry Fitzgerald – with whom Green was also close personally – was strong enough to make Fitz the Cards’ target. Clearly, Fitz was talented, and Green’s thoughts on what Fitzgerald could be have definitely played out over the years. Yet quarterback is always important, and regardless of how talented Fitzgerald would be, was it worth passing on what was available? You have to wonder, did it color Green’s evaluation of McCown? Because the only way the Cards could really justify taking Fitz at the time was the knowledge McCown could play. Green never was big with the draft smokescreens. I remember at the Scouting combine in 2005 he all but announced he wanted J.J. Arrington. In 2004, it was obvious he wanted Fitzgerald.
Draft weekend was a memorable couple of days. Pat Tillman’s death came to light on Friday, the day before the draft, overshadowing football. Then, as expected, the weeks of Green talking up McCown was capped when the Cards took Fitzgerald. (Green also kept to his word about the first three rounds, taking non-QBs Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett in one heck of a first-day draft haul. John Navarre was the QB selected, in the seventh round.) McCown was the Cardinals’ guy.
I believe the Cards would have taken Roethlisberger if they had decided on a quarterback. How different would things have been for so many connected to the Cards? Big Ben and no Fitz in Arizona probably would have meant Anquan staying and Kurt never coming. Would the Steelers – with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt – won a Super Bowl after the 2005 season? Would Whiz still have ended up with the Cards?
In the long term, it worked out well for the Cards. Warner and Whisenhunt did come to the desert, a combination that led to a Super Bowl appearance. McCown – one of the greatest guys ever to come through the Cards’ locker room – didn’t work out. But without him, there was no way the Cards take Fitzgerald, a potential Hall of Famer.