The latest in a series of offseason posts looking back:
It is Fourth of July weekend, so – while I know everyone knows the Pat Tillman story – I thought I’d take a look back at a thin sliver of the Tillman timeline on this most patriotic of holidays: When Tillman shocked the world and joined the Army.
That offseason began like any other. The Cardinals were coming off a 7-9 season, with some hope going forward after Dave McGinnis’ first full season as head coach. The secondary was in flux though – cornerback Duane Starks was a top free-agent target, others were leaving and at strong safety, soon-to-be second-year man Adrian Wilson was being groomed for the starting role over Tillman.
That didn’t mean the Cards didn’t want Tillman, a free agent. They very much wanted him back, and put an offer (later learned to be three years and worth about $3.6 million) on the table. Yet Tillman didn’t sign it. He wasn’t at the mandatory minicamp right after the draft in early May, but no one (including me) thought much about it because Tillman was getting married. In hindsight, it did seem strange a guy like Tillman would plan a wedding the one weekend off the offseason he had to be with the team, but again, McGinnis didn’t blink an eye at what Tillman – a guy you wanted on your roster – chose to do. Besides, since he hadn’t yet signed a contract, it technically wasn’t mandatory for him anyway.
At one point, it felt like Tillman was hoping to generate free-agent interest but again, looking back that seems silly. Tillman was the last guy interested in developing leverage in a contract spot. Something was up, however. It was impossible not to get that sense, even though no one was saying anything – and at that point, I don’t think anyone really knew.
Your mind starts to race, however. I remember thinking, as a reporter, that maybe Tillman was ill. Maybe he couldn’t play football and everyone was trying to keep it under wraps, because why else would he have not signed a contract by that time?
On May 23, 2002, then-PR director Paul Jensen asked three media members – myself, Kent Somers and Mike Jurecki – to come meet with McGinnis about something. We went into a back room, and at that point, all kinds of things are going through your head.
McGinnis didn’t wait long. “Pat Tillman has decided to join the Army.” And he let it sit there in the air, and I was so shocked my jaw dropped open (I remember because McGinnis good-naturedly reminded me to close it). I thought it was a joke at first but it was most certainly not. With Tillman, it oddly fit. So too did the way the info was disseminated; Tillman had told McGinnis earlier and when McGinnis asked Tillman how he was going to tell the world, Tillman told him, “I’m not going to. You are.”
(The Cards knew for a while Tillman likely wouldn’t be back with them in 2002, even before the draft. They just didn’t know why.)
A few days later, I remember seeing Tillman stopped by the Cards’ offices. He was cordial but he wasn’t going to talk, on or off the record. That was the last time I saw him.
People tried to guess why he did what he did. They called him a hero before he had even made it into Army Rangers school, which of course, he eventually conquered – like all the things he conquered in his life. And afterward, it was hard not to remember the things he had said the day after the 9/11 attacks, including how much the American flag meant to him.
“In times like this, you realize how good we have it, what kind of system we live under, what kind of freedoms we’re allowed, and that wasn’t built overnight,” Tillman said. “The flag is a symbol of all that. … Many in my family have gone and fought in wars, and I haven’t done a damn thing.”
Tags: Adrian Wilson, Dave McGinnis, Duane Starks, Pat Tillman
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So I was looking over this ESPN.com article by Football Outsiders about the top 10 most disappointing NFL free agents of the past 25 years and it got me thinking about the Cardinals (although no, there are no Cards on the list). My first full free-agent offseason came in 2001, when the Cards — up against the salary cap — chose to sign Seattle guard Pete Kendall as their one big purchase, to team with center Mike Gruttadauria from the year before and first-rounder Leonard Davis to build the “Big Red Line.” Kendall, as always, was blunt; when he came in for his press conference and was asked, why the Cardinals, he said, “Because they paid me the most money.”
That’s usually how it goes.
The bottom line is that, occasionally, help comes via free agency. More often than not, you acquire the best players through the draft because, aside from a player here or there, there is a reason a team lets a player go. Usually it’s because they don’t see him being worth the money he commands on the open market. (Karlos Dansby? Maybe he was. Antrel Rolle? Probably not.) I would argue that, if you charted all the “bigger-name” free-agent signings in the NFL over the years, there would be more that underperformed to expectations rather than met them.
Anyway, you look back through the years and think about the “key” free agents the Cards signed. How many provided the impact that people thought they would provide the day they signed?
- 2002 – CB Duane Starks, TE Freddie Jones
- 2003 – QB Jeff Blake, RB Emmitt Smith, S Dexter Jackson
- 2004 – DE Bertrand Berry (now this one was a real winner, even with Bertrand’s later injuries)
- 2005 – DE Chike Okeafor, QB Kurt Warner (OK, that one turned out pretty well)
- 2006 – RB Edgerrin James (Edge was actually pretty effective, but certainly not the star his contract said he should be)
- 2007 – T Mike Gandy, C Al Johnson, CB Rod Hood (The Cards decide not to get FA “stars” under Whiz, just pieces to the puzzle).
- 2008 – DE Travis LaBoy, NT Bryan Robinson
- 2009 – CB Bryant McFadden
- 2010 – QB Derek Anderson, LB Joey Porter, LB Paris Lenon, K Jay Feely
Certainly a mixed bag over the years. The biggest disappointment? No, I’m not going with Anderson — remember, he was signed to be Matt Leinart’s backup, so how much disappointment can there be? (Careful now …) I think I’d probably go with Duane Starks, who parlayed his spot in that great Ravens defense into the idea he could be a shutdown corner, which he wasn’t, especially on a team that sometimes used Fred Wakefield as the right defensive end (Fred was a great guy but didn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of quarterbacks). Realistically, Emmitt probably provided what everyone expected and so did Edgerrin, especially since he never seemed to fit Whisenhunt’s style (and was clearly at the end, which was proven out after the Cards let him go).
Berry, by far, was the best signing, based on his 2004 season alone. I would have loved to see what sack numbers he would have had if he hadn’t gotten hurt every year after that. UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Some of you want to know how I could ever pick Berry over Warner. The simple fact is that Berry, as a free-agent signee, impacted imemdiately. Warner’s time in Arizona didn’t come across that well until after a change in coaches. That was Warner’s third season as a Card by then. Am I splitting hairs? Maybe. But in the context of this discussion, it’s difficult to argue that, as a free agent coming in, Berry didn’t produce better than Warner.
Tags: Matt Leinart, Edgerrin James, Travis LaBoy, Kurt Warner, Mike Gandy, Bryan Robinson, Chike Okeafor, Bertrand Berry, Bryant McFadden, Freddie Jones, Emmitt Smith, free agency, Joey Porter, Derek Anderson, Paris Lenon, Jay Feely, Leonard Davis, Jeff Blake, Pete Kendall, Mike Gruttadauria, Duane Starks, Dexter Jackson, Al Johnson, Rod Hood, Fred Wakefield
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