The latest in a series of offseason posts looking back:
When all that noise cropped up around the Cardinals in January of 2009 – the stuff about that team being the worst in playoff history, etc., etc., — I remember thinking, “This team is better than the last Cardinal playoff team.”
Turned out both squads ended up shocking the world. Back in 1998, it might have been an even bigger deal.
The Cards barely squeezed into the playoffs as a wild card (remember, the 2008 Cards clinched the division relatively early). Their first playoff game in years would come in Dallas, against the NFC East rival Cowboys – a team that had beaten the Cards 16 of the previous 17 meetings and who had crushed the Cards, 38-10, in Dallas to open the 1998 season. Forget Cris Collinsworth. The general feeling of the Cards was as a team lucky to be in the playoffs, and probable to fall to the Cowboys – a once-great team that was very ordinary by this time.
The numbers added fuel to the critics’ fire, especially the weakness of the Cards’ schedule (Arizona’s opponents had a .395 winning percentage). On the other side, there was a young team with so much future potential, like rookie defensive end Andre Wadsworth, who at that point was improving after his crazy debut in Dallas earlier in the year (Oh, what could have been). Jake Plummer was the quarterback who was definitely a winner. Cornerback Aeneas Williams was a Pro Bowler who was one of the few in the NFL who had proven he could handle star Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin.
The Cards, at that point, hadn’t won a playoff game since 1947 – the year they won the NFL championship. “My Dad wasn’t even born yet,” guard Chris Dishman said. They had history against them, and a still-potent Emmitt Smith (if you would have suggested then that Smith would eventually be a Cardinal …), but the Cards had played the Cowboys close at Sun Devil Stadium late in the year.
Foreshadowing? Not really. Not after the Cowboys scored 38 and 35 on the Cards in the two regular-season games, only to be shut down for seven points in the playoff game. The Cardinals stunned the Cowboys in a 20-7 win, and that Dallas touchdown came late, with the game all but decided. The cornerback tandem of Corey Chavous and Williams had three interceptions, and safety Tommy Bennett added one in the final seconds for emphasis. Wide receiver Frank Sanders hauled in a 59-yard Plummer pass to set up a score and running back Adrian Murrell broke off a 74-yard run to set up another.
That was all the Cards really needed, the way the defense performed. Slaying the Cowboys was about the present but it was also about unloading on the pre-game disrespect. It was about a fan base starving for success.
It was also short-lived.
The Cards turned their attention to the powerful Vikings for the following week, but that didn’t end well. In the offseason, the Cards lost key players like Larry Centers, Lomas Brown and Jamir Miller and never did battle again for a playoff spot until the magical season a decade later –with the 2008 team that supposedly had too many warts itself. That ride lasted a lot longer.
But for those moments in 1998, when it seemed like the Cards were never going to have any success, the Dallas domination was something to savor.
Tags: Adrian Murrell, Aeneas Williams, Andre Wadsworth, Chris Dishman, Corey Chavous, Cowboys, Cris Collinsworth, Emmitt Smith, Frank Sanders, Jake Plummer, Jamir Miller, Larry Centers, Lomas Brown, Michael Irvin, playoffs, Revisionist history, Tommy Bennett, Vikings
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The latest in a series of offseason posts looking back:
These were heady times for the Cardinals.
The team was far from dominant and weekly, the Cards were barely scraping by with wins to stay in the playoff hunt. But there they were in 1998, going into the season finale at home knowing a win over the Chargers would put them in the playoffs for the first time since the team moved to Arizona a decade earlier.
It was two days after Christmas. Quarterback Jake Plummer, all of 23 and in his second season, got his Christmas present early – a giant contract extension with a record-setting bonus of $15 million, setting up the former Arizona State star as the team’s long-term franchise QB. (In hindsight, Plummer wasn’t quite that guy and left as a free agent after the extension expired after the 2002 season.) Having Plummer around was the reason the Cardinals were able to make a one-sided trade with the Chargers for the rights to take the infamous Ryan Leaf – at the time, the trade got the Cards Andre Wadsworth in the 1998 draft and David Boston with the extra pick in the 1999 draft, and both looked like good ideas for a while.
But that was just back story for the real story: a chance to make the playoffs. And once again, it was harder than it probably should have been. Safety Kwamie Lassiter came up with a career game, making four interceptions of immortal San Diego quarterback Craig Whelihan. And in the end, kicker Chris Jacke (pictured above) booted a 52-yard field goal on the final play to win the game.
Getting there was heart-pounding. Somehow, the Cards let Whelihan – in the middle of a horrific day, thanks to Lassiter – throw a 30-yard TD pass with 16 second left to tie the game. But Eric Metcalf picked up a squib kick on the Arizona 10-yard line and ran it all the way to the San Diego 46 with seven seconds left. A quick Plummer-to-Frank Sanders 11-yard pass gave Jacke his shot with two second on the clock.
Jacke didn’t miss. The crowd – a rare Sun Devil Stadium sellout of 71,000-plus – went crazy, going after the goalposts. The Cards were in the playoffs, a crazy ride that continued when they won in Dallas (a “Revisionist History” for another day).
The fun didn’t last as long as it should have, after the Cards lost key players in the offseason and fell to 6-10 the next season (after starting 6-6). It took until 2008 and the Super Bowl run to get back to the postseason. But in 1998, it was fun while it lasted.
Tags: Andre Wadsworth, Chris Jacke, David Boston, Eric Metcalf, Frank Sanders, Jake Plummer, Kwamie Lassiter, Revisionist history, Ryan Leaf
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In 2002, the Cardinals signed tight end Freddie Jones as a free agent. He had a good start to his NFL career while in San Diego, and he was an upgrade at the position. Turns out he was necessary that season too, because starting receivers Frank Sanders and David Boston each suffered injuries (as did MarTay Jenkins and Bryan Gilmore, the No. 3 and 4 guys) and with green wideouts like Jason McAddley and Nate Poole forced to play, a tight end was incredibly important.
So, for the one and only time since the Cardinals moved to Arizona, a tight end – Jones – was the team’s leading pass catcher in a season. Jones had 44 receptions for 358 yards and one touchdown that season. Jones was even better the next season, with 55 receptions for 517 yards (that was Anquan Boldin’s rookie year, though, with 101 catches). And in 2004, Jones had 45 receptions for 426 yards.
By 2005, though, Jones was gone. And the Cards have been searching for a tight end since.
As of now, that hope rests with third-round pick Rob Housler out of Florida Atlantic, a speedy 6-foot-5 H-back type who should be able to stretch the field. His blocking needs work, something he admitted already, but it would help to have a quality receiving option in that spot.
Since Jones left, it’s been a lot about hope unfulfilled. The undrafted tandem of Eric Edwards and Troy Bienemann was the first attempt. Then Leonard Pope was drafted, and while he flashed a couple of times, it was clear after 2007 and coach Ken Whisenhunt’s first season he wouldn’t be the answer. Ben Patrick – whose contract is expiring — also flashed a few times as a seventh-rounder (especially with his TD catch in the Super Bowl) but he never has made a huge impact and never had more than 15 catches in a season.
Granted, in the Warner years, using three- and four-wideouts made more sense, especially when the wideouts had the talent that the Cardinals did. Whisenhunt made clear Housler could be split wide at times and create mismatches, however. And, as many fans have pointed out, when you are breaking in a younger quarterback, the safety valve of a quality tight end can help with the learning curve.
Housler will get a chance to show what he has, and there is a chance the Cards also look in free agency. Jim Dray should be back, and Stephen Spach could be too; Patrick may be more iffy depending on who else is signed. The Cards will have at least four tight ends in training camp.
We’ll see if any of them can, at the very least, echo Freddie Jones.
Tags: Anquan Boldin, Ben Patrick, Bryan Gilmore, David Boston, Eric Edwards, Frank Sanders, Freddie Jones, Jason McAddley, Jim Dray, Ken Whisenhunt, Leonard Pope, MarTay Jenkins, Nate Poole, Rob Housler, Stephen Spach, Troy Bienemann
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