Kent Graham begins the season as the unquestioned quarterback
starter for the Cardinals, and he sums up this rather astounding
fact in blunt fashion: "This is it. My career."
It has taken Graham 11 years to get to this point. Eleven years
of heartache and frustration and broken promises, 11 years since
he was the tall, golden-haired cannon arm out of Wheaton, Ill.,
the most sought-after quarterback prospect in the country. Notre
Dame got him--then sat him on the bench for two years to watch
Tony Rice operate Lou Holtz's offense, which called for a
scrambling quarterback. At 6'5", 230 pounds, Graham didn't
Graham transferred to Ohio State, only to spend his junior year
with the Buckeyes behind Greg Frey before finally winning the
starting job as a senior. It didn't get any easier after the
Giants drafted him in the eighth round in 1992. For two years he
competed with Dave Brown for the job of Phil Simms's backup.
Then in 1994, with Simms retired, came the summer shoot-out,
winner to take the starting job. Though Graham held his own,
Brown was a first-round supplemental draft pick with $4.6
million of owner Wellington Mara's money tied up in him. Guess
who got the job?
"I was told that four exhibition games would decide it," Graham
says. "The decision was made after two."
In 1995 Graham backed up Scott Mitchell in Detroit. In March '96
he signed with Arizona to take over for a fading Dave Krieg.
Then in came Boomer Esiason, and it was back to the bench.
Graham replaced Esiason after three games last season, and the
Cardinals promptly won three of five. In a 31-28 victory over
the Rams, Graham threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns; later,
in a 31-21 loss to the Jets, he threw for 255 yards and three
scores. Graham seemed on his way to a permanent No. 1 job when
he tore a ligament in his left knee against the Giants on Nov.
3. Back came Esiason--only to be replaced again by Graham as the
Despite the topsy-turvy 1996 season, Vince Tobin and his staff
had seen enough of Graham to install him as the main man this
year. "We're going with him," Tobin says. "There's an awful lot
of upside there. Terrific firepower, and now he's picked up
touch to go with it. His problem is that he's only started 23
games since high school."
There's another problem: Jake Plummer. The whole state of
Arizona went delirious when, in the second round in 1997, the
Cardinals drafted Jake the Snake, the hero of Arizona State's
run at the national championship last year. For 11 years Graham
was on the underside, trying to move up. Now the challenge comes
from below. Graham is 28, the prime age for a quarterback. At
$650,000, he is one of the league's lowest-paid starting
signal-callers, but he's also in the last year of his contract.
"If I deliver, the big money will come," Graham says. "This is
it for me."
Why dwell at such length on the Cardinals' quarterback position?
Because this is a team that has spent the past six years trying
to fill the spot. A big showing by Graham--heaven knows he's
due--and the rest could fall neatly into place.
Rob Moore and Frank Sanders are big league receivers, fullback
Larry Centers is the NFL's most productive pass catcher out of
the backfield, LeShon Johnson and Leeland McElroy have shown
flashes running the ball. The offensive line? Fingers crossed
here. Could be better.
Tobin is a defensive coach at heart, and last year the Cards
climbed from 26th to 21st in the league despite an anemic pass
rush that produced only 28 sacks, 12 1/2 of them by rookie end
Simeon Rice. A healthy year by oft-injured Eric Swann, the
two-time All-Pro tackle, could address that deficiency.
The Cards' draft focused on the secondary. They spent their
first pick on Iowa cornerback Tom Knight, whose stock soared
just before the selection meetings. He'll go on the right side,
opposite All-Pro Aeneas Williams. Another corner, Ohio State's
Ty Howard, came in the third round, and he could be a steal.
He's a terrific cover guy whose only knock is his size.
"I've been 5'9 1/2" all my life," Howard says, which would have
made him the biggest newborn in history.
The ill-fated Buddy Ryan era, which ended in 1995, is a distant
memory in Phoenix. The feeling in the locker room is that Tobin
is doing things right. Kent Graham would certainly agree.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS Finally, nothing is barring Graham from following through on his potential. [Kent Graham in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 7-9 (fourth in NFC East)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 93.9 (25) 230.5 (6) 324.4 (13)
DEFENSE 116.4 (21) 218.7 (21) 335.1 (21)
Bad Run of Cards
The Cardinals have not won a playoff game since 1947--the year
the franchise, then in Chicago, last won the NFL championship.
In the four major North American professional team sports,
that's the longest current streak without a postseason victory.
Longest Current Streaks Without Winning a Postseason Game
League Team Date of last win Drought
NFL Arizona Cardinals Dec. 28, 1947 49 years
The Chicago Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 in the NFL title game.
Major Montreal Expos Oct. 16, 1981 15 years
The Expos beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National
League Championship Series.
NBA Washington Bullets May 4, 1988 9 years
The Bullets won Game 4 of an opening-round playoff series
against the Detroit Pistons.
NHL Carolina Hurricanes April 29, 1992 5 years
As the Hartford Whalers, the franchise won Game 6 of a
first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Arizona's offensive line needs help, and 6'5", 303-pound James
Dexter is ready to offer it--at guard, tackle, you name it.
"I'll be disappointed if he doesn't make a push at one of four
positions," says line coach Carl Mauck. Dexter, a 1996
fifth-rounder, has impressed in practice, just as he did last
year before a broken hand in September and a knee injury in his
first start, against Dallas, put a damper on his season. "I got
experience at guard in the Dallas game," he says. "I'll play
wherever they want me to."
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Vince Tobin
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Kent Graham 172[*] 274 att. 146 comp. 53.3%
1,624 yds. 12 TDs 7 int. 75.1 rtg.
RB LeShon Johnson 49[*] 141 att. 634 yds. 4.5 avg.
15 rec. 176 yds. 11.7 avg. 4 TDs
FB Larry Centers 31[*] 116 att 425 yds. 3.7 avg.
99 rec. 766 yds. 7.7 avg. 9 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Rob Moore 88[*] 58 rec. 1,016 yds. 4 TDs
WR Frank Sanders 167[*] 69 rec. 813 yds. 4 TDs
WR Anthony Edwards 248[*] 29 rec. 311 yds. 1 TD
TE Chris Gedney**[A] 346[*] 5 rec. 52 yds. 0 TDs
PK Kevin Butler 400[*] 17/19 XPs 14/17 FGs 59 pts.
KR Leeland McElroy 123[*] 54 ret. 21.3 avg. 0 TDs
PR Anthony Edwards 248[*] 5 ret. 9.2 avg. 0 TDs
LT Lomas Brown 6'4" 275 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Rob Selby 6'3" 286 lbs. 13 games 5 starts
C Mike Devlin 6'2" 300 lbs. 11 games 11 starts
RG Anthony Redmon 6'4" 308 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Joe Wolf 6'6" 296 lbs. 16 games 15 starts
LE Michael Bankston 79 tackles 1/2 sack
LT Eric Swann 81 tackles 5 sacks
RT Bernard Wilson 56 tackles 1 sack
RE Simeon Rice 52 tackles 12 1/2 sacks
OLB Jamir Miller 92 tackles 1 sack
MLB Eric Hill 131 tackles 0 int.
OLB Terry Irving 18 tackles 0 sacks
CB Aeneas Williams 77 tackles 6 int.
SS Matt Darby 88 tackles 0 int.
FS Brent Alexander 81 tackles 2 int.
CB Tom Knight(R)[A] 53 tackles 4 int.
P Jeff Feagles 76 punts 43.8 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)
** 1995 Statistics