This is the quarterback situation in the NFC East: One
established star, the Cowboys' Troy Aikman, is sitting on top of
the heap watching four young guns scrambling to replace him. The
Giants have Danny Kanell, in Philadelphia the man is Bobby
Hoying, Washington's guy is Gus Frerotte, and, finally, in
Arizona sits the youngest and arguably the best of the quartet,
Jake Plummer (page 70).
Certainly none of the young quarterbacks has had a greater
immediate effect on the fortunes of his team than Plummer. When
he showed during a solid rookie season in '97 that he was indeed
the man to lead the Cardinals attack, here's what the front
office was able to reap:
As a result of their 4-12 finish last season, the Cardinals
wound up with the second selection in the draft. To most
everyone Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were the most prized
prospects, but Arizona wasn't in the market for a quarterback.
The Chargers, who had the No. 3 pick, were, and by trading down
one spot, the Cardinals were still able to draft Florida State
defensive end Andre Wadsworth, the guy they wanted all along.
The cost of moving up one spot didn't come cheaply for San Diego.
With the second-round pick that the Chargers also gave up as
part of the deal, Arizona took Vanderbilt's Corey Chavous, who's
in a battle for the starting strong safety position. San Diego
also threw in Eric Metcalf, who will return punts and kicks and
line up as a third receiver; linebacker Patrick Sapp; and its
No. 1 pick in '99, which could very well be a top five selection.
So while utility lineman Joe Wolf, the longest-tenured Cardinal,
says Plummer is "the best I've seen in my 10 years here," vice
president of player personnel Bob Ferguson has plenty of other
reasons to smile at the mere mention of his quarterback's name.
The magic that Jake the Snake has exhibited on the field,
coupled with projections of what Wadsworth will mean to the
defense, already has some people assigning Arizona a playoff
spot, but let's wait a minute. Wadsworth, a holdout at press
time, will line up next to Eric Swann on the left side, but the
rookie hasn't helped himself with all the camp time he has
missed. Nevertheless, Wadsworth is a big-time sack artist, and
when he gets his legs under him, the left side should be able to
bring serious heat. The key is Swann, who has been flirting with
All-Pro status for the last four years. But he has been nagged
by injuries, and despite Pro Bowl appearances in '95 and '96,
hasn't been the dominant force he was expected to be.
Maybe the trio of youngsters who will start up front will give
Swann a lift. Right end Simeon Rice, who in his first two
seasons had 17 1/2 sacks, is already a proven pass rusher. Right
tackle Mark Smith, a seventh-round draft choice from Auburn last
year, came out of nowhere to register six sacks, second on the
team behind Swann's 7 1/2.
So much for the pass rush. The problem is the run defense, which
was 27th in the league last year. The NFC East has always been a
rushing division, and if you can't stop the run, you're in
trouble. Behind the Arizona front four is an adequate but hardly
spectacular supporting cast, keyed by one star, left cornerback
Aeneas Williams, a Pro Bowl selection in each of the last four
seasons. Keep an eye on outside linebacker Tony McCombs, a '97
sixth-round draft choice out of Eastern Kentucky who has been
impressive in camp.
Plummer aside, there are even more problems on offense. Last
season the Cardinals gave up 78 sacks, the second most in league
history. Plummer, who went down 52 times, was partly at fault.
Sometimes he scrambled into trouble, sometimes out of it. But
the line was not without blame. After all, this is a team that
averaged an NFL-low 78 yards on the ground. Players have been
shuffled, but the only new face among the starters is right
guard Lester Holmes, who started 15 games for the Raiders last
Adrian Murrell, acquired in a trade with the Jets, will be the
featured runner, but he sagged during the latter part of '97,
and there's no indication that he'll get any better blocking in
Arizona than he did in New York. To underscore that point, did
you see Leeland McElroy, Arizona's leading ballcarrier a year
ago, against the Steelers in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 1?
The Cardinals released McElroy in June, the Bucs picked him up,
and all he did was rock Pittsburgh for 72 yards on nine carries,
including a 25-yard touchdown run. There has to be a serious
offensive-line fix before we award the Cardinals a playoff spot.
But ticket sales are up, the excitement level is high, and what
the heck, Jake the Snake will figure out something. If only it
were that easy. --P.Z.
COLOR PHOTO: RICH KANE/SPORTSCHROME STAR POWER Swann has had his moments in seven seasons, but he needs to fulfill his promise for the Cardinals to do likewise. [Eric Swann in game]
B/W PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS Centers [Larry Centers]
Sept. 6 at Dallas
13 at Seattle
27 at St. Louis
Oct. 4 OAKLAND
18 at N.Y. Giants
25 OPEN DATE
Nov. 1 at Detroit
22 at Washington
29 at Kansas City
Dec. 6 N.Y. GIANTS
13 at Philadelphia
20 NEW ORLEANS
27 SAN DIEGO
1997 Record 4-12 (5th in NFC East) NFL rank
(rush/pass/total): offense 30/10/24; defense 27/15/27
1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 30 Opponents' 1997 winning
percentage: .453 Games against playoff teams: 4
Cardinals linebacker Jamir Miller left UCLA after his junior
year and entered the NFL in 1994 at age 20. He played 58 games
in his first four pro seasons and is now within striking
distance of the league record for most games played before age
25. Miller, who turns 25 on Nov. 19, can pass former Bear Alonzo
Spellman by playing in each of the Cardinals' first 10 games
this year; Arizona's 11th game is on Nov. 22.
Rookie Pre-25 Post-25
Position year Team(s) games games
Alonzo Spellman* DE 1992 Bears 67 19
Amp Lee* RB 1992 49ers, Vikings 65 27
Bob Whitfield* OT 1992 Falcons 65 26
Tim Bowens* DT 1994 Dolphins 64 0
Jean Fugett TE 1972 Cowboys, Redskins 64 39
Courtney Hall C 1989 Chargers 64 54
Derrick Ramsey TE 1978 Raiders 64 58
Tony Tolbert* DE 1989 Cowboys 64 80
Ernie Wright OT 1960 Chargers, Bengals 64 110
*Active at end of 1997 season Bowens turned 25 on Feb. 7, 1998
Fullback Larry Centers had only 54 receptions last season
compared with his 101 and 99 in '95 and '96, respectively.
Centers's productivity should pick back up under new offensive
coordinator Marc Trestman, who is installing the West Coast
offense. "No doubt about it," Centers says. "This offense is
like stealing."... Fourth-year wideout Frank Sanders led the
league in turning third-down catches into first downs, with 31
such grabs. His 196 career catches are the most by a Cardinal in
his first three seasons.... Nine times in '97 an Arizona game
was decided in the final minute or in overtime. The Cardinals
went 3-6 in those games.
Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics
Coach: Vince Tobin
Third season with Cardinals (11-21 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Jake Plummer 27[PVR*] 296 att. 157 comp. 53.0%
2,203 yds. 15 TDs 15 int. 73.1 rtg.
RB Adrian Murrell[N] 67[PVR*] 300 att. 1,086 yds. 3.6
avg. 27 rec. 106 yds. 3.9 avg. 7 TDs
FB Larry Centers 126[PVR*] 101 att. 276 yds. 2.7
avg. 54 rec. 409 yds. 7.6 avg. 2 TDs
RB Mario Bates[N] 233[PVR*] 119 att. 440 yds. 3.7 avg.
5 rec. 42 yds. 8.4 avg. 4 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Rob Moore 48[PVR*] 97 rec. 1,584 yds. 8 TDs
WR Frank Sanders 102[PVR*] 75 rec. 1,017 yds. 4 TDs
WR Eric Metcalf[N] 85[PVR*] 40 rec. 576 yds. 2 TDs
TE Chris Gedney 194[PVR*] 23 rec. 261 yds. 4 TDs
K Joe Nedney 200[PVR*]19/19 XPs 11/17 FGs 52 pts.
PR Eric Metcalf[N] 85[PVR*] 45 ret. 10.9 avg. 3 TDs
KR Eric Metcalf[N] 85[PVR*] 16 ret. 22.2 avg. 0 TDs
LT Lomas Brown 6'4" 290 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
LG Chris Dishman 6'3" 320 lbs. 8 games 0 starts
C Aaron Graham 6'4" 293 lbs. 16 games 4 starts
RG Lester Holmes[N] 6'4" 315 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RT James Dexter 6'7" 319 lbs. 10 games 9 starts
LE Andre Wadsworth[N](R) 57 tackles 16 sacks
LT Eric Swann 68 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
RT Mark Smith 38 tackles 6 sacks
RE Simeon Rice 47 tackles 5 sacks
OLB Jamir Miller 91 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
MLB Ronald McKinnon 97 tackles 3 int.
OLB Terry Irving 42 tackles 0 sacks
CB Aeneas Williams 63 tackles 6 int.
SS Corey Chavous[N](R) 38 tackles 4 int.
FS Kwamie Lassiter 39 tackles 1 int.
CB Tom Knight 47 tackles 0 int.
P Marcus Williams[N](R) 68 punts 43.6 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)