A year ago, in the wake of their wild-card win over the Cowboys,
Arizona was one of those next great teams everyone was talking
about. But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation.
Funny things, actually, that led to a 6-10 season and now cloud
the future of the Cardinals, things such as:
--Big heads and busted knees. The franchise's defensive line of
the millennium--Andre Wadsworth and Simeon Rice at the ends, Eric
Swann and Mark Smith at the tackles--disintegrated. Wadsworth, the
draft's third pick in 1998, has seven sacks in 27 career games
and has had two knee surgeries, including one in July that could
force him to miss the first two weeks of this season. Rice is a
bona fide pass rusher, second in the league with 16 1/2 sacks last
year, but he was a contract holdout as opening day drew near.
Smith, who got a $705,000 raise in the off-season despite playing
only 3% of the Cardinals' defensive downs last year because of a
contract holdout and right-knee surgery, has been a consistent
money malcontent. Seven knee operations doomed Swann's career and
caused Arizona to release him in July; he'll try to revive a
flagging career in Carolina this fall.
--A bum thumb and crushed confidence. Quarterback Jake Plummer
sprained the thumb on his passing hand midway through the 1999
preseason and should have skipped five weeks. He sat two. "I
learned a big lesson," Plummer says. "If you're really hurt, you
hurt the team a lot more by playing than by sitting." A broken
right ring finger at midseason cost him five more games. The
worst quarterbacking numbers of any NFL starter--nine TDs, 24
interceptions--resulted, and Plummer spent this off-season going
back to school on his craft in film-room sessions with offensive
coordinator Marc Trestman. "Nobody's calling me the next Montana
anymore," Plummer says ruefully.
--Little relief from the draft. Recent No. 1 picks have more
often been disappointing than dominating. The Cardinals hit on
Rice in 1996, but there are no standouts yet from among the
other first-rounders since then: wideout David Boston, tackle
L.J. Shelton, Wadsworth and cornerback Tom Knight. This year's
top choice, running back Thomas Jones, looked quick and powerful
enough in training camp that the Cardinals have good reason to
think he'll turn out more like Ottis Anderson than Leeland
The smell of great expectations gone bad is why defensive
coordinator Dave McGinnis came to training camp in Flagstaff,
Ariz., this summer preaching results to his defense. "Don't talk
to me anymore about pedigree," he told his unit. "Show me
production. In the NFL, reality is not perception." He should
have been talking to the whole team.
Reality for the Cardinals in 2000 is that their young players,
led by Plummer, must play better. Working with Trestman over the
past few months, the 25-year-old quarterback learned a valuable
lesson: Don't try to be who you aren't. "Marc had me look at
every interception I threw," Plummer says. "And I learned from
some of those bonehead plays. Sometimes last year I was trying to
make Brett Favre throws--which I can't make anyway--with three
quarters of a thumb. It was about being young and wanting to be
great right away. This year I won't force things."
Plummer's job got a lot tougher when big-play wideout Rob Moore
was lost for the season after tearing his left ACL against the
Vikings in Arizona's third preseason game. Boston, a second-year
man whom coach Vince Tobin says "has the ability to be a star in
this league," becomes a starter.
Plummer and Boston aren't the only kids under pressure. Strong
play by offensive tackles Shelton, 24, and Anthony Clement, 24,
is vital in a division of strong pass rushers such as Bruce
Smith, Michael Strahan and Dan Wilkinson. Twenty-two-year-old
Jones needs to step in and justify the Cardinals' faith in him.
Second-rounders Johnny Rutledge, 23, and Raynoch Thompson, 22,
must contribute at outside linebacker.
Even with their defensive stars, the Cardinals were 30th in the
NFL against the rush last year. They need Smith, a solid run
stopper, to get focused and help fix that, because middle
linebacker Ronald McKinnon is too light, at 240 pounds, to plug
many holes. Arizona will find out right away how it stacks up on
the ground, opening against 253-pound rookie masher Ron Dayne of
the Giants in Week 1, followed by the relentless Emmitt Smith in
Week 2. Six-time Pro Bowl pick Aeneas Williams keys a physical
but unspectacular secondary.
This looks like a middle-of-the-pack team at best, the natives'
enthusiasm notwithstanding. "I'm excited," says G.M. Bob
Ferguson. "Nobody thought we'd do anything in 1998, and we ended
up winning a playoff game. Nobody thinks we'll do anything this
year, and we're better than we were then."
The guess here is they're not.
COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZITO/SPORTSCHROME HEAVY HITTERS Williams and Co. can flatten a receiver, but they don't strike fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS
Sept. 3 at N.Y. Giants
17 Open date
24 GREEN BAY
Oct. 1 at San Francisco
22 at Dallas
29 NEW ORLEANS
Nov. 5 WASHINGTON
12 at Minnesota
19 at Philadelphia
26 N.Y. GIANTS
Dec. 3 at Cincinnati
10 at Jacksonville
24 at Washington
1999 Record 6-10 (4th in NFC East)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 29/27/29; defense 30/10/22
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 28 (tie)
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .441
Games against playoff teams: 6
PLAYER TO WATCH
Arizona's third draft pick in 1998, Anthony Clement was plagued
with back trouble in his first two pro seasons and struggled
through 14 starts last year. But now the monstrous (6'7",
355-pound) right tackle from Southwestern Louisiana has a clean
bill of health. A strong drive-blocker, Clement may struggle
against quick, edge rushers. But his 36-inch reach--the longest
that Cardinals general manager Bob Ferguson has seen in 19 years
of scouting--will help. Clement will team with 1999 first-round
pick L.J. Shelton to form what Arizona hopes will be one of the
league's best young tackle tandems. Both are 24. Average weight:
348 pounds. Says Clement, "I would love to be a bookend with L.J.
for a long time to come."
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Vince Tobin
Fifth season with Cardinals (26-38 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Jake Plummer 89 381 att. 201 comp. 52.8% 2,111 yds.
9 TDs 24 int. 50.8 rtg.
RB Thomas Jones (R)43 334 att. 1,798 yds. 5.4 avg. 22 rec.
239 yds. 10.9 avg. 17 TDs
RB Michael Pittman 236 64 att. 289 yds. 4.5 avg. 16 rec.
196 yds. 12.3 avg. 2 TDs
FB Joel Makovicka 309 8 att. 7 yds. 0.9 avg. 10 rec.
70 yds. 7.0 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Frank Sanders 83 79 rec. 954 yds. 1 TD
WR David Boston 120 40 rec. 473 yds. 2 TDs
WR Andy McCullough 185 3 rec. 45 yds. 0 TDs
TE Terry Hardy 261 30 rec. 222 yds. 0 TDs
K Cary Blanchard 162 19/19 XPs 18/21 FGs 73 pts.
PR Mac Cody 293 32 ret. 11.7 avg. 0 TDs
KR Mario Bates 245 52 ret. 23.7 avg. 0 TDs
LT L.J. Shelton 6'6" 341 lbs. 9 games 7 starts
LG Matt Joyce 6'7" 313 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
C Mike Gruttadauria6'3" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Lester Holmes 6'4" 315 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
RT Anthony Clement 6'7" 355 lbs. 16 games 14 starts
LE Andre Wadsworth 25 tackles 2 sacks
LT Tony McCoy 3 tackles 0 sacks
RT Mark Smith 4 tackles 0 sacks
RE Simeon Rice 48 tackles 16 1/2 sacks
OLB Johnny Rutledge 6 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Ronald McKinnon 139 tackles 1 sack
OLB Rob Fredrickson 124 tackles 2 sacks
CB Aeneas Williams 54 tackles 2 int.
SS Pat Tillman 52 tackles 2 int.
FS Kwamie Lassiter 114 tackles 2 int.
CB Tom Knight 66 tackles 2 int.
P Scott Player 94 punts 42.0 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Cardinals
The Cardinals have been trying to solve their running back
problem forever, and they might have finally done it. Thomas
Jones is a hard runner, mature for a 22-year-old and someone who
should be able to run effectively in the NFL, inside and
outside. Michael Pittman is too injury-prone to keep the running
back job for long. The load will be on those two unless Jake
Plummer improves drastically from last year; he made some
terrible throws and terrible decisions. If [offensive
coordinator] Marc Trestman doesn't rein him in or if Plummer
doesn't get smart, the Cardinals could have another long
year.... On defense they just don't make enough plays up front.
All Simeon Rice wants to do is sack the quarterback, not be a
complete player. Andre Wadsworth, even if he's healthy, isn't
fast enough to be a good edge rusher, and he's too light to be a
complete defensive end. They won't miss Eric Swann one bit. He
hasn't been a player for three years. Tony McCoy's an upgrade
there. The Cardinals allowed 24 points a game last year, and I
don't see how they're any better. I don't know if they can stop