If you were to ask me, as a lifelong Arizona Cardinals fan, my most humiliating moment as a fan in the franchise's history, there would be plenty to choose from. You could pick the time that kicker Bill Gramatica injured himself celebrating a first-quarter field goal. The famous play in 1995 where the Cardinals defense allowed Steve Bono - Steve Bono - to run a naked bootleg 76 yards for a touchdown. (Apparently the playcall forced the Cardinals defense to evaporate.) The three years they played Tom Tupa, a punter, at quarterback. You of course couldn't go wrong with Dennis Green's infamous meltdown, the physical manifestation of what it was like to coach the Cardinals over the last 35 years.
But for my money, it was October 27, 2003. That was the date of a Monday Night Football game between the Miami Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers played at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. They played the game there because Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers' home, was being used as a relocation area for families displaced from their homes by rampant Southern California fires that year. (The wildfires that fall were among the worst in the area's history.) Because the game was rescheduled so quickly -- they didn't even get the end zone repainted in time -- the NFL had to give out tickets for free, many to Arizona State students when they got out of class that day. Thus, for nearly the first time since the Cardinals moved to Arizona in a 1988, the stadium was packed full.
And fans were so grateful to watch a football game that didn't involve the Cardinals. One sign captured the prevailing sentiment, for MNF broadcaster ABC: "ANYBODY BUT the CARDINALS." A national viewing audience watched the Cardinals embarrassed in a game they didn't even play; the team hadn't been in national television itself in nearly five years. The only time the country acknowledged the Arizona Cardinals existed, they did it solely to celebrate their absence.
Today, absurdly, the Arizona Cardinals - my Arizona Cardinals -- are on top of the football world. They grinded out another improbable victory Sundayy, 14-6 over the 7-3 Detroit Lions, raising their record to an NFL-best 9-1. They have done this despite a rash of injuries, first to their defense and most recently to quarterback Carson Palmer, who tore his ACL just a few days after signing a huge contract extension. (He was replaced by Drew Stanton, who before this season hadn't thrown a pass since 2010 and has still, at this point, played in 10 few games in his NFL career than Blaine Gabbert.) They have done this despite playing one of the most difficult schedules in football; five of those wins have come against potential playoff teams (San Diego, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas and Detroit). They have done this in the face of all available logic. It is the darndest thing you've ever seen.
Think about this in the context of Arizona Cardinals history. (Before you ask, by the way: I'm an Arizona Cardinals fan because I cheered for them when they were in St. Louis when I was a kid. They moved to Arizona when I was 12, but I still followed them, because how do you tell a 12-year-old to stop following the team he loves? I can't exactly feel betrayed by them leaving; after all, I don't live near St. Louis anymore either.) Since 1977 -- the last year of the Air Coryell era -- the Cardinals have reached this nine-win level, counting this season, exactly six times. (The Royals have had more winning seasons in that time.) As I wrote before the season for Kissing Suzy Kolber, the Cardinals have had, coming into 2014, exactly three above-average seasons since moving to Arizona. Last year's team was almost certainly the best regular-season Cardinals team in their desert tenure … and they didn't even make the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. Even their one Super Bowl run is (probably correctly) seen as a bizarre, surreal fluke, that one January in 2009 when we all had a collective hallucination.
And yet here they are. And it is worth pointing out that this franchise feels palpably different, even beyond just the winning, than the one giddily mocked by its own fans on national television 11 years ago. Those Arizona Cardinals were the joke of the NFL and the metro Phoenix area. Now, they're one of the grand success stories. Three main things made this happen.
First, team president Michael Bidwill took over for Bill, his notoriously stingy owner father. He was far more fan-focused -- not the highest bar to clear, but still -- and showed a passion for the on-field product that his old man never had. The second was the new stadium (which Bidwill helped stump for before taking over as team president the year after it opened). For all the jokes about the ridiculous name and the somewhat anatomically perverse design, University of Phoenix Stadium is a state-of-the-art facility that re-energized the entire fanbase, many of whom had understandably grown tired of sitting on metal bleachers in a college stadium through 110-degree heat. It's also holds the noise in there when the roof is closed: The 2009 NFC Championship Game win over Philadelphia remains the loudest sporting event I've ever attended.
But the guy making this season happen is coach Bruce Arians, a man who has become a cult hero in Arizona so quickly that a ton of fans dressed up as him for Halloween. Arians is a likable coach in the Joe Maddon vein, that rarity football coach who seems more like a normal human being than the eyes-bulging, sleep-deprived, 40-hours-a-day lunatic we've come to expect in the NFL. (Maybe it's the Kangol hats.) He has the comfort in his skin of an old coach who has seen it all and is finally enjoying his chance to shine; his "Next Man Up" mantra is indicative of a guy who doesn't get too worked up about anything. It makes him easy to cheer for, and to play for. In the Cardinals' 94-year history, harkening back to the APFA's Chicago Cardinals in 1920, only one coach has won 10 games more than once: Don Coryell, from 1974-76. Arians is one win away from become the second, in his second season on the job.
(One shouldn't short the contributions of Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, either. His blitz-happy scheme is incredibly fun to watch, and he's constantly dealing with the second-and-third string guys on his depth chart. The only reason I'm not going into greater detail on the awesomeness of Bowles is because he's almost certainly going to be a head coach next season, and I'm hoping if I downplay him, the rest of the NFL will forget to hire him.)
So here the Cardinals are, 9-1, three games up in the NFC West and two games ahead on Philadelphia, Dallas, Detroit and Green Bay (three of which they've already defeated) for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And I mean throughout the playoffs: Remember, the Super Bowl is at University of Phoenix Stadium this year. For decades, we've wondered if a team would ever end up hosting a Super Bowl. The Arizona Cardinals - the Arizona Cardinals - might be the one to do it.
There's so much left to go this season, and the Cardinals have an incredibly tough stretch the rest of the way. (They have two games left against Seattle, road games against division rivals San Francisco and St. Louis, and two games against division leaders Kansas City and Atlanta.) A lot of things can turn here. The franchise has given us fans little reason to have much confidence, ever. Every week, it looks like this is the one they're going to lose; this injury is gonna do them in, or this one. I find myself typing this through with crossed fingers and toes: It feels like the hammer is going to drop at any minute. It's not supposed to be like this.
Yet they just keep winning. It's the opposite of everything I've learned about being an Arizona Cardinals fan. It's terrifying and confusing and amazing. The Arizona Cardinals might be the best team in the NFL. We're through the looking glass here, people. It is the darndest thing you've ever seen.
Email me at email@example.com; follow me @williamfleitch; or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.