During the "Sunday Night Football" broadcast of the Arizona Cardinals' wild, breakthrough 39-32 road win over the Seattle Seahawks, television analyst Cris Collinsworth paused for a moment to reflect on what he was seeing. "When you've thought about the Arizona Cardinals over the years, you can describe it in one word: Futility."
You're telling me, pal.
In my 30-or-so years of being a fan of the Arizona Cardinals, there have been three periods of success. I don't mean periods of sustained success; there has been no sustained success. I mean one-or-two-year stretches where it has been not been actively embarrassing to cheer for the St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals. The Air Coryell years of the mid-1970s were before my time, and as much fun as the Neil Lomax/Stump Mitchell/Roy Green/Pat Tilley years -- and as formative as they were in my own fandom -- none of those teams ever won a playoff game, and they only played in one. No, in my lifetime there has been:
• The 1998 team, led by Jake Plummer, which beat a finally-too-old-to-keep-going Cowboys team in the NFC wild-card game for the franchise's first postseason victory since 1947. The Randy Moss Vikings wiped out the Cardinals in the next round, and all told, more people remember the Chris Jacke field goal that put them in the playoffs in the first place.
• The Super Bowl team, the one that came this close to beating the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, led by Kurt Warner and an otherworldly Larry Fitzgerald. This team came out of nowhere and was ultimately a flash in the pan created by the brilliance of those two players over a month-long period. The minute Warner retired, this team imploded. In retrospect, it's insane that Ken Whisenhunt ever coached in a Super Bowl.
• And now this team.
The Cardinals have had the fascinating distinction of being, over their history, generally unpopular in their geographic area regardless of where that geographic area might happen to be. In Chicago, they were the second-most-popular Chicago team. In St. Louis, they were the second-most-popular-team-with-the-name-St.-Louis-Cardinals. (And always seemed to have one foot out the door anyway, which appears to be a permanent condition for St. Louis football teams.) And when they moved to Arizona, they played in a college team's stadium, with scalding hot bleachers and no ambiance, that essentially served as a weekly invitation for opposing team's fans to come in and take over the place. (My friends who regularly attended games at the time mostly remember the games as a way to watch fights in the stands.) When I was a kid, I couldn't even buy Cardinals merchandise. Most of the catalogs -- and you needed catalogs to buy things back then -- would sell every team's but the Cardinals'. Who wanted to buy their stuff? The history of the Cardinals franchise has been one of indifference -- from outside and from within. Losing consistently for nearly 100 years will do that.
So I say, hesitantly, and knowing that it's all going to come crumbling down now that I've voiced it out loud: This is the best it has ever been for Cardinals football.
Everything is working out for the Cardinals. They have a new stadium that is honestly one of the loudest sporting venues I've ever attended. (The 2009 NFC Championship Game, I'm convinced, is the reason I'm constantly asking people to repeat things.) They have a fan base that has mobilized, in large part because it is less transient than it used to be; those Cowboys, Bears and Steelers fans who moved to the desert had kids, and they're all Cardinals fans. They have an owner and team president -- Michael Bidwill, Bill's son -- who is actually invested, monetarily and emotionally, in the team and is not trying to actively sabotage it. (There are limits to this: He is still a Bidwill.) And, perhaps most of all, they have a coach who flies in the face of everything football coaches are supposed to be.
Last week, Chris Johnson, having a resurgent year with the Cardinals after being left for dead by most of the league, was asked what was different about this year, this team. He said it was coach Bruce Arians. When Johnson signed, Arians took him into his office and said, "What plays do you like to run?" Johnson said it was the first time a coach had ever asked him that. It's a measure of just how self-contained and obsessively rigid NFL coaches have become that the simple act of asking an employee "How can we help make you better at your job?" is seen as somehow revolutionary, but honestly, can you imagine any other coach letting players dictate his system rather than dictating it to players? Arians is the rare coach who would seem to be able to carry on a conversation about something other than football, who doesn't constantly have a huge throbbing purple vein sticking out of his forehead. And his players love him for it. Everything has been different since he arrived.
Now the Cardinals have ousted their longtime tormentors, those Seattle Seahawks, on national television, in hugely entertaining fashion. (Drew Stanton is destined to be a folk hero in Arizona forever after this little display.) They have a three-game lead in the division with seven games to play, and they have the inside track for a first-round playoff bye. They have the second-best point differential in the NFL, behind the Patriots. Some sports books have them as the odds-on favorites to reach the Super Bowl. And their fans have embraced the team in an unprecedented fashion. You can find Cardinals merchandise everywhere now. People aren't even embarrassed to wear it.
It is a run of happiness that the Arizona Cardinals have never seen, and, unlike the Warner run or the Plummer one-off, it feels sustainable. It feels like a total sea change. (In a place where there is no water!) The Cardinals beat the Seahawks -- the Legion of Boom/Marshawn Lynch/Russell Wilson/12th Man Seahawks -- on the road, with the whole world watching. It is baffling for any longtime Cardinals fan to witness. It doesn't even seem possible.
Which means you know where this is going. Remember, last year's Cardinals team, while not as powerful as this one, had the best record in the NFC in the first half. And then Carson Palmer, playing the best football of his career right now, got hurt. As charming as it is to watch Stanton dance on the sidelines, trust me, it's less charming to watch him physically play quarterback. The playoff game last year, with Ryan Lindley behind center, featured the worst quarterbacking I have ever seen. I legitimately wondered on multiple occasions whether Lindley was actually lefthanded and no one had ever told him. The Cardinals are one quarterback injury away -- an injury to a veteran QB in his mid-30s whose signature characteristic has been an inability to stay on the field -- from imploding again. It's the secret fear of every Cardinals fan: If we could store Palmer in a hyperbaric chamber in between plays, we would. If he goes down, like he always does, all is lost. This moment of Best It Has Ever Been would float into mist, a wisp of smoke, gone.
The Cardinals are the talk of football right now, and will be again next Sunday night, when they play the undefeated Bengals at home. But some of us have watched this team for too long. It'll always feel like the hatchet is over our necks. This is the platonic ideal of being an NFL fan: an entertaining team with a charismatic, highly intelligent coach, a roaring home-field advantage and even a franchise staple, a future Hall of Famer, in Larry Fitzgerald playing a prominent role. This is all you could ask for. This is what you want.
It's still almost too scary to enjoy. I have been conditioned by futility. This is life as a Cardinals fan, until proven otherwise. This is all glorious, I am sure, but I cannot quite tell: I watch it all between my fingers, crouching, hiding behind my desk. Tell me when it's safe to come out, if it ever is.