TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals would greatly appreciate a bombastic critique of their 4-0 record, maybe from some ex-star with a TV platform saying that perfection never looked so ungainly or untrustworthy in NFL history.
The statement doesn’t have to be true. How could it be, only three years after Josh McDaniels’ blighted head-coaching career in Denver began at 6-0? But the commentator could expect the Cardinals to make him seem wise for long stretches of Thursday night’s game in St. Louis.
Their fellows at 4-0, Atlanta and Houston, have classic dome-based teams with maestro quarterbacks. The Cardinals scuffle their way to wins. They’ve plopped a variation on AFC North football into the desert and their shiny spaceship of a stadium. Their most recent win, Sunday’s 24-21 overtime tangle with the Dolphins, fit an exhilarating, enervating theme: "How did that happen?"
Eleven of the Cardinals’ last 12 victories have come by seven points or fewer. Their offensive line gave up eight sacks on Sunday, and the defense that had harassed Tom Brady and battered Michael Vick allowed Ryan Tannehill to impersonate Dan Marino. The rookie went into Arizona with the NFL’s lowest quarterback rating and left with 431 yards passing.
The sublime mess of a day prompted guard Daryn Colledge to explain his team in “Hot or Not” terms. “We’re like a four or a five," he told Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic, "but we dance like an eight."
What no one can fully explain is how. The fluke factor lost most of its legitimacy in the 20-18 win over New England, and Sunday’s finish fully justified head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s “it can’t be luck” assessment.
These Cardinals often seem to be wallowing in the muck of last season’s six-game losing streak.
“There’s no question about that, when you lose six in a row and you are 1-6 and everybody is telling you how awful you are,” Whisenhunt said.
“The us-against-them mentality will make you a little bit stronger as a team. It got us to a Super Bowl, and it helped us turn our season around last year.”
The 2008 Cardinals famously prompted Cris Collinsworth to declare them “the worst playoff team in NFL history.” They were 9-7 and coming off some hideous blowouts in the final weeks of the regular season. Yet they went to the Super Bowl, losing by a sliver to the Steelers, and finally untethering the Arizona franchise from its history as the L.A. Clippers of the NFL.
But Kurt Warner loomed as a fluke factor over that year and the playoff season that followed it. He came to the desert as a two-time MVP, and his retirement left the Cardinals bereft at quarterback and 5-11, just like old times.
Those old times, however, included two 5-11 seasons with Warner at quarterback half the time. In 2005 and 2006, Warner had the benefit of both Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, on their way to becoming the most fearsome pair of receivers in the game. But his wizardry under center had minimal effect.
The transformation came in 2007, when the Cardinals hired Whisenhunt off the Steelers’ coaching staff and moved out of Sun Devil Stadium’s outdoor sauna and into the climate-controlled spaceship in Glendale. In their 18 years at the old joint, the Cardinals had sold out just 12 times, seven of those when the Cowboys came to visit. They had never opened their season at home -- a matter of mercy, given September temperatures in Arizona.
Every game at the new stadium has been a sellout. Whisenhunt’s five full seasons have included just one under .500. In the club’s 18 other years in Arizona, only two at that point had been non-losers -- 1994 and 1998, amid some brief giddiness spawned first by Buddy Ryan and then by Jake Plummer.
Whisenhunt needs a quarterback to succeed, but he may not need THE quarterback. The franchise has been recast in the image of the Steelers, hiring away longtime Pittsburgh assistant Ray Horton last year as the defensive coordinator and fostering more bruising talent.
It’s fashionable now to rank the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, with his two Super Bowl rings, as one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. But Whisenhunt plus six of his Arizona assistants worked with Pittsburgh’s championship team of 2005, when Roethlisberger was a raw second-year player fortunate enough to be backed by the league’s fifth-ranked running game and fourth-best defense.
As the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, Whisenhunt helped shape Roethlisberger. He has yet to find similar raw material for the Cardinals. The pricey gamble on Kevin Kolb last year was an admission that the coach could not conjure another Roethlisberger, or even baseline competence, from Derek Anderson or Max Hall. As Kolb floundered last year, it became easy to dismiss him as another failed project and the root of the six-game losing streak.
But today, defensive players will concede that they needed time to learn Horton’s new system, and the lockout abbreviated training camp too drastically for them to make all the details instinctive. They gave up 30 or more points in four straight games. They have not allowed more than 23 since.
When they went 7-2 over the rest of the season, finishing at .500, the Cardinals became one of only 10 teams in NFL history to win eight games or more in a season that included a six-game losing streak. Most of the nine others did not recover from an early deficit; they crumbled at the end or in the middle of a season. Only two, the 2009 Titans and 1970 Bengals, won seven or more games after the streak.
The Cardinals have gone 11-2 since their streak, which remains their odd brand of North Star. “It was misery,” center Lyle Sendlein said, “and you really want to put it behind you. But there was some talk about it after our first game, because we won the first one last year, too, and then we got off course.”
In practice, he said, the team tends to scrap anything that starts poorly and begin all over. “We don’t keep going,” Sendlein said. “We make a point of saying you can’t start badly and just wait for things to get better in the second or third quarter. You have to fix things immediately.”
Yet against Miami, the Cardinals got away with barely showing up for the first half. They were losing 13-0, apparently thrown by the Dolphins’ rapid adoption of a no-huddle offense and dearly missing injured defensive end Darnell Dockett, one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL. But by forcing four turnovers, they assured that Tannehill’s ostentatious performance yielded only 21 points.
Kolb threw a fourth-down scoring pass to tie the game with only 22 seconds left in regulation, compensating for a foolish interception a few minutes earlier.
The Raiders’ defensive tackle sacked Kolb for a safety in the preseason and then told reporters: “He is scared back there. Anytime anybody gets close to him, he starts looking at the refs. As a defensive lineman, you love a quarterback like that.”
Kolb has built a case for himself each week, but he still hasn’t proven detractors definitively wrong. The Cardinals won most of their second-half games in 2011 without him, and he could easily find ways to forfeit his job again, whenever John Skelton’s sprained ankle heals.
Still, he and the Cardinals could be dreadful in primetime Thursday and still not offset the importance of wins in New England and Philadelphia, plus comeback drives against Seattle and Miami. They were so exhausted after Sunday’s win that Kolb referred to himself as “dead” at the end, and defensive lineman Calais Campbell couldn’t figure out whether the water all over his dress shirt had come from his shower or another round of sweat.
“It could be either one,” he said, surveying his chest and laughing. “We had a pretty long day.”
If they can win on the road 100 hours later, luck will have nothing to do with it.