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Meet the Buzzsaw

  • Nov 26, 2011
If someone asked you what the first professional football team in the United States was, which team would you guess first? Obviously, you would go for some of the usual suspects who seem to have been around forever: Green Bay? The Chicago Bears? Perhaps one of the old teams populating the NFC East and NFC North. And you would be wrong. Look to your left. By your left, I mean to the western United States, but not that far. East of California. South of Colorado. There you go - that right, the Arizona Cardinals.

I know we don't tend to think of more western-based teams as old, because they are frequently products of American westward migration. Admittedly, the Cardinals weren't moved to Arizona until the 1980's, but there they were. The oldest team in the NFL, a charter member of the league and one of only two teams remaining from its founding in 1920, along with the Chicago Bears. The Arizona Cardinals have lasted, and are currently playing their 102nd season of professional football.

The team was founded in 1898 as Morgan Athletic Club. They went pro in 1913, beginning play in Normal Park in Chicago. Since the park was located on Chicago's Racine Avenue, the team was called the Racine Normals. In 1901, original owner Chris O'Brien bought the team maroon uniforms to wear. By the time of the move to Normal Park, the color had faded, leading to the an opponent to point out that the Normals were being forced to take the field in faded red uniforms. O'Brien, taken aback, famously responded "That's not faded red, it's cardinal red!" And just like that, the team took its permanent nickname, calling themselves the Racine Cardinals. In 1920, the Cardinals paid 100 bucks to become a charter member of the American Professional Football Association, which in 1922 changed its name to the National Football League.

The Cardinals have a list of accomplishments which should be a lot longer than it is. People give the Detroit Lions a lot of shit for turning losing into an art form, but the Lions made the playoffs nine times during their futile half-century. The Cardinals made the playoffs eight times, period. Eight shots at a title. For comparison, the crosstown neighbors until 1960, the Chicago Bears, have won nine titles. Got that? The Bears have one more title than the Cardinals have playoff appearances in the entirety of their 102-year existence. They did manage to bring two titles to Chicago, one in 1925 and the other in 1947, but the title in 1925 is disputed by supporters of a defunct team called the Pottsville Maroons. The Maroons had the best record, but the whole franchise was revoked that year for violating the territory of another team called the Frankford Yellow Jackets. So the Cardinals won by default, and the NFL officially recognizes the 1925 title as a Cardinal victory. The undisputedly legitimate title was won in 1947, when the Cardinals went 9-3 and won the Championship game 28-21 against the Philadelphia Eagles. That year they were anchored by a trio called the Million Dollar Backfield, consisting of quarterback Paul Christman, running backs Charley Trippi and Elmer Angsman, and fullback Pat Harder.

After that, the Cardinals could charitably be described as dismal. The Cardinals had always been the forgotten team on the south side of Chicago, the White Sox to the Cubs if you will. (They even played in Comiskey Park.) But it was during the 50's when the Bears completely overtook the Cardinals, and the team almost went bankrupt. So the owners, the Bidwill family, struck a deal with the NFL brass that sent the Cardinals to St. Louis in 1960. It was a business move for the NFL as well, because the AFL was starting to threaten the supremacy of the NFL and they wanted a team in St. Louis to block it off to the AFL.

Although things looked up for awhile in St. Louis, the team wasn't even the most popular team called the St. Louis Cardinals. They were forever an afterthought in the backs of the minds of the city's famously devoted baseball audience, and used the name St. Louis Football Cardinals so people could tell the difference. But no one used the moniker St. Louis Baseball Cardinals. They had some good seasons in the 70's but eventually reverted to their losing ways, and one season during that decade was the last ten-win season the Cardinals saw until the Millennium. In 1988, St. Louis decided it couldn't support them, and they were moved to Tempe. They were supposed to go to Phoenix, but a financial crisis gutted the needed stadium, so the Cardinals played at Sun Devil Stadium, and after calling them the Phoenix Cardinals for six years, the owner finally changed their name to the more sensical Arizona Cardinals in 1994 because they didn't actually, you know, play in Phoenix.

The Cardinals lost a lot of Arizona too, but they finally crawled out of their basement briefly in 2008 when they managed to carry a 9-7 record and a wild card playoff spot to the Super Bowl. The next season, they won 11 games, the first time since the 70's they registered double digits in the win column.

It's really hard to define a particular character for the Cardinals, because I'm not sure they even have one, losses exempted. We don't know anything about what they represent, a distinction that even a lot of the league's sad sacks have. We don't know much about their fans because they barely exist. The last decade has seen them come up as a team that at least tries their best.

The last ten years have introduced a handful of good things for the Cardinals: One of the most gifted receiving duos in history, with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The revival of quarterback Kurt Warner, who led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl and is now the only quarterback to lead two teams to the big game. The drafting of Matt Leinart, the legendary USC quarterback who was projected to be a shining star in the NFL, a conerstone who would keystone the offense a lift the Cardinals out of the doldrums, but who was one of the decade's bigger draft busts. When the Arizona Cardinals did make the league's top headlines, it was because of a defensive back named Pat Tillman. Tillman was a talented player who became a starter, went to the Pro Bowl, and was making millions of dollars. He also had a bit of a sense of loyalty - he turned down a pay increase of nearly 200 percent offered by the St. Louis Rams because his sense of loyalty wouldn't let him leave the Cardinals. Then after 9-11, his sense of loyalty drove him into the Marines for his country, where he was sent to Afghanistan and eventually killed in action in 2004.

I said the Lions seem to have a league edict against them, but they at least have the Thanksgiving Day game. The Cardinals aren't even thrown a minor bone like that. No doubt some of the things they've tried were more cries for attention than anything. They signed an aging Emmitt Smith as their running back, got a fancy new stadium, drafted Hollywood boy Matt Leinart, and still didn't get a lot of attention. The Cardinals have consistently been one of those teams for whom more fans of the weekly opponent show up at the home stadium than their own fans. Recently they introduced an all black alternate uniform... After decades of not using black in their color combination! Damn thing was a real eyesore, too. It was ironic that those uniforms were black, because blood is red and they make peoples' eyes bleed.

It seems like a lot of the team's big accomplishments are more testimonial of their longevity than anything. They got to a Super Bowl and won two NFL titles, But there are actually a handful of teams that have accomplished more than that within the space of a decade. Big Red has had 102 years. 13 Hall of Famers have worn the deep red of the Cardinals, but we haven't heard of most of them: Dick "Night Train" Lane is there, but have you heard of Ernie Nevers? Ollie Matson? Charley Trippi before reading this article? Larry Wilson? This isn't exactly the NFL A-list we're looking at here. They don't have an iconic player who transcends football, a household name everyone knows, a centerpiece guy who led the team to an era of unquestioned greatness and dominance. Not unless you count Pat Tillman, but that's for an entirely different reason.

The Cardinals did produce some NFL players who are worthy of more note than they get. Their all-time passing leader is a guy named Jim Hart, who has 34,639 yards total, and Neil Lomax was pretty good too. Running back Ottis Anderson may be the most underrated running back of all time; he's a member of the 10,000 yard rushing club, the Cardinals' all-time leader in rushing, a rookie of the year who went to two Pro Bowls, and an All-Pro selection. The Cardinals let him go in 1986 and he revitalized himself with the New York Giants, winning two Super Bowls and a comeback award. One can make a strong case trying to argue him into Canton. David Boston played his best years in Arizona.

I wanted to rate the Cardinals considerably higher. I recently wrote up a list of teams which I will potentially adopt once my home team, the Bills, leave. (http://www.lunch.com/BaronSamedi3-My_List_of..._Place_Takers-3044.html). The Cardinals are on it and will continue to be. But understand that I'm writing this series not as a fan. I'm going for the viewpoint of someone who has just come to the United States and discovered our sports and becomes a fan, but isn't in a major area and is trying to decide on what team to adopt. I doubt my hypothetical fan would adopt the Arizona Cardinals. Provided, of course, that he even discovers their existence.

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Quick Tip by . December 12, 2011
A part of me always likes to see the Cards perform well. They appear to be a decent organization that has scraped and clawed their way to some success over the years.
review by . August 14, 2009
I used to follow the Cardinals back when they were in St. Louis.  I became a fan because I also liked the baseball Cardinals.  Since they played in the NFC East I was able to watch them lose to all the top teams of the division on CBS.  I remember watching Neil Lomax, Roy Green, Stump Mitchell and Pat Tilly.  Lomax could have been a great quarterback if it wasn't for his injuries.  After years of posting consecutive losing seasons the Cards were able to make the playoff …
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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The oldest NFL franchise.  They currently play in the NFC West.

Founded in 1898 as the Morgan Athletic Club.

Played also as Racine Normals, Racine Cardinals, Chicago Cardinals,  St. Louis Cardinals and Phoenix Cardinals.

During the 1944 season because of WWII the Cardinals merged with the Pittsburgh Steelers because so many of their players were in the military,

Won two NFL Championships in 1925 & 1947, NFC Championship in 2008, NFC West in 2008
NFC East in 1974 & 1975 and the NFL West in 1947 & 1948.

Named the Cardinals after their owner bought some used Football Jerseys from the University of Chicago.  The faded maroon color was dubbed cardinal red do the team decided to change it's name from the Normals to the Cardinals.
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