With the Cardinals set to kick off their 21st season in Arizona today, the boss asked me to do something Big Red-related for your Page Too perusal.
So what better way to whet appetites, I thought, than to look back at the five best season-opening wins in Arizona history? The lid-lifters that raised our hopes, filled our hearts and made us race for the Hank Williams Jr. CDs.
Alas, much like the Cards in early September, the best-laid plans blew up before they ever got started.
Why? Because we seem to be one win short.
It’s hard to have a “High Five” with only four wins in 20 tries (.200), a winning percentage that dwarfs even the head-shaking .353 clip (113-217) the Big Red have fashioned since leaving St. Louis and becoming, officially, our problem.
Sure, I could come up with another idea. But I already got all the media guides out, so …
Welcome to Tempe (via Cincy)
This all started in 1988, when the then-Phoenix Cardinals traveled to Riverfront Stadium to open their inaugural season against the Bengals.
The Cards received the opening kickoff and Neil Lomax promptly drove his team 64 yards to a first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 1-yard line. Hey, this looks pretty promising!
First down … nothing. Second down … nope. Third down … uh-oh.
One play later, Cincy had the ball and … well, there’s still a lot of football left, right?
Sure enough, the Cards got a second chance. Trailing 21-14, Phoenix again drove to the Bengals’ 1 in the final minutes. Four more plays — with a yard needed to tie the score.
How did it turn out? Here’s a hint: This game is not among the roll call of four wins.
In eight plays from the 1-yard line, the Cardinals lost a combined 19 yards. Like being a Cardinal fan, that’s just not easy.
To their credit, the Cards came back the next season, went to Detroit and beat the Lions on opening day, part of a 2-0 start that had the locals buzzing. But the team won only two games the rest of the season, coach Gene Stallings was fired and … well, let’s stay on topic here.
Interestingly, Cardinal fans may want to root for a loss today in San Francisco. In the four seasons when the Cards have opened with a win, they have never won more than six games. And in the three seasons when they were 8-8 or better, they opened with a road loss.
Oh yes, the road. In fairness, it should be pointed out that Arizona has opened on the road 19 of its 21 seasons in Arizona, and it would be 20 if the Sept. 11 tragedy hadn’t wiped out the first week of the 2001 season.
Sure, the Cards have seen their share of blowouts on opening day. Joe Bugel was shut out by the Redskins (31-0) in 1990 and Buddy Ryan got the same treatment on the same field (27-7) five years later. Even the glory season of 1998 started poorly in Dallas with a 38-10 loss to Dallas, although Vince Tobin and the Cardinals exacted sweet revenge on the same field four months later.
But much like 1988, opening day has also been marked by the weird and the wacky. Enough in fact, to serve as our de-facto high-five:
The weird, wild and wacky
1994: Buddy Ryan’s Arizona debut was ruined when normally sure-handed receiver Ricky Proehl dropped what would have been the winning touchdown pass late in a 14-12 loss to the Rams. The Cardinals start 0-3 and Ryan starts a public browbeating of Proehl that lasts all season.
1997: Back in Cincinnati, a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter appeared secure, but the Cards couldn’t hold it. Still leading 21-17 with 1:18 left and Cincinnati out of timeouts, Larry Centers fumbled at the Bengal 37.
Six plays later, the die had been cast for a 4-12 season.
2000: The Cards-Giants game was delayed a half-hour due to lightning at the Meadowlands (usually the wind is the villain, right Big Red fans?) and the Arizona offense couldn’t strike until they were down 21-3 in the fourth quarter. Two touchdowns in the final 1:55 made the 21-16 score look good but four other failed chances inside the Giants’ 35 told the story.
2004: Dennis Green’s debut was looking good. The Cardinals led 10-9 after three quarters before linebacker James Darling picked off a Marc Bulger pass and took it 95 yards for a score. But the Cards were caught holding on the play, the Rams scored two plays later and Arizona lost 17-10.
2007: There’s a fumble in the end zone … there’s Eric Green … there goes the ball. Arrgh!
But hope springs eternal. The Cardinals are favored today. The 49ers have a quarterback named J.T. O’Sullivan. Bryant Johnson is their problem now.
And even though history says otherwise, the Cardinals will complete the drive for five today. As long as they punch it in from the 1-yard line, pick up fumbles in the end zone, catch touchdown passes and keep lightning from striking.
WEEK IN REVIEW
Ex-D-Back Carlos Quentin has been hit by a pitch 20 times this season and emerged unscathed. Then he punches his own bat at the plate in frustration after missing a fat fastball and ends what could have been an MVP season for the White Sox in its tracks with a broken right wrist. And with the White Sox in a battle with the Twins for the NL Central title, he might have ended Chicago’s season as well.
Good move by the University of Idaho to have the school’s logo — strategically placed across the rear end — removed from their football pants for the rest of the season. The Vandals didn’t need to draw more attention to their rear ends, especially after having them kicked 70-0 by perennially mediocre Arizona.
After getting busted in his hotel room with marijuana and women the night before the NBA’s mandatory rookie transition program, Darrell Arthur was quick to apologize for his lapse in judgment. He was also quick to claim that he never touched any weed, tossing his roommate, friend and former Kansas teammate Mario Chalmers under Cheech and Chong’s VW microbus. Happy drug testing, boys!
• Arizona not only lost a chance to nail down the West over the last three weeks, they also lost their edge schedule-wise. While the D-Backs play their final 10 games against the Rockies (6) and Cardinals (4), the Dodgers play 16 of their last 19 games against three teams — the Padres, Giants and Pirates — who are a combined 73 games under .500.
• We were supposed to see two 40-something Hall of Famers battling today at Dodger Stadium (Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux). Instead, a key game in the pennant race is in the hands of rookies Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.
• The good news is Ohio State coach Jim Tressel will have the undivided attention of his team this week after the Buckeyes struggled to beat Ohio University on Saturday. The bad news is it’s going to take more than focus to go to Los Angeles and beat USC, which has had two weeks to prepare for the showdown.