Cardinals: Catching Up with a Nomadic Team

The first thing you must know to understand the Arizona Cardinals is that in their first 87 years, they had more home cities (three) than playoff games (two). Under second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt, the Cardinals corrected that oversight by winning three playoff games this month to reach their first Super Bowl.

It was a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that won fewer games than any other team in the NFL over the past 40 years.

The Cardinals long have been something of an afterthought in the NFL, and not only on the field.

Their owner, Bill Bidwill, is a son of the team's founder, just like his Super Bowl counterpart, Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney. But that's where the similarities end. Other descendants of NFL founding families, like Rooney, the McCaskeys in Chicago and the Maras in New York, long have been power brokers within the league. But neither Bidwill nor his team ever have had any real clout in league circles.

For that matter, they rarely have had much clout in their hometowns, either.

The Cardinals began life as Chicago's second team behind the Bears; the team was founded by the late Charles Bidwill, Bill's father, who had been a minority investor in the Bears. The Cards began by sharing Wrigley Field as a home with the Bears, later moved to Comiskey Park, shifted to St. Louis in 1960 and then to Arizona in 1988.

Cities changed. Results did not.

Bill Bidwill had taken over sole ownership of the franchise in the '50s from his brother, Charles W. Bidwill Jr., who was known as Stormy. That also described the relationship between the brothers and led to their breakup. Stormy Bidwill, who still lives in Chicago, once told the Chicago Tribune that Bill Bidwill's "idea of how to run the team and mine were different."

Bill Bidwill, a pleasant if somewhat bumbling man, surrounded himself with cronies in the front office and kept tight watch on the purse strings.

The Cardinals had one of the weakest scouting and drafting systems in the league. They went through coaches the way their players went through jockstraps.

As things began to sour for them in St. Louis in the '80s, the crowds dwindled at home games and most of the fans seemed to be rooting for the visiting team. In an appropriate farewell, the Cardinals failed to sign their final first-round draft choice in St. Louis, quarterback Kelly Stouffer.

Their move to Arizona was approved at a league meeting in, of all places, Phoenix. Bidwill was promised a shiny, new stadium. Problem was, he failed to get the promise in writing. The Cards wound up as a tenant at Arizona State's old Sun Devil Stadium, and the losing continued.

One bright spot occurred in 1998 when, during quarterback Jake Plummer's second season, the Cardinals not only reached the playoffs but won a wild-card game against Dallas. Success proved ephemeral, however, and the losing resumed a year later.

A constant remained from the St. Louis days; more fans at home games rooted for the visiting team than for the Cardinals. In fact, when the NFL re-aligned before the 2002 season, the Cardinals lobbied hard to remain in a division with Dallas because the Cowboys were the only team that sold out games at Arizona. The Cardinals, however, did not get their wish.

The fortunes began to change when Bidwill appointed Michael Bidwill, his son, to run the franchise. Michael Bidwill is a former federal prosecutor, a man accustomed to difficult negotiations, much more comfortable out front than his father, who even seemed awkward when he tried to hold up the NFC championship trophy after the Cards beat Philadelphia.

Michael Bidwill has repaired relations in the community and hired a competent general manager, Rod Graves, who brought in Whisenhunt from Pittsburgh to coach the team. Michael Bidwill also led the campaign that brought the Cardinals into the modern era with a new stadium, at long last.

The new stadium elevated the Cardinals into the NFL's upper ranks, at least financially, and that has helped them compete. So has the leadership of Graves and Whisenhunt. And three years after opening their new home, the first of their own in nearly nine decades in the league, the Cardinals have arrived at the Super Bowl.

Arizona's ascension leaves only Detroit, Cleveland and New Orleans, among cities in the NFL since the '60s, without a Super Bowl appearance -- although Cleveland gets an asterisk because the old Browns moved to Baltimore and won Super Bowl XXXV as the Ravens.

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