Rival Report: Cardinals

Where are those big free agents the Cardinals signed last spring? Not on the field as much as the Cardinals would have hoped. More importantly for Cards fans, where will Emmitt Smith and Jeff Blake be next year?

Not even the Cardinals envisioned Emmitt Smith and Jeff Blake being long-term solutions to an ailing organization.

But the team hoped the veterans could be a solid foundation to reversing their fortunes.

Now, with what's going to be either a three- or four-win season, it's clear that neither of the team's big-hit free-agent acquisitions was able to lift the team.

That calls into question their future with the organization much earlier than anticipated.

Smith signed for two years, a package worth $7.5 million that includes $2.5 million in signing bonus and $2.5 million in salary each year.

Blake signed a three-year package worth $7.5 million, $3.5 million of which was paid this season in salary and signing bonus. That leaves $4 million distributed equally over the final two seasons.

Smith missed six games at midseason with a shoulder injury, and since his return has been nothing more than a relief back for Marcel Shipp, who thrived when given the starting assignment during Smith's recovery.

In his four games back, Smith has carried only 18 times for 44 yards (2.4-yard average). There was a time when that would have been a bad half for him. It is an unconscionable month for the game's career rushing leader.

Blake put up decent numbers during his 13 starts, although they are skewed because the Cardinals usually were so far behind that they had to throw, giving him many opportunities to pad his stats (conversely, that took away rushing attempts from Smith and the other backs).

Blake has not taken a snap in either of the past two games while the team started second-year quarterback Josh McCown in an attempt to get a serious evaluation of him and gauge whether he can be the starter of the future. Blake likely won't play in the finale, either, when he might be relegated to No. 3 so the team can get snaps for Preston Parsons to also evaluate him.

Smith and Blake have learned the hard way about life as a Cardinal.

Both have tried their best to be good soldiers, knowing that their signings has as much to do with their presence in the locker room as their play. They were hired in large part to show young players how to be professional.

But it doesn't take a trained eye to detect discontent bubbling just beneath the surface in both.

Their frustration has flashed in brief snippets. Smith has alluded to his few opportunities, which often are greeted with a defender standing unblocked squarely in the hole.

Blake has expressed opinions about the play-calling of first-year offensive coordinator Jerry Sullivan.

There very likely will be a new head coach and a large, if not total, turnover on the coaching staff next season.

Blake will go to camp competing for the job with either McCown, or a high draft pick, or both.

Smith will have to make a marvelous off-season recovery to compete with Shipp on legs that will be yet a year older.

It appears that even on this downtrodden team, next season the two stars of this year's Cardinals free-agency crop will be nothing more than bit players as the offense once again is retooled.

SERIES HISTORY: 19th meeting. The Minnesota Vikings lead the series, 10-8, after winning the past five games. The most memorable from the Cardinals' perspective was a 56-14 rout of the Vikings at Metropolitan Stadium in 1963, the most points ever allowed by the Vikings. In the last meting, Nov. 12, 2000, Daunte Culpepper passed for 302 yards, Minnesota scored on three of its first four possessions in the second half and rolled to a 31-14 rout at Sun Devil Stadium.


NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Front-office personnel and ownership are expected to meet with Coach Dave McGinnis early next week to discuss his future with the team. McGinnis has the 2004 season remaining on his contract. He has not produced a winning record since taking over after seven games in the 2000 season.

  • If the Cardinals drop their finale to the Vikings and finish 3-13, it will equal their worst record since a two-win campaign in 1959, their final season in Chicago.

  • Although they had some miserable seasons in St. Louis, none was as bad as 2000 in Arizona, when Coach Vince Tobin was fired after seven games, Dave McGinnis took over, and the team finished 3-13. A loss Sunday against Minnesota would equal that low-water mark for the second time in four years.

  • Former SS Pat Tillman, now a Ranger in the U.S. Army, visited the team before last Sunday's game at Seattle and then watched it from the suite of Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill. Tillman has refused all interview requests since turning down a contract offer from the team in 2002 to join the Army. He was deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and now is based in Washington state.

    "He's doing absolutely fabulous," Coach Dave McGinnis said. "You talk about something that brings everything into perspective.

  • Vikings S Corey Chavous is the latest former Cardinal to join a long list of players who moved on and became far more successful at his next stop. He is headed to the Pro Bowl after being near the top of the list in interceptions all season. His contract was not renewed with the Cardinals two years ago when it was deemed his foot speed was a liability to his playing corner. They never made more than a token effort to play him at safety.

  • This game could be the Spoiler Bowl if the Cardinals prevail. The Vikings need the win to nail down the NFC North title. The Cardinals need a loss to remain in the running for the first pick in the 2004 draft. They and San Diego are the only teams that have a chance to finish with as few as three wins. If the Cardinals and Chargers both lose their finales, the Chargers get the first pick on the basis of having played the softer schedule.

  • An illustration of the depths to which the franchise has plummeted: transplanted Upper Midwesterners figure to inflate the gate to the Cardinals' second-largest home crowd of the season. Just over 42,000 tickets, in a 73,000-seat stadium, have been sold. The high-water mark was 58,784 against Green Bay — with more Upper Midwesterners shelling out money in one of the three games the Cards won — in Week 3.

  • Other home crowds have included four games — half of the home schedule — in which fewer than 25,000 were on hand: 23,127 for Seattle, 24,193 for Baltimore, 23,531 for Cincinnati and 23,217 for Carolina. The Cardinals managed 40,824 for San Francisco and 42,089 for St. Louis.

  • How long are the league and the NFLPA going to continue to put up with that sort of revenue loss in a sleeping-giant market just waiting for a reason to support a team — one of the few in the country that has all four major professional sports teams, the other three of which enjoy regular support from home crowds? When will the league step in and ensure that Phoenix, now in the Super Bowl rotation, is not allowed to lag as an NFL backwater?

    BY THE NUMBERS: 0 — Number of road games the team won this season. Their 0-8 whiff extends their overall road skid to 13 games by an average margin of defeat of nearly 24 points.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "You'd like to have stability there. I still think Neil Rackers has a lot of tools to work with." — Cardinals Coach Dave McGinnis, on Rackers, the team's third kicker this season, missing three of his past five field-goal tries after making his first five.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    At this point, they just want to get through it and come out of it alive. At 3-12 there is nothing at stake except the first pick in the draft. There are young guys trying to catch someone's eye — probably that of the front office because it appears the coaching staff might not be back. It will be telling to see who shows up with a pulse and a spine.

    One youngster who has been a positive example in that regard is OLB LeVar Woods, starting the final four games in place of suspended Raynoch Thompson. Woods has emerged as a surprisingly effective playmaker amid the muck with tackles for loss and ball-hawking.

    PERSONNEL/INJURY NOTES:

  • WR Anquan Boldin needs 124 receiving yards to break the NFL rookie record of 1,473. Boldin last week broke the NFL rookie record for catches in a season. He now has 96 and stands a reasonable chance of becoming the first rookie to reach triple figures.

  • QB Josh McCown, who in his first two pro starts has completed 39 of 65 passes (60 percent), for 446 yards, 1 touchdown and had 1 intercepted, will start his third straight game. He has been sacked 11 times, though, often holding the ball rather than forcing a potential pick.

  • QB Preston Parsons, who has been the No. 3 QB the past 31 games after making the roster as an undrafted rookie in 2002, has been taking more snaps in practice and could be elevated to No. 2 for the finale with a chance to see his first pro action. The front office would like to see him in game action. Parsons had a big game against the Vikings in preseason action. Coach Dave McGinnis won't reveal his decision on the backup until game time.

  • RG Leonard Davis (thumb) will end the season where he began it — banged up. First a broken hand, then a foot injury slowed him through preseason and opening month. He has been among the major disappointments this season. He practiced lightly Wednesday. His status for the finale will be determined later in the week.

  • LT L.J. Shelton (ankle, elbow) did not practice Wednesday but is expected to start on Sunday.

  • C Pete Kendall (separated shoulder) is doing limited work in practice and still holds out hope that he can play after missing the past two games. Three weeks ago it appeared he had no chance of returning.

  • S Justin Lucas (ankle), who missed the past two games, was placed on Injured Reserve.

  • TE Lorenzo Diamond was signed to the 53-man roster from the practice squad, taking the spot created when S Justin Lucas (ankle) was placed on Injured Reserve.




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