It has been years since the St. Louis Cardinals have been considered for anything but the birds. After all, what other NFL club could claim such a firm hold on mediocrity that its fans thought the team slogan was: For God, For Country and Four-Nine-and-One. Now suddenly, after last week's 31-28 victory over Dallas ran their record to 5-0, the Cards clearly have become something new and unexpected. What they are for is for real.
At least they have proved as thoroughly as a team can in less than half a season that they are genuine playoff contenders. That alone is a refreshing change in St. Louis, where the Cardinals' reputation for ineptness on offense was surpassed only by their notoriety for porousness on defense. Somebody presumably made a tackle for the Big Red last year, but the occasion went unnoticed; the Cards, never famous for their tight teamwork, got together to yield 365 points and almost three miles in yardage to their unhindered opponents.
The prospects for this season indicated more of the same before team unity, a daring offense, plain good fortune and a stout new defense put the Cards in competition with the also-unbeaten Patriots for the title of Most Instantaneously Improved.
St. Louis opened the season with a 7-3 win over Philadelphia, stopping four Roman Gabriel passes inside the 10-yard line in the last 30 seconds. A week later in Washington the Cards won by a touchdown. None of this was too surprising since fast starts are not unheard of in St. Louis. Alas, they are invariably followed by faster flops, so it was not until the team slammed Cleveland 29-7 and San Francisco 34-9 that some people got the idea that the Cards were jokers no more. Among those folks were the Cardinals themselves.
Even though St. Louis had become one of the league's most spectacular scoring teams with seven of its first 11 touchdowns coming on plays of 56 yards or better, the more dramatic reversal concerned the defense. The year before, that unit had suffered so many injuries that only indestructible Linebacker Larry Stallings and Defensive Tackle Bob Rowe had played in all 14 games. With everyone healthy, St. Louis suddenly found it indeed could stop opponents, cold. In the first four games the Cards allowed only 29 points and sacked opposing quarterbacks 13 times, nearly half the total for all of '73.
"As a unit, I think we've touched more balls on deflections, interceptions and blocked passes than we did all of last year," says Stallings. "Take my personal totals. I've got an interception and I've knocked four passes down. That's normally as many as I get in a season. When you do those things, you're going to give a quarterback problems."
As they prepared to meet Dallas, the Cards were no less impressed by the early wonders their offense had performed. "When you're 4-0 you can actually start seeing the possibilities that can develop," says Running Back Jim Otis. "If we win Sunday, we'll be in the playoffs. We have the ability to go three, four or five yards at a crack and the ability to make the big play. Not too many teams can do both. Another thing is the little extras the guys do, like taking extra laps after practice or working longer on the weights. It's really amazing. The guys here do all those things without having to be told."
Coach Don Coryell, whom the Cards hired away from San Diego State last season, was aware that his unlikely assortment of pretenders was catching the Cowboys at the worst possible time.' 'It's just fate that they weren't 4-0 instead of 1-3," he said. "When you go up against a team like that, with its back to the wall, it makes your job doubly difficult. There's no way to sneak up on them like we might have in other seasons. We're going to have to come up with something super to stay in the game. We can't afford to give them any free TDs."
Indeed, Dallas' Tom Landry must be wondering what the fates have against his team. The once high-riding Cowboys have turned in only one truly bad performance, a 14-6 loss to the Giants. Their other defeats have been frustrating affairs such as the one at Minnesota two weeks ago, when the Vikings kicked a disputed field goal with one second showing on the clock. "Damn! When is this stuff gonna end?" fumed one Cowboy official.
It seemed that it might end immediately against the Cardinals, when they gave up one of the "free" TDs Coryell feared in the form of a 97-yard punt runback by Dennis Morgan the first time the Cowboys had the ball. St. Louis quickly evened things on a one-yard touchdown run by Donny Anderson that was set up by another of those long gainers that the Cardinals have come to expect as their offensive due.
It was a big play that required tall acting. Taking over at his 12-yard line, Quarterback Jim Hart sent Terry Metcalf into the line for one yard while off to the side the Cards' star sprinter, Wide Receiver Mel Gray, was bucking for an Oscar. Acting as though he had been seized by runaway arthritis, a pelvic fracture and hangnail on every toe, Gray limped off the field in apparent search of a bone-and-joint man. But it was merely a ruse to get former SMU Quarterback Gary Hammond into the game as a wide receiver. The substitution completed, Hart then threw a lateral pass to Hammond as the Dallas secondary came up aggressively to protect against the run. Hammond unloaded an 81-yard pass to Tight End Jackie Smith, who was caught at the Dallas six by Cliff Harris.
Gray later turned from low guile to high gear. Before the game he had lamented the fact that he had never scored a touchdown against Dallas. That situation was remedied midway through the second quarter when Gray simply outran Charlie Waters on an 80-yard scoring reception from Hart. "They were trying to play me one-on-one and that made me smile," said Gray. "I guess maybe people will start taking us seriously now."
Any residual opinion that St. Louis was not for real should have vanished just before the half ended when Smith scored a gutsy touchdown. Throwing under the zone coverage, Hart had moved the Cards 44 yards to the Dallas 19-yard line as time was running out. With seven seconds left, he threw over the middle to Smith, who broke four tackles before swan-diving into the end zone to give St. Louis a 21-14 lead.
"I remember catchin' the ball and divin' in," Smith said later in his corn pone Mississippi accent, "but nothin' in between 'cept some people hittin' on me. How many guys was it? Four. Well, that's a pretty good run then. I'm kinda proud of myself." In fact, Smith took a bone-crunching shot from each of the four—Lee Roy Jordan, Harris, D. D. Lewis and Jethro Pugh—before his scoring plunge. The entire St. Louis bench emptied to congratulate him in the end zone.
In the second half, Metcalf romped over from the eight to culminate a drive set up when Clarence Duren picked off Roger Staubach's 10th intercepted pass of the season. Other than that, Staubach was magnificent in this game, running for one touchdown, passing 24 yards to Tight End Jean Fugett for another and directing Dallas in a rally that tied the score at 28.
That deadlock provided the Cards with the opportunity to display their new stature. The Cowboys had used squib kicks to keep the ball away from Metcalf, but he finally got ahold of a kick and returned it 56 yards to the Dallas 34 with 3:39 to go. Six plays later Jim Bakken kicked a 31-yard field goal with 62 seconds left to play.
Even in victory, St. Louis' first over Dallas since 1970, few of the Cardinals were making positive predictions about their prospects. "The playoffs?" said Hart. "Sure, we'd make the playoffs if they were next week. They aren't. There's still a long way to go."
Maybe so, but the spirit and unity Coryell has infused into his team bodes well for continued success. "We take nothing for granted now," Smith said. "My first few years here, we'd look at a couple of games as easy, so that we would have a tendency to ease up and slack off. Now it's just impossible to approach a game that way. That's what gives me the best feeling about our potential. That complacent attitude will never be part of this team. Along with that, I feel we can get a lot more out of ourselves because we're getting pride and confidence."
And Smith, for one, has plenty of both. The wear and tear of the young season has already implanted a deep purple bruise the size of a $6 pizza on his left buttock. The week before he had winced through some backside-pounding congratulations from his teammates after his strong performance against the 49ers. How had he survived a similar round of applause following his touchdown against the Cowboys?
"I turned the other cheek," Smith said.
That is the only kind of charity that can be expected from St. Louis this season.