The Phoenix Cardinals Rode the three miles from their hotel to Veterans Stadium in near silence on Sunday morning. They always stay quiet before games; it's a get-on-the-game-face ritual of coach Joe Bugel. The team buses snaked through industrial South Philadelphia, past a hazardous-waste storage site, past a grocery warehouse, past a pollution-control facility. Climbing the ramp onto I-95, the buses rolled by an auto graveyard and then crossed the Schuylkill River. The huge Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was on the right, and oil storage tanks dotted the gritscape. As the buses exited I-95 and approached the Vet, Bugel noticed tail-eaters in bowline shirts and jeans already filling the stadium parking lots, firing up the charcoal grills and popping their first of many cold ones. I love the NFC East, Bugel said to himself.
For most of his 19-month tenure as coach of the Cardinals, a franchise that lost 61 of 95 games the past six seasons and hasn't won in the postseason since 1963, Bugel has preached the gospel of smash-mouth football—an NFC East trait. "A two-yard run," he tells his offensive players, "is a thing of beauty." He tells all his players to honor the Cardinals' football roots, which trace back to 1898 on Chicago's South Side, wind through St. Louis (1960-87) and now reach to Phoenix. More than anything else, though, he tells them to relish their ties to the NFC East. "There's an air about the NFC East," Bugel says. "NFC East teams win Super Bowls. Love this division! You're among the elite."
He tells them to visualize New York, Philadelphia and Washington. "We will never change our Eastern mentality," he says to a group of men who work 2,374 miles from Philly.
The unsuspecting Eagles weren't aware of Phoenix's new focus on intradivision games, nor did they know of the significance of this game to Bugel, who had paid annual visits to the Vet as an assistant on Joe Gibbs's Redskins staff for nine years before becoming the head man in Phoenix. "This is a pivotal game for our program," he said last Saturday night. "A huge game. We have to win on the road to be a good NFC East team. Our guys go big time with a win here, boy."
September 15, 1991
Welcome to the big time, Buges. After going 2-17-1 on their previous 20 trips to the megalopolis, where they were regularly overwhelmed by big linemen and steamrollered by power backs, the Cardinals on Sunday turned from muggee to mugger—on both sides of the ball.
Philadelphia's tremendous pass rusher, Reggie White, never got through Phoenix tackle Tootie Robbins to get his paws on inexperienced quarterback Tom Tupa, who played competently and within himself. Conversely, a brutally efficient Cardinals defense, particularly bookend outside linebackers Ken Harvey and Freddie Joe Nunn, knocked down Eagle quarterback Jim McMahon 11 times, including two sacks, and forced him to run about six miles. Phoenix also forced six fumbles, recovering five of them, and intercepted McMahon once.
The 26-10 whipping that resulted from all this was no fluke. It was a coming-out party for a Cardinals team that has won its first two games and believes it is ready to play some meaningful football in December. "Finally, the Cardinals are opening some eyes," said Harvey, Phoenix's No. 1 draft pick in '88 and a player with the potential to be an NFL star. "People have to look at us with a little respect now."
Until now, getting people to look at them at all has been one of the Cards' biggest obstacles. Dwindling attendance was a motive behind owner Bill Bidwill's exodus from St. Louis, but he screwed up one of the most lucrative franchise moves in sports history when he jacked up ticket prices so high that he turned off the new fans in Phoenix. The team's performance on the field hasn't helped either. Probably only two NFL teams have a lower season-ticket base than Phoenix's 27,328. Obviously, a winning team, a home playoff game—the Cardinals have never played host to a playoff game in their 72-year NFL history—could win back some fans.
Bugel knew that to turn themselves around on the field the Cards had to get tougher than they had been under former coach Gene Stallings, who's now at Alabama. "Joe's always said he'd keep the toughest 47 guys," says running back Johnny Johnson. "He's kept his word."
It's odd that toughness has been cultivated in an environment as plush as the Cards' $11.5 million state-of-the-NFL-art training facility in south Tempe. It's lighted by passive solar energy. The practice fields were marked off at the precise angle of Sun Devil Stadium, to duplicate the position of the sun during home games. There's a 15-person sauna, with cold plunge, naturally, near the locker room. (Locker room? It's more like a luxurious lounge.) How can these guys focus on the NFC East? The Valley of the Sun is more akin to Palm Springs than to Passaic.
"Well, it is a little too glittery," Bugel says of the Phoenix area, "but the advantage is that 99 percent of our players live there in the off-season, so we can do a lot of things together that other teams can't."
For example, almost 95% of the Cardinals defensive players participated in new coordinator Fritz Shurmur's intensive off-season training program, and the defense, which last year ranked 18th overall and 26th against the rush, has improved markedly. The Cards have allowed only three touchdown drives in eight quarters this year, one of which was a six-yarder by the Eagles following an interception.
So far, the Phoenix players say, Bugel has done a good job of creating team unity and fervor for playing in a division in which the Dallas Cowboys are the only other team not located on the Eastern Seaboard. "Even though we're far away," said special teams standout Ron Wolfley on Sunday, "he's talked about us and the division so much we can't help but play like a true NFC East team."
How's that? "There's a certain blue-collarness to the division, a wham-bam, crunching, dirty-uniform kind of football," said Wolfley. "Even though we're in a resort-type town, we don't forget the mystique of playing in the NFC East. Like today, riding here on the bus. What atmosphere: the shipyard, the oil tanks. It's a football town. And we won in it. I love it."
If this is all beginning to sound corny, check this out. Bugel pals around with Bidwill, putting his arm around him when Bidwill walks onto the practice field. "I'm a damn company man," Bugel says, "and I want my players to know it." And Shurmur, a 17-year veteran of NFL coaching who was fired as defensive coordinator of the L.A. Rams after last season, says, "I've never had as much fun in coaching as I'm having this year."
And it's young, eager guys like Harvey who are providing most of the fun. In a division that is traditionally chock-full of talented defensive players, Harvey fits right in. His play has a Lawrence Taylor look; he roams the field with abandon, smashing into offensive tackles or eluding them with equal skill to stop the run. Although he weighs only 230 pounds, Harvey was Cal's alltime champ in the bench press among linebackers. Last summer, he and his wife, Janice, lost their first child to sudden infant death syndrome. "I play every game for my wife and my sons," says Harvey, now the father of two-month-old Anthony Ray.
Shurmur moved Nunn from end to outside linebacker, his original pro position, to pair him with Harvey and give Phoenix a stereo pass rush. "When we're both standing up on opposite sides," Harvey says, "people don't know who's coming."
For a while the opposition didn't know who would be at quarterback, either. After promising third-year starter Timm Rosenbach went down with a season-ending knee injury in practice on Aug. 21, the Cards got calls from more than a dozen teams wanting to deal them a quarterback. But Bugel the company man stayed with Tupa, whom Phoenix had drafted out of Ohio State in 1988 as much for his punting skills as for his passing ability. Having thrown only 140 passes—he's punted six times—in his three previous NFL seasons, Tupa still must learn how to release the ball sooner and how to look off covered receivers quicker.
In his first NFL start, against the Rams two weeks ago, Tupa ran for one touchdown and passed for another as the Cardinals won 24-14. To the delight of Shurmur, the Phoenix defense took a lot of pressure off Tupa by gathering in seven L.A. turnovers. Even though he completed only six of 19 passes against Philadelphia, Tupa gave the Cards a lift by connecting on three passes of longer than 50 yards in the first half, when he piled up 202 of his 218 passing yards.
As much as the Phoenix picture remains bright despite the loss of Rosenbach, Philly's future looks dim without its regular quarterback. As the Eagles prepared for their first game after losing Randall Cunningham for the year to a knee injury, they appeared loose and confident. In the locker room after the workout, new backup quarterback Pat Ryan was in a hurry to leave and dressed without showering. Bad move, Pat. Some other Eagles started mooing and snorting and humming the theme from Rawhide, and White pulled out a whip and snapped it on the floor near Ryan.
No Cunningham? What, the Eagles worry? "This is the way we always are," said linebacker Seth Joyner. "If you're tight, you can't be yourself. We definitely won't be tight."
Philly wasn't tight. It just wasn't good enough to beat Phoenix. While Bugel fretted before the game about McMahon's presence—"He reminds me of Billy Kilmer, he's so tough," Bugel said—the big question among the Eagle coaches was whether an offensive line in its formative stages could protect McMahon, who has a history of missing games because of shoulder and knee injuries. As it turned out, it couldn't. Harvey abused fledgling tackle Cecil Gray, who played defense in college, getting by Gray for one sack of McMahon and four hard hits on him.
"Some of you guys don't think I can take a hit," said McMahon to the press after the game. "Well, you watch the film and see if I can take a hit." You can, Jim. But how many more?
McMahon wasn't the only Eagle the Cardinals defense knocked around. As running back Keith Byars prepared to throw an option pass late in the first quarter, inside linebacker Garth Jax plowed into Byars's midsection. The result: a wounded-duck pass that was intercepted by cornerback Aeneas Williams. The opportunistic Tupa then floated a 51-yard touchdown pass to Johnson. On the next series, Robert Drummond, a Philly scrub, fumbled at the Eagle 20, Phoenix recovered, and Greg Davis made his second of four field goals to give the Cards a 13-0 lead after one quarter.
Philly had fallen behind 16-0 when, with 5:47 to go in the half, it suffered through another frustrating possession, courtesy of the Phoenix defense. Scrambling to avoid the Cardinals rush, McMahon kept looking, looking, looking, trying to make a play. Cornerback Lorenzo Lynch launched him out of bounds with a clean whack. On the next play, just after completing a pass to Byars, McMahon was knocked woozy by Nunn. Downfield, on the same play, Byars fumbled. Phoenix recovered.
Still, Philly wasn't finished until it blew a big chance while trailing 19-10 in the final minute of the third quarter. Wideout Fred Barnett caught a McMahon pass in midstride at the Cardinals five, but as he neared the end zone he was drilled by Nunn and fumbled. Phoenix recovered.
The afternoon's last bit of drama, if you can call it that considering that the Cards were ahead 26-10 at the time, came near the Phoenix goal line with less than a minute to play. The game was history, sure, but in NFC East terms it wasn't over. On the Cardinals sideline, players and coaches screamed for their defense to keep Philly out of the end zone.
On first-and-goal from the two, Heath Sherman picked up a yard before being run out of bounds. On second-and-goal, Thomas Sanders burrowed for no gain. "Lord have mercy! Hold 'em!" Robbins yelled.
"Don't let 'em in!" bellowed cornerback Robert Massey.
"Fight 'em! Fight 'em! Fight 'em!" screamed Bugel.
Thirteen seconds remained when Sanders carried into the middle again. In the frenzy of Cardinals tacklers, someone batted at the ball and it squirted loose. Guess who recovered? Phoenix had its 13th turnover in two games, a league high. On the Cardinals sideline, there were hugs all around.
That's how good things get started for NFL teams, with goal line stands and team unity. The NFC East just might have a new big-time team.