This was last Saturday afternoon, the day before new coach/franchise czar Buddy Ryan officially began the task of raising Arizona, and the Cardinals already had their game faces on. They filed off their charter flight at Southern California's John Wayne Orange County Airport dressed to the nines—linebacker Seth Joyner in a white linen suit, safety Lorenzo Lynch in a Cardinal red suit, the portly Ryan in a lime-green blazer—and with a look in their eyes that said they were ready to play the Los Angeles Rams right then and there, not in 21 hours.
"Hey," said the airline employee greeting the flight, "you guys dress a lot better than most teams."
Ryan shot the guy a no-nonsense look. "Well, we play a lot better than most teams, too," he said.
Maybe, maybe not. One training camp, a ton of press clippings and four quarters into the 1994 season, the Cardinals shaped up this way: ferocious defense, feeble offense. In Sunday's 14-12 season-opening loss to the Rams, the Cards, counted on by Arizonans to win the franchise's first playoff game in 47 years, showed that they can dominate opponents with Ryan's 46 defense; Los Angeles didn't get its first first down until a minute before halftime, and 1993 Rookie of the Year Jerome Bettis gained just 52 yards on 21 carries during the entire game. But Arizona won't be able to back up Buddy's bravado unless quarterback Steve Beuerlein adds a few miles per hour to his fastball (his throws seemed to hang in the air too long against the Rams, and two were picked off), unless the run blocking improves (the Cardinals averaged just 3.2 yards a carry) and unless wide receiver Ricky Proehl gets some glue for his fingertips (he dropped a perfectly thrown, potentially game-winning touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter). Worse, all this occurred against an L.A. team that went 0-4 in the preseason.
The game was a dreary affair in which the two clubs combined for only 382 net yards; five other teams surpassed that mark on their own on Sunday. Middle linebacker Eric Hill expressed what every defensive player in the Cardinal locker room must have felt afterward. "We stopped 'em three-and-out 80 percent of the time," Hill said, "but look at Buddy's history. His defense has to score. His defense always scores. This defense has to win games for us."
This defense will win a few games for Arizona—outside linebackers Joyner and Wilber Marshall and defensive end Clyde Simmons were flying around the ball on Sunday—but a few won't be enough. Ryan had whipped Phoenix into such a frenzy over this team that folks forgot one thing: These are the Cardinals we're talking about, a club that has averaged fewer than six wins a season over the last decade and hasn't made the playoffs since 1982.
But it's pretty easy to get swept up by Ryan's hope, because he's so dang sure of himself, so unafraid of failure that you're certain he'll succeed, so charismatic that you almost hope he'll win, just so he'll be able to stay around and keep things lively. To wit, Ryan's actions in recent days included the following:
•Calling the agent for departed Card linebacker Ken Harvey "an ass" for not giving Arizona a chance to match the contract the Washington Redskins offered Harvey, who was a free agent.
•Praising himself for his reconstruction of the late-1980s Philadelphia Eagles, saying, "Who in the hell built a great team from scratch quicker than I did in Philadelphia?" The Eagles never won a playoff game under Ryan.
•Calling Kevin Gilbride, the fellow Houston Oiler assistant he punched on national TV last January, "a dumb, stupid high school coach."
•Belittling Ram assistant Joe Vitt, who lit into Ryan for criticizing the Rams last season, by saying, "Isn't he the guy who carries [Los Angeles coach] Chuck Knox's briefcase? I think he asked me for my autograph once."
•Calling Arizona's botched two-point conversion attempt in the third quarter Sunday—which would have tied the game—"an abortion" and saying it was "ridiculous" that his defense, which held L.A. to a measly 152 net yards, couldn't force more than two turnovers.
While Ryan carped, the Rams were full of glee after the Buddywhipping. In one corner of the Los Angeles locker room, the defensive backs were giddily yapping about how they shut Ryan up. And Vitt said, "If we played Buddy 16 times a year, we'd be undefeated. I wish he would have played today. It would have been like playing against 10."
Ryan may be 0-1, but for him Phoenix is still football heaven. In February he took over a team that already had .500 talent, and in this era of free agency he could tap into a bunch of Pro Bowl veterans from other clubs who were dying to play for him. He has an owner, Bill Bidwill, who smiles benignly and approves every money and personnel move Ryan suggests. Ryan runs the draft. He hires and fires players. "Buddy's got the ultimate authority, which every coach would love to have," says Redskin assistant Jim Hanifan, who never had such pull while going 39-49-1 as the Cardinals' coach from 1980 to '85.
Exhibit A of Ryan's sovereignty: One of the free-agent Cards that Ryan knew he wanted to keep was roughneck running back/special-teamer Larry Centers. But the New England Patriots offered Centers significantly more money than Arizona had, and one Monday morning in March, Centers's agent, Jordan Woy, called Cardinal assistant general manager Bob Ackles to tell him that Patriot vice president Patrick Forte was flying to Dallas at that moment to sign Centers. Ackles hustled down to Ryan's office. "Sign him," Ryan said. Ackles called Woy and increased the Arizona bid to an amount slightly above New England's. When Forte landed in Dallas, Woy told him Centers was going back to Phoenix, not to Foxboro. "A year ago the organization would have said, 'Well, let's think about it,' " Ackles says. "And we would have lost the player." Ironically, it was Centers's fumble in the first quarter Sunday that landed in the hands of Ram cornerback Todd Lyght, who returned it 74 yards for a touchdown.
Ryan spent the preseason weeding out the soft guys. One day at camp he saw several injured players sitting and/or lying on the sidelines. The next day the order came down that injured players had to rehab their ailments for the entire practice session. Some injured players had to jog while pushing a sand-filled wheelbarrow around the field, an exercise that was the brainchild of strength coach Bob Rogucki. "Hell of a doctor, that Rogo," Ryan said. "Those hurt guys spent about half a day with those wheelbarrows, then they were back practicing."
But Ryan does have a lighter side. When Beuerlein threw a party last month for Cardinal players, staffers and wives, Ryan and wife Joanie stayed till closing time. "This is my kind of party," Ryan said at one point. "Lots of booze and pretty women."
In preparing for Sunday's opener Ryan didn't give the Cards any motivational gems. "No Vince Lombardi speeches—that's not Buddy," said Joyner, who played for Ryan in Philadelphia. The night before the game, in his best Oklahoma twang, Ryan simply told his team, "Men, we've got a great game plan. But if we don't upend people out there, it don't mean nothing."
Arizona will upend its share of folks this year. The big question now must be whether its offense can get into the end zone often enough to make an off-season of Ryan's brave words pan out come January. "These guys are in for an experience like they've never had before," Joyner said a couple of days before Sunday's game. "They have no idea how great it can be here." It won't be so great, though, if there are many more days like Sunday.