A Turn Of the Cards

A besieged Buddy Ryan had to shuffle the deck, but he finally got a win with Arizona
October 09, 1994

Betty Jacobs is like a lot of folks in Arizona. She moved from Tennessee to the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale 15 years ago to find a better life, and along the way she became a fan of the state's teams. When Buddy Ryan was hired to coach the Arizona Cardinals in February, Jacobs was so excited that she and her husband, Robert, shelled out $1,600 for a pair of season tickets in the loge on the 45-yard line at Sun Devil Stadium.

After watching a dismal preseason followed by an even more dismal start to the regular season. Jacobs began to simmer. "The defense was awesome, but the offense was the blind leading the blind," she says. "We've been led down the primrose path for so long by this team and this owner [Bill Bidwill], and Ryan came in and promised us a winner, and we were just totally let down."

On Sept. 19, the day after a 32-0 loss at Cleveland that made the Cards' record 0-3, Jacobs called the team offices in Tempe. She told the person on the other end of the line that if she bought a product at a department store and it didn't work, she would take it back and the store would refund her money. She said this was the same thing. The Cardinals were defective, and she demanded her money back. "They thought I had my nerve," she says. "They said they didn't refund money."

It took some doing by Robert on Sunday morning to persuade Betty to give the Cardinals one last chance. The Minnesota Vikings were in town, and the Cards had their third starting quarterback of the young season, Jay Schroeder, at the helm. It was a pleasant day, and so she agreed to go out to the game. In fact, a whole lot of Betty Jacobses decided to give these Cardinals one more chance Sunday. As it turned out, the crowd of 67,950 would be the largest ever to see the Cardinals win at home. The defense clamped down on Warren Moon and the NFC Central-leading Vikings, and Schroeder played the first competent game by a Card quarterback all season as Arizona won 17-7.

Afterward, Betty wasn't asking for her money back. "Today it was like the fans were demanding a win," she said. "If they didn't win today, I'd have traded all my tickets for anything. I guess I've changed my mind."

For now. The Cardinals still have a long way to go before they can back up Ryan's bold off-season boasts. In the spring the 60-year-old coach was sounding off like George Patton, predicting that his team would make the playoffs and touting some very unfamous players as future Hall of Famers. Running back Ronald Moore, one year out of Pittsburg (Kans.) State, reminded him of Walter Payton, Ryan said. Defensive tackle Eric Swann might be better than Reggie White, he said. The front seven was the best he'd ever been around, he said. The entire state glommed on to Buddy and his bragging, and the team doubled its season-ticket base to 48,122.

Then after a winless September, a fan in a pickup truck drove by the Cardinal complex and yelled, "Buddyball sucks!" The sentiment was echoed on radio talk shows from Flagstaff to Tucson and in headlines atop the state's daily newspapers. Yet, through it all, Ryan remained unfazed. If his bluster was somewhat muted, his confidence never ebbed. And all it took was Sunday's win over the Vikings to relight his oratorical fuse. Commenting on Viking runner Terry Allen, who came into the game averaging 5.8 yards per carry but gained only 18 yards in 12 carries against Arizona, Ryan said, "Nobody runs on us."

"How about Emmitt Smith?" someone asked him.

"He's not going to, either," Ryan said.

That's Emmitt Smith of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, whom the Cardinals will play twice over the next three weeks. Even with the euphoria of the Viking win still fresh, the Cards know they need to win one of those games to avoid looking like the same old birds.

Don't get beat deep. Whatever happens, don't get heat deep. That was the message that kept playing in Cardinal rookie nickelback Herschel Currie's head during the third quarter of Arizona's shellacking by the Browns. It was Currie's first NFL game, and he wanted to do exactly what his coaches told him. This was his chance of a lifetime, landing on Ryan's new team, and he wanted to make this the first day of a long career playing for the man who had been proclaimed a defensive genius in tours with six NFL teams.

Leading 3-0 the Browns had a third-and-25 at the Cardinal 45. Easy play for Currie. He would line up at right corner across from Brown rookie Derrick Alexander, give Alexander a big cushion and keep the play in front of him. "I don't know why I did what I did," Currie says. "I just felt like bumping the receiver, so I moved up and bumped him."

What a fragile thing a football career, and a football season, can be. Alexander quickly recovered from the ill-advised bump and raced downfield. As Currie sprinted to catch up, he turned to see Vinny Testaverde's pass coming toward him near the Cardinal 15. Suddenly Alexander slowed, and Currie, looking back for the floating ball, bowled him over. Pass interference. First down for the Browns at the Arizona 14. Three plays later, Cleveland scored a touchdown and commenced its steamroller of a victory.

The morning after the Cleveland game, Currie reported to work at the Cardinals' complex. "I went into the team meeting room, and Buddy walked in," said Currie. "As soon as he saw me, he walked back out, and then a little while later [defensive backs coach] Rob Ryan came to see me. He said to me, 'Go get your stuff. We're releasing you.' I was shocked. So I said to him, 'Just like that?' And Rob said. 'It happens pretty quick around here.' "

You can say that again. Over the past several weeks Ryan has tended the busiest revolving door in football. Trying desperately to salvage the season during the bye week after the Cleveland loss, the Cardinals tried to persuade former New York Giant quarterback Phil Simms, now a commentator for ESPN, to join the club. But on Sept. 26 Simms announced that he and the team had been unable to come to terms. So for the Minnesota game Ryan started Schroeder, who had been waived by the Cincinnati Bengals on Aug. 30 and signed by the Cardinals six days later. The revolving door at quarterback was really spinning.

Steve Beuerlein, the starter in Games 1 and 2, was throwing more like Steve Martin, so Ryan benched him. At least Beuerlein will last the season, but who else will? The practice field resembled a bus station. Journeyman Rich Gannon was sent packing after he auditioned at quarterback during the bye week. Jim McMahon, who started the Cleveland game and was positively awful before being yanked late for Schroeder, will have to fight his way off the bench.

Quarterback isn't the only position in flux. Remember Barry Word? The former Kansas City, New Orleans and Minnesota running back was tending to his Richmond restaurant, None Such Place, three weeks ago when he realized he hadn't gotten the football bug completely out of his system. Seeing how pathetic the Cardinal running game had been through three weeks—208 yards and one touchdown on 65 carries—and wanting to visit his son in Arizona anyway, he flew to Phoenix, drove to the Cardinal offices and walked in the front door, unannounced.

"I'd like to see Buddy Ryan, please," Word said.

"Your name?" the receptionist said.

"Barry Word."

"Is he expecting you?

"No."

Ryan told Word to come on in. "Good thing you're here," the coach said. "We need somebody." The Cards signed him, and he was in uniform on Sunday.

While the Denver Broncos and the Houston Oilers seemed to be unraveling after their horrible starts, surprisingly few discouraging words were heard among the Cardinal players. Ryan has seen to that. After Beuerlein popped off in the press about how he had been demoted to third string without being told by a coach, Ryan gathered his team after practice. What would they do, he asked them, if they had cancer? Cut it out, they responded in unison. "That's right," Ryan said. "Cut it out. And remember—I'm the damned doctor here." The message: Anyone who didn't like Buddy's ways could look for employment elsewhere.

Even in the three losses, the Arizona defense played the way a Ryan defense should. But the offense was performing with the precision of 11 sleepwalkers. After finishing eighth in total offense in '93 under coach Joe Bugel, the attack returned mostly intact (except for tight end Walter Reeves and guard Lance Smith, who left as free agents). But in the three losses the offensive line was a sieve, and Ryan juggled personnel almost daily. Finally against the Vikings, Ryan found a combination he could live with.

The Cards made a mistake by moving versatile back Larry Centers, who weighs only 215, to fullback, a miscalculation they acknowledged two weeks ago by flirting with big backs Nick Bell, formerly of the L.A. Raiders, and unsigned free agent Christian Okoye before signing the 242-pound Word. But as bad as the running game has been, the passing game has been one of the worst in the NFL.

Before the 1993 season the Cardinals signed Beuerlein, who had spent the two previous years backing up Troy Aikman in Dallas, for $7.5 million over three years. Beuerlein played well last season, but his arm was weak and inaccurate in the first two losses this year, to the L.A. Rams and the New York Giants.

"I've been watching this game for 30 years, and I've never seen a quarterback have a worse day than he had against the Rams," Ryan said. "He's throwing the ball in the dirt, throwing behind guys, throwing short, and I stayed with him. Next game he throws an interception on the first play of the game, and he gives the Giants six points, and I've got to do something. We were like a basketball team without a point guard." In the third quarter, Ryan yanked Beuerlein for McMahon.

Asked if he was afraid that his quick hook and such comments might make matters worse by harming Beuerlein mentally, Ryan said, "He ought to be able to take it. He's making $2 million a year."

That's vintage Buddy. A couple of weeks ago one caller to his radio show, a woman, ripped into him, saying, "You're arrogant and you're rude. And I think you need a Dale Carnegie course."

"Ma'am," Ryan replied gently, "I teach those courses."

One of Ryan's shortcomings is an inability to admit he is wrong. He insists he didn't fail in Philadelphia, though his Eagles never won a playoff game in his live seasons as coach; instead he blames then-owner Norman Braman, whom he rips for firing him before he could finish the job. He still defends his slugging of a fellow Oiler assistant, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, during a game last season. But during the Cardinals' bye week, right there in his office, he came perilously close to admitting a mistake: that he had overestimated Arizona's offense.

"What's disappointing to me," he said, "is I think that maybe...it might be...that I put a lot of stock in them finishing eighth in the league last year, and I told them they were good. The defense worked hard in the off-season because we were teaching a new system to a lot of guys. But the offense we kept basically the same, and they didn't pay the same price. Now I see a different guy breaking down on almost every offensive play."

Ryan said on his radio show that while he sees defensive players staying after practice to watch film and do extra work, "I haven't seen any of the offensive players in there. And there's a work ethic that has to happen on this team." It was a clear signal to his offensive players—but a signal that would have been better communicated at a team meeting or at practice.

Is there hope for Arizona? There always is with a defense this good. But Buddy's blathering alone is not enough to carry this team, as September showed. Ryan must leave the offensive line alone and let it develop a chemistry. The front was solid on Sunday, allowing the Vikings only two sacks and paving the way for 109 rushing yards. Ryan gave Ben Coleman, Ed Cunningham and Ernest Dye game balls for handling Henry Thomas and John Randle, the twin-terror Vike tackles.

"It feels like a piano's been lifted off my back," Cunningham said after Sunday's win. But Ryan and the Cardinals know that if the team resumes its losing ways, it could come crashing right back down.

PHOTOSTEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT (BEUERLEIN)The quarterback parade began with Beuerlein (7), who was followed by McMahon (top right), who yielded to Schroeder (11), who made Ryan (opposite) happy. PHOTOLARRY LAMBRECHT (MCMAHON)[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWhat with flubs like Ricky Proehl's dropped pass (above), no wonder Jamir Miller was hanging his head. PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLE[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe defense has done its part by, among other things, harassing Ram (above) and Viking receivers. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHShaking off the season's early gloom, Ryan basked in the warmth of the victory over the Vikings.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)