3 Arizona Cardinals A much tougher schedule and some notable player defections mean that improving upon last year's playoff excitement probably isn't in the Cards

August 29, 1999

On the wall of the Cardinals' players and coaches dorm at their
Flagstaff, Ariz., training camp, there is the following message
from the National Park Service: "What to do if you see a
mountain lion: Do not run. Do not approach it. Do not crouch
down. If attacked, remain standing and fight back."

Well, here come the mountain lions. Last year the franchise
built its 9-7 record and won its first playoff game in 51 years
thanks in part to a schedule that had only one opponent that
finished with a winning record. Now Arizona faces eight of them,
all of whom reached the postseason in 1998. The Cardinals are
not running or crouching, they're fighting back; but what do
they have to fight with?

Free agency took away the best member of a mediocre offensive
line, left tackle Lomas Brown. Arizona's first-round draft
choice (No. 21 overall), L.J. Shelton, who was chosen to replace
Brown, was still unsigned as SI went to press. Gone is last
year's sturdiest linebacker, Jamir Miller, and the offense will
be minus the combined 122 pass receptions supplied by fullback
Larry Centers, utility back Eric Metcalf and tight end Chris
Gedney, who are all gone this year. Two-time Pro Bowl defensive
left tackle, Eric Swann, is coming back from surgery to correct
an arthritic left knee, and his sidekick, Mark Smith, who played
the best of any of the Arizona linemen in '98 but got paid the
least, is holding out until he feels that his salary situation
is remedied.

That's the bad news. The good news: Arizona is young, with only
two projected 22 starters 30 or older. The Cardinals' top draft
pick (No. 8 overall), wideout David Boston, has so far given
Arizona just what it wanted--a deep threat to go with a potent
twosome of Rob Moore and Frank Sanders (last year's top receiver
in the NFC, with 89 catches). Adrian Murrell, the tailback, is
coming off his third straight 1,000-yard season. Right
cornerback Corey Chavous is developing into a fine running mate
for All-Pro Aeneas Williams, and left defensive end Andre
Wadsworth, last year's first-round draft choice, got off to a
great start in camp. Then there's Jake Plummer, the freewheeling
young quarterback.

For the first half of '98 Jake the Snake was Jake the Turtle, a
dink and dunk passer in the offense crafted by new coordinator
Marc Trestman, a veteran of the Bill Walsh system in San
Francisco. Take what the defense gives you, don't screw up,
safety at all costs. The Cardinals had taken a wild stallion and
put him in front of a cart. Through eight games he was averaging
a measly 9.7 yards per completion, close to the bottom of the
league, and the team was 4-4. Coach Vince Tobin had a talk with
his coordinator. "Vince came into my office," Trestman says,
"and told me, 'I want you to turn Jake loose. We can't go into
the playoffs with a defense carrying a try-not-to-lose offense.'"

So the Cardinals went to a no-huddle, hurry-up attack. Trestman
cut down the playbook and stressed the things Plummer does
best--stretch the field, throw on the move. Plummer's
yards-per-completion average rose to 13.0 for the last eight
games, and he trimmed his interceptions from 12 in the first
half of the season to eight in the second. And Arizona, riding
the crest of three straight wins and 902 passing yards by
Plummer, reached the postseason.

For the record, Plummer says all the right things. "It took me
awhile to learn the system.... I had to cut down on mistakes....
I was throwing too many interceptions." But one day in practice
this summer, while watching her son whipping the ball downfield,
Marilyn Plummer said, "Jake was miserable early last year. He
was worried about getting his steps right and not making
mistakes. Then one day he just said the hell with it and started
playing."

Now, in his fourth year in the league, Plummer is poised to take
his place among the big boys, the Favres and Youngs and Aikmans
and Marinos.

And the defense? Swann is the key. "It was a case of
degenerative arthritis last year, of bone rubbing on bone," he
says. "The cartilage was gone. I could play in spurts but I
couldn't sustain it. They drilled into the bone, trying to
stimulate cell growth to get the cartilage to reform. But now I
fully expect to be ready for the season. My weight will be down
to 295. I'll be quicker, I'll be hitting the gaps. It'll be like
turning on a light switch: Bam! I guarantee you, the old Swannie
will be back. They'd better work on their hard count because I'm
going to be coming."

So will the mountain lions. --P.Z.

COLOR PHOTO: JEFF CARLICK/ENDZONE SHOW OF HANDS With the addition of a new deep threat, Moore should get less attention and more catches.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS

SCHEDULE

Sept. 12 at Philadelphia
19 at Miami
27 SAN FRANCISCO (Mon.)
Oct. 3 at Dallas
10 N.Y. GIANTS
17 WASHINGTON
24 Open date
31 NEW ENGLAND
Nov. 7 at New York Jets
14 DETROIT
21 DALLAS
28 at N.Y. Giants
Dec. 5 PHILADELPHIA
12 at Washington
19 BUFFALO
26 at Atlanta
Jan. 2 at Green Bay

FAST FACTS

1998 Record 9-7 (2nd in NFC East)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 21/8/13; defense 20/17/21

1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 4 (tie)
Opponents' 1998 winning percentage: .535
Games against playoff teams: 9

TWO OF A KIND

Jake Plummer's career statistics are very similar to those of
Neil Lomax--the last Cardinals quarterback to go to the Pro Bowl
(1987 season)--at a comparable point in their careers. The chart
below compares Plummer's career stats with Lomax's after the same
number of regular-season starts.

Age G Starts W-L-T Rtg. Comp. pct. Yds/Att.

Jake Plummer
24 26 25 12-13 74.3 57.1 7.05
TDs Int. Drop backs per sack Playoff W-L
32 5 9.3 1-1

Neil Lomax
24 32 25 13-11-1 74.4 54.8 7.01
[TDs Int. Drop backs per sack Playoff W-L]
26 25 8.7 0-1

PLAYER TO WATCH

You want to know the statistics of the great Ken O'Brien-Dan
Marino, Jets-Dolphins shootout of Sept. 21, 1986? Ask Corey
Chavous. "Marino, 30 of 50 for 448 yards, six touchdowns," he
says. "O'Brien, 29 of 43, 479 yards, four touchdowns, all to
Wesley Walker." That's when the Cardinals' right cornerback
started building his library, which now numbers some 500 game
tapes. "I used to tape everything," he says, "college and pro.
The great SEC teams, the great Florida attack of the '80s,
Kerwin Bell to Ricky Nattiel, the NFL, anything I could lay my
hands on. I'd get six-hour tapes and fill 'em up." He'd study
the coaching films, then take them home--and keep them. There
might be a few better cornerbacks in the NFL, but none have seen
and studied as many games as this second-year pro. In his rookie
season of '98 the Cardinals played him at strong safety, then
switched him to corner in Game 12. With All-Pro Aeneas Williams
on the left side, Chavous became a target, but he held up well.
Now he's five pounds lighter, better and smarter. Arizona could
have the best pair of corners in the game.

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS
Coach: Vince Tobin
Fourth season with Cardinals (20-28 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Jake Plummer 8
547 att. 324 comp. 59.2% 3,737 yds. 17 TDs 20 int 75.0 rtg.

RB Adrian Murrell 30
274 att. 1,042 yds. 3.8 avg. 18 rec. 169 yds. 9.4 avg. 10 TDs

RB Mario Bates 186
60 att. 165 yds. 2.8 avg. 1 rec. 14 yds. 14.0 avg. 6 TDs

FB Rod Brown[2] 329
55 att. 226 yds. 4.1 avg 2 rec. 3 yds 1.5 avg. 2 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
[PVR]

WR Frank Sanders 55 89 rec. 1,145 yds. 3 TDs
WR Rob Moore 68 67 rec. 982 yds. 5 TDs
WR David Boston (R)[1] 122 85 rec. 1,435 yds. 13 TDs
TE Johnny McWilliams 268 26 rec. 284 yds. 4 TDs
K Chris Jacke 175 6/6 XPs 10/14 FGs 36 pts.
PR David Boston (R)[1] 122 19 ret. 14.2 avg. 1 TD
KR Michael Pittman 291 4 ret. 21.0 avg. 0 TDs
LT Anthony Clement 6'7" 355 lbs. 1 game 0 starts
LG Chris Dishman 6'2" 320 lbs. 12 games 11 starts
C Aaron Graham 6'4" 295 lbs. 14 games 13 starts
RG Matt Joyce 6'7" 316 lbs. 11 games 0 starts
RT James Dexter 6'7" 319 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

Defense

LE Andre Wadsworth 57 tackles 5 sacks
LT Eric Swann 32 tackles 4 sacks
RT Mark Smith 72 tackles 9 sacks
RE Simeon Rice 39 tackles 10 sacks
OLB Rob Fredrickson[1]86 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
MLB Ron McKinnon 95 tackles 5 int.
OLB Patrick Sapp 27 tackles 1 sack
CB Aeneas Williams 70 tackles 1 int.
SS Tommy Bennett 85 tackles 2 int.
FS Kwamie Lassiter 55 tackles 8 int.
CB Corey Chavous 25 tackles 2 int.
P Scott Player 81 punts 41.7 avg.

[1] New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)
[2] 1996 statistics

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)