It was the end of another long, hot training camp practice, and a hopeful fan had some words of advice for Dennis Green, the Cardinals' would-be savior. "Come on, Coach, you'll turn it around," the fan said. "Just be patient."
Fat chance. Green, who won a division title in his first year with the Vikings, favors a more urgent approach. "Patience is not one of my virtues," Green told the fan. "We need to get this going now."
Never mind that the Cardinals have had just one winning season during their 16year run in the desert. And never mind that, as the 55-year-old Green willingly concedes, the team lacks talent in several key areas. Green, who led Minnesota to eight playoff berths in his 10 seasons there, is taking an aggressive approach toward raising Arizona--something that should be reflected by the Cardinals' high-flying attack.
Shortly after taking the job last January--Dave McGinnis was fired after a 4-12 season--Green put his faith in third-year quarterback Josh McCown, a tall Texan who showed promise during three late-season starts in 2003. In the finale McCown, a third-round draft choice out of Sam Houston State in '02, knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs with a last-play, 28-yard TD pass on fourth-and-25. "One thing you always like is a quarterback who's an athlete, and he's an exceptional one," Green says of the mobile McCown. "He's an accurate passer, an intelligent man who understands football."
Not that Green is professing his lifelong devotion to McCown--after all, his eight Vikings teams that reached the postseason used seven starters under center. "I'd like to be the quarterback that sticks around awhile," McCown says.
Green shook up the team by cutting some players (including veteran offensive lineman Pete Kendall, a starter the past three seasons) and demoting others. He also used his keen skills as personnel evaluator to assemble a promising draft class, featuring Pitt wideout Larry Fitzgerald, the No. 3 selection. Fitzgerald, a former Vikings ball boy who has known Green since he was a kid, joins last season's surprise Rookie of the Year, Anquan Boldin (a rookie-record 101 catches, for 1,357 yards and eight touchdowns), to create a tandem that could be scary for years to come.
Cris Carter and Randy Moss? "We just want to be Boldin and Fitzgerald," says the latter. "Getting the ball downfield is a big part of our offense."
Throw in third wideout Bryant Johnson, a first-round pick in 2003, and Freddie Jones, whom Green regards as a Pro Bowl--caliber tight end, and the strong-armed McCown has a chance to do some damage--especially when Boldin returns in mid-October from knee surgery. "I think a lot of people are going to be surprised, especially when we start putting up wins," Jones says. "Just like last year--Carolina went with a new, young quarterback, Jake Delhomme, and lo and behold he went to the Super Bowl. I think Josh is that type of guy."
The Cardinals do have one prominent player on offense for whom Super Bowls are more than a fantasy. With speedy fourth-year back Marcel Shipp out with a broken left leg, which could sideline him for much of the season, the bulk of Arizona's rushing chores will be handled by 35-year-old Emmitt Smith. Last year Smith ran for just 256 yards in 10 games, gaining a mere 2.8 yards per carry. Green, however, is one of the few respected NFL minds convinced that Smith is not done.
"Emmitt is a lot better player than he appeared to be [in 2003], and I think he'll show it," Green insists. "I didn't get the feeling last year that the offensive linemen took enough pride in the fact that they were blocking for the alltime leading rusher. This year, I believe they'll get it."
With a new stadium under construction in suburban Glendale (it's set to open in 2006) and a proven winner in charge, the Cardinals believe they may finally field a competitive team. They have visions of playing in front of fans actually rooting for the home team, cheering a prolific offense as it launches yet another scoring drive.
"By the end of this year I expect our stadium to be full," McCown says. "The only way you're going to get people to come out on those hot days is to put a product out there that's worth watching--and to win. We plan to do both." --M.S.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> While Wendell Bryant, the 12th pick in the 2002 draft, languishes on the bench, DARNELL DOCKETT has a chance to establish himself at defensive end. A third-round pick out of Florida State, the 6'4", 301-pound rookie quickly was named a starter. "To turn a program around," new coach Dennis Green says, "you have to play the guys you draft."
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
The first thing that jumps out at you is their lack of a pass rush. If you can't get to the passer in this league, you're in trouble, and last year the only way they could generate heat was to blitz Raynoch Thompson off the outside.... I like their linebackers, especially Ron McKinnon--he's a tough guy who plays at a good tempo. They're playing Gerald Hayes over the tight end, but he should be back beyond the line of scrimmage.... Denny Green can coach quarterbacks, and I can see Josh McCown emerging as a big-time player. He's a good decision-maker with a smooth delivery and a really good arm.... The offensive line is big and strong and can block in the running game, but it has trouble with mobility. Once Leonard Davis gets his hands on a defender, that guy's in trouble. But Davis still isn't playing like a top five pick.... With the injury to Marcel Shipp, the thought of Emmitt Smith trying to carry the rushing load is scary.... The receivers lack speed. As good as Anquan Boldin was last year, he caught a lot of passes when they were way behind. If a defense focuses on shutting him down, he can't run away and get open.
"Denny Green can coach quarterbacks; I can see McCown emerging as a big-time player."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 4-12
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Dennis Green; first season with Arizona (97-62 in NFL)
LARRY FITZGERALD (R)
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 172)
12 at St. Louis
19 NEW ENGLAND
26 at Atlanta
3 NEW ORLEANS
10 at San Francisco
17 Open date
31 at Buffalo
7 at Miami
14 N.Y. Giants
21 at Carolina
28 N.Y. JETS
5 at Detroit
12 SAN FRANCISCO
19 ST. LOUIS
26 at Seattle
2 TAMPA BAY
NFL rank: 5
Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .523
Games against playoff teams: 5