After the latest debacle in what appears destined to be another lost Cardinals season, Arizona's plucky young quarterback, Josh McCown, got choked up and fought back tears. "You have so many guys playing hard, and you go out and put the ball on the ground, and you let people down," he said after a 6--3 mistake-filled road defeat to the Falcons on Sunday. "It hurts. Hurts bad."
There's no crying in new coach Dennis Green's world. No excuses, either, even following a game in which Arizona throttled undefeated Atlanta. After a game like that last year Green's predecessor, Dave McGinnis, probably would have put his arm around McCown and said something like, "Boy, I'm proud of how you battled out there today." Not Green. After McCown lost his third fumble of the game, on a blind-side sack on second-and-goal at the Cardinals' six-yard line with 12:33 to play, Green yanked McCown and sent in Shaun King on Arizona's next possession. It didn't matter that the 25year-old McCown had completed 20 of 26 passes, including a pinpoint 23 yarder to wideout Karl Williams two plays before the fumble. Or that he had outplayed counterpart Michael Vick to that point.
"We took Josh out," a stone-faced Green said afterward, "because you can only have so many bad plays in one game." So one day after saying that McCown had the tools to be one of the NFL's next great quarterbacks, Green couldn't even promise that the third-year passer would start this Sunday against the Saints.
The Cardinals, who last season lost five of their first six games with a 21point average margin of defeat, began the Green era with three close losses. (They opened with a 17--10 defeat at St. Louis and a 23--12 setback to New England.) But that competitiveness is more attributable to Green's buy-into-my-system-or-you're-out style of coaching than it is to a significant improvement in talent. "Ever see a jackass win the Kentucky Derby?" said former Vikings wideout Cris Carter, a Green confidant. "Ain't gonna happen. Same thing here. Denny hasn't got the horses."
Well, there are a few on defense. Until Vick broke loose for a 58yard gain on a misdirection play with about two minutes left, Arizona had held Atlanta to 216 yards, sacked Vick five times and forced four turnovers while allowing only two first-half field goals. Two rookies--tackle Darnell Dockett and linebacker Karlos Dansby, who combined for 12 tackles, a sack, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery--have given the front seven the spark it lacked under McGinnis. But the offense was putrid for the third week in a row: 240 yards, six sacks allowed, four fumbles lost and only three points to show for 34:37 of possession time.
During his 10 years as coach of the Vikings, Green won 97 games and advanced to the postseason eight times, so he knows how to build a winner. When he was asked last Saturday about Carter's assessment of Arizona's roster, Green kept a stiff upper lip as he answered. "We've got enough players here to win," he said. "I just believe we have players who haven't played as hard as they can. It's not about having nine first-round draft picks. It's about having players who buy into what you're doing and work hard to win."
From the outset the offensive line has been the main target of Green's displeasure. In August he cut center Pete Kendall before camp--a team source said Kendall questioned some of the protection schemes "and just talked too much"--and last spring he demoted overweight tackle L.J. Shelton, who last year was given a $5 million bonus as part of a contract extension; he also moved the highest-paid guard in the league, Leonard Davis, to left tackle. "Four of the six highest-paid guys on the team were offensive linemen," Green said, "but I thought it was our least productive group. So of course we're going to make changes." The results have been anything but impressive: The offense ranks 30th in the league and has scored an NFC-low 25 points.
After Sunday's loss the chastened Cardinals dressed quickly and quietly. Green's postgame message? "That we're going back to square one," cornerback David Macklin said. "Coach isn't going to tolerate losses like this."
Said Green, "It should be uncomfortable when you lose. And that's how it's going to be around here."