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Red Storm Rising

Jan. 26, 2009
Jan. 26, 2009

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Jan. 26, 2009

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
NFL CONFERENCE FINALS
COLLEGE BASKETBALL
PRO BASKETBALL
NHL MIDSEASON REPORT
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
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Red Storm Rising

Behind the phenomenal Larry Fitzgerald and the ageless Kurt Warner, the Arizona Cardinals (!!!) are NFC champions. Next up for the NFL's new juggernaut: a Super Bowl XLIII date with the Pittsburgh Steelers—the model on which these Cardinals were built

BRENDA WARNER waswalking across a carpet of confetti at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sundaywhen she came face-to-face with her husband's latest band of misfits. The teamowner, in red bow tie, was standing near the star receiver, in dreadlocks, whowas just across the way from a tattooed lineman. At last Brenda spotted herhusband standing off to the side of the makeshift stage. Kurt Warner's hair wastousled and gray at the temples. An NFC CHAMPIONS T-shirt covered his ArizonaCardinals jersey. Behind him, held aloft by his teammates, the George HalasTrophy bobbed like a buoy in an ocean of hands. "I can't believe this ishappening again," Brenda said. ¶ Just weeks ago no one would have predictedanother Super Bowl appearance for the 37-year-old Warner, or a first Super Bowlever for the Cardinals, who overcame the Philadelphia Eagles 32--25 in the NFCChampionship Game and punched their tickets to Tampa, where they'll face thePittsburgh Steelers on Feb. 1.

This is an article from the Jan. 26, 2009 issue

On Thanksgivingnight Philly beat Arizona by four touchdowns. On Dec. 21, two weeks after theCardinals had clinched the pedestrian NFC West, Arizona lost to the Patriots by40 points in the snow in Foxborough. "New England's coaches were up in thebox counting how many of our guys were around the heaters," says Cardinalsoffensive coordinator Todd Haley. "And I saw it happening on the sideline.I look around, and everybody is huddled around the heaters."

It was after thatgame, as the Cardinals endured flight delays and a refueling stop beforearriving home 6 ½ hours late, that Arizona's outlook began to change. Coach KenWhisenhunt dismissed the players for two days, and in the first practice backbefore the season finale, he shook things up. Whisenhunt, who spent six seasonsin Pittsburgh as a Steelers assistant, cranked up the intensity. He ordered theplayers into helmets and pads. He shouted at his players on the field. Haley,raised at the knee of Bill Parcells with the Jets and Cowboys, was even morevociferous. "I went crazy in the offensive room," Haley says. "Isaid, 'It's not going to stay the same. They're either going to run me out ofhere, or I'm looking to run anybody out of here I can.'"

Profanity andpercussive hits echoed across the practice field in Tempe. Whisenhunt and Haleybeat the toughness back into players who'd gotten away from the things that hadled the team to a 7--3 start.

Now they'veslashed and slugged their way past three straight NFC opponents and stand onewin from their first NFL championship since 1947, when the team played inChicago and owner Bill Bidwill was a ball boy for the club. To earn their firstLombardi Trophy, though, they'll have to beat one of the league's most physicalteams—and one they've tried to model themselves after.

"When[Cardinals president] Michael Bidwill and I set out to find a coach [in 2007],we wanted to mirror that Steeler-type football," say general manager RodGraves. What better place to look than in Pittsburgh? They hired Whisenhunt,the Steelers' offensive coordinator. He brought with him Pittsburgh offensiveline coach Russ Grimm, and to run the offense he hired Haley, who's alsosteeped in Steelers tradition: His father, Dick, played defensive back forPittsburgh in the '60s and was the Steelers' player personnel director from1971 to '90; Todd was a ball boy for the Super Bowl teams of the '70s."He's demanded toughness," Graves says of Whisenhunt. "There hasbeen accountability, and our players have responded to thatleadership."

That the Cardscould respond with such force against a defensive power like the Eagles speaksto their resolve and ingenuity. One play in particular stands out. Haley knewPhilly's run-stopping defensive backs would be eager to attack the line ofscrimmage, so he spent the previous week preparing a play called PhillySpecial, a flea-flicker he'd used in Dallas. Third-string QB Brian St. Pierrewas given the task of studying film to determine the best moment to unveil thetrick play against the Eagles' No. 3--ranked defense. With the Cards at theirown 38, leading 7--3 and beginning their opening drive of the second quarter,St. Pierre turned to Haley on the sideline. "Philly Special," St.Pierre said.

"That was allI needed," Haley said.

Warner took thesnap and pitched the ball to running back J.J. Arrington, who started to runwide right. As defenders closed in, Arrington tossed the ball back to Warner onthe left as wideout Larry Fitzgerald sped past safety Quintin Demps. Warnerlaunched the pass just before Brodrick Bunkley laid into him. Near the 10-yardline, Demps spun and fell as Fitzgerald corralled the ball for a 62-yard TD anda 14--3 lead. "That was a play we had seen on tape get past Philadelphia inpast years, and we thought we could hit them with it," said Fitzgerald, whofinished with nine catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns. "We knowtheir safeties like to hit hard on the run, coming up and supporting. I wasable to get behind the safety, and Kurt threw the ball up and allowed me to goup there and find it."

That formula hasworked well all month: Fitzgerald's 419 receiving yards in the playoffs are themost by anyone in a single postseason—and he still has a game to go. Haley'shad a big hand in the fifth-year wideout's ascendance, constantly pushingFitzgerald not to coast on his abundant ability. This season he's been takenout of his comfort zone near the sidelines. "I've said [to him], Don't be aone-trick pony," says Haley. "It's obvious that if you throw him theball outside the numbers, he's going to make the play. This year we've movedhim around much more, put him in the slot and in formations new to Larry. It'sa different ball game because you've got coverages coming from two directions.He's gotten better every week. When he tells me, 'I want to thank you, Coach,for keeping your foot on my throat the last two years,' that meanssomething."

If Fitzgerald'sgifts were evident, Warner's were thought to be on the wane. After leading theRams to Super Bowl appearances following the 1999 and 2001 seasons, he fell outof favor in St. Louis and again after a year with the New York Giants. By 2005,when the Cards signed him, Warner looked like an aging, turnover-prone QB who'dtaken a few too many hits. "I can't tell you in all honesty that we knew hewas going to have this kind of effect," says Graves.

Haley had his ownquestions about Warner, who'd given way to Matt Leinart as Arizona's starter in2006. "I saw what happened in New York, what had gone on here, [andthought] his best days were behind him," says Haley. "But it didn'ttake long to see that he could throw the ball, that he was missing nothing inthat department."

All of Warner'sskill was evident on the game-winning drive, after Arizona squandered a 24--6lead to trail 25--24 with 10:45 left. He moved the offense 72 yards on 14plays, with Haley again taking advantage of the Eagles' aggressive D by dialingup a screen to Tim Hightower on third-and-goal from the Philly eight. Hightowerrumbled into the end zone, and a wayward franchise had finally reached thepromised land. A vagabond quarterback had found his place.

"When you gosomewhere and no one expects anything, you're able to be part of a change,"Warner said. "When you do something like this, you're part of itforever."

Warner used totalk that way in St. Louis when he was winning NFC titles with a high-poweredoffense, an opportunistic defense, and Brenda watching from the stands. She waswaiting for him again on Sunday, waiting as he signed autographs and posed forpictures next to the players' parking lot. "He's older now," Brendasaid, "but he plays the same."

"HE HAS DEMANDED TOUGHNESS," Graves says ofWhisenhunt (right), "and our players have responded."
PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansGRIPPING DRAMA Fitzgerald's third touchdown catch of the first half was part of a record-setting—and jaw-dropping—performance against the Eagles.PHOTOROBERT BECKPILE DRIVING Arizona's commitment to physical play was evident as it pounded the ball with the likes of Edgerrin James (32).PHOTOPETER READ MILLERTWO SIDES The D got the drop on Donovan McNabb early, but it was the late-game heroics of the Cards' offense that prevailed.PHOTOAL TIELEMANSPLUCKY 13 Counted out countless times in his career, Warner now heads to his third Super Bowl on a wave of confidence.PHOTOAL TIELEMANS