01 February 2009

Winning the Only Thing

In terms of overall talent or officiating, I'm not sure this Super Bowl was quite as awesome or spectacular as NBC postgame partners prattled, but it was an exciting, entertaining game. Hard fought, down to Kurt Warner's incomplete Hail Mary that was disappointingly ruled the game-ending fumble.

Pitt was the better team, I think, obviously the better defensive unit. The Cardinals didnt face a D like that in the playoffs, although the Eagles rushed Warner well at times. Philly simply didnt tackle like Pittsburgh. I was really impressed by all their one on one, open field wraps and hard hits on Cardinal receivers. Not as scary as the 85 Bears, but a very solid, aggressive, physical unit.

Speaking of which, the Cardinals were the better offensive team, scoring 3 TDs against this NFL-best defense, despite Warner's colossal halftime pick. Phoenix receivers were tough all night, fighting for balls and hanging on.

TE Ben Petrick caught his first TD this season, wresting an underthrown lob from a Steeler defender. Steve Breaston bobbled a couple balls in traffic but held on. Anquan was his usual manly self.

And Larry caught a TD on which he was tangled up.

I cant remember the corps dropping a ball all night, which under the circumstances, is pretty remarkable.

Play of the Game was undoubtedly Harrison's 100 yd INT and TD runback at the end of the first half. A ten point swing, minimum, probably fourteen, in a span of twenty seconds. An unsual play and huge mistake by Warner, but I dont think it was a fluke, or lucky, either. Harrison was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year and great players make great plays. It was a tremendous effort on his part - he's basically a lineman - to navigate through all the blocking and tacklers to reach the end zone. If he get's tackled on the one, a ninety nine yard return nets him nothing - and the Card's likely win the game.

Cardinal fans have learned to dread special teams, but Arizona probably won that battle. No big runbacks against - and Breaston ripped of a 35 yarder of his own on a punt. The Cards dont run well, but even Edgerrin James didnt drop like a sack of potatoes, as he often does. He stiff armed a couple Steelers, even fought for a first down or two.

I think what did in the Cards today, at least in terms of matchups, was the lack of a consistent pass rush, against an O line that led the NFL in sacks. You simply have to get to Big Ben more than three or four times in a game like this, because he'll inevitably bull his way into a few big gains on broken play scrambles. That's just the kind of player he is, but the Arizona rush made Ben the Behemoth too often look like Fran Tarkenton. Dockett got him a couple times up the middle, but the other lineman were too slow to bother Ben much.

Late in the game, the Arizona D - particularly the secondary - looked flat-footed from fatigue. That's when your best conditioned players, like Holmes and Fitzgerald do the big damage. On Holmes' game winning catch, Arizona positioned three defenders around him - so Arizona wasnt caught off guard. Rolle jumped up for the deflection, but couldnt quite tip it. Normally springy DRC was flat-footed in the end zone, four feet from the play, rendered useless by fatique. And nickelback Francisco closed to shove Holmes hard out of bounds - too little too late. A superb throw and great professional catch by a better conditioned athlete who really wanted the ball at the end.

Note that the play before that TD catch, the Steelers also went to Holmes in the opposite corner of the end zone, and another beautifully thrown, high ball just went through Santonio's hands. Also note that the winning catch was a second down and goal from the five with thirty five seconds remaining, so it wasnt a do or die play. Holmes drops that last ball, they still get two more cracks from the five to win the game. Against a dog tired defense, I'd say those were still strong odds.

Most would pick either late fourth quarter TD catch (Holmes or Fitz) as the game's next biggest play, but I'd highlight the final play on the game's first drive, when Tomlin opted to kick a FG after Roethelsberger's TD dive was overturned in the booth. I realize he has a great defense, but not going for it on fourth and goal from the one foot line, with a 240 lb quarterback, was an overly cautious decision that almost cost Pittsburgh the game, imo. It gave Arizona a huge psychological boost. If the Steelers had rammed it in there, which was very likely, the Harrison pick at the half puts them up 21-7, which I think is a lot more demoralizing than 17-7, especially since Arizona received to start the second half.

What does all this mean for Arizona and the football franchise. It means good things. Today was very tough for die hard fans, when you know with one or two more breaks and/or fewer dumb penalties it would be us hoisting the Lombardi trophy. But since I'm not a die hard, I can already say we lost to a slightly better team today. A better prepared and conditioned defensive team, certainly. I can also say that now is not the time to be overly critical of your Arizona Cardinals. If you are, well after today anyway, then you're not really a Cardinal fan at all- just a front-running opportunist.

Vince Lombardi famously said, "Winning isnt everything, it's the only thing", which is a solid mantra for professional athletes, but a lousy one for fans. We desperately want them to win during the contest, but when it's over we need not share their professional shame. We should be proud of these guys. They are well coached and play hard, together, and incredibly entertaining football. The fact they came within a minute of winning a Super Bowl shouldnt dampen our enthusiasm for any of that. It should make us appreciate it all the more.

I think that's what will happen in Phoenix, once the sting of this defeat dissipates. The Arizona Cardinals lost a championship, but won something almost as precious. On the sport's biggest stage, in front of the world, this laughingstock of a franchise "became" a serious football team. That might ring hollow, but those who've followed this franchise understand how big that is. In pregame, John Madden joked that there were years people kind of forgot the Cardinals were even in the league. By game's end, the dean of color analysts credited the Cards for a "super" Super Bowl, likening it to a great heavyweight bout.

Today changed everything. This once shell of a franchise that could've been forgiven for just being happy to be there, didnt phone in a shell of a game. In what amounted to a hostile stadium, against a favored opponent, the Cardinals barely lost a Super Bowl on a great last minute play. They won the hearts of Arizonans forever. Winning that may not impress Coach Lombardi, but for an entertainment franchise, especially this one, playing for a young city eager to assert an identity - it's the only thing.


Michael Norton said...

Our condolences on the loss. From the perspective of someone who really favored neither team, it was a great game, and the Cards earned some respect. That Warner interception at the end of the half was eerily like that interception Bradford threw in the BCS Championship game. Don't force it, throw it away, kick the field goal, the Cards and Sooners are champions.

I was surprised how many Cardinal fans there were in the two sports bars my son and I visited last night...

Michael Norton
Some Clubhouse - It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere!

Matt said...

In terms of entertainment, a great game. But there was only one SB caliber defense on the field, and that enabled a good deal of the Steelers' offensive heroics, imo.

I was surprised how many Cardinal fans there were in the two sports bars...

That would surprise me too. It's all we can usually do in Phoenix to get red in our sports bars ;-)

Michael Norton said...

It's all we can usually do in Phoenix to get red in our sports bars

Oddly, the same is true here in the middle of Redskins country.

One of bars we tried out for the SB turned out to be the local Jets fans bar. I've also been in the local Steelers and Browns bars. But what I'm looking for is the damn Redskins bar!

Every other car has a Redskins bumper sticker (or a defaced Giants/Eagles one). The local supermarkets are "The Official Supermarkets of the Washington Redskins". Yet I can't find the burgundy and gold jerseys on any given Sunday.

Not sure if that is a comment on team support or the kinds of bars I frequent...

Michael Norton
Some Clubhouse - It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere!

Jeff said...

I think it's time for the AZ Cardinals to change their entire color scheme and brand image... perhaps sedona red... or better yet: Purple, Teal and Black.

Matt said...


That's weird, especially since the skins sellout. I encourage you to frequent more and more bars until you find the right one!


Thanks for the heads up. I'm on it :-)

Ben Burrows said...

It was definitely a great game. The Cardinals showed that they did deserve to be there and played a great game.