Decades of losing still hover over Cardinals, despite earning first trip to Super Bowl


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TEMPE, Ariz. -- A sign of their horrid history was draped across Sun Devil Stadium on the occasion of the Arizona Cardinals' final home game there, Christmas Eve 2005.

Thanks for the memories -- both of them.

Their biggest fan, the only man these Cardinals still allow to hang a banner in their new, spaceship-out-of-the-sand University of Phoenix Stadium is a local known as Mad Jack Corson. Ask him about the lowest of the lows in the desert for a franchise that went 82 of 89 NFL seasons without a playoff sniff, and he laughs heartily.

"Funny that you mention that," Corson, 50, a software engineer, said last week. "This [sign] kind of says it all ... The Cardinals were mad. I hung it on Saturday, and they called me at home, 'Should you rethink your banner?'

"But that was the freaking truth."

By his reckoning, the good vibes consisted solely of an improbable 1998 playoff victory at Dallas, their only postseason triumph between 1947 and this wild ride to Super Bowl XLIII opposite the Steelers, and a 2003 season-ending upset that knocked Minnesota from the playoffs.

That's it. Two. In nearly two decades.

"So many bad memories..." Corson moaned.

Not just in Arizona, but across the spectrum of a narrative that begins in 1898 as the Morgan Athletic Club and soon after adopts the football nickname of the Normals -- who thereafter were almost anything but.

This is the franchise that put the "less" in hapless:

Their 664 all-time losses are nearly 100 more than any other NFL team, so wretched that to catch them, the Detroit Lions would need a half-dozen consecutive 0-16 seasons and the Cardinals -- whose current 12 victories (against seven losses) represent a franchise season record -- would need to go 16-0 every year in that span.

The Cardinals' 29 consecutive losses in league games from 1942-44 should stand as an NFL record, but that final year was their Card-Pitts toxic combo platter with the Steelers, and league officials continue to kindly look the other way. More on that reputed precedent later.

Their two postseason triumphs before this month tied New Orleans for the fewest in NFL history, and the Cardinals had a 47-year head start.

You want more?

They once had Raiders fans, outnumbering home Arizona fans, get into a fight among themselves at a Sun Devil Stadium preseason game.

They once had Buddy Ryan prematurely escape into the Sun Devil tunnel for the final play of a 4-12 season in 1995, which quickly became his last season as coach.

They once had a fullback, Dennis McKinley, busted for drugs, prompting NBC's Jay Leno to crack that the kid "tried to run, but he lost three yards."

They once had a quarterback, Gary Keithley, post back-to-back passer ratings of 0.00 -- an "Animal House"-style number never duplicated before or since -- and the Cardinals won one of those games.

They once had the NFL's all-time rushing leader in their backfield, and they punctuated Emmitt Smith's splendid career with a 2-yard loss.

They once had a 1965 draftee named Joe Namath, but didn't sign him.

"This is the greatest sports story ever. Ever. Ever!" Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby fairly screamed last Sunday, after the Cardinals punched their Tampa ticket for a berth in Raymond James Stadium next Sunday against the Steelers (14-4), with a 32-25, come-from-behind victory against Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.

"Look at the history, man," said Dansby

"Who else has been losing for 60 or 70 years? Some people don't live for 60 and 70 years."

John Omohundro has been working for the Cardinals and the infamous Bidwill family for 42 years, since he joined the St. Louis incarnation of this vagabond franchise as a trainer. He basically retired last summer, but the team retained him as a senior adviser -- just in time for him to comfortably watch the club's 20-year wandering in the sand finally reach football's Promised Land.

"Talk about being thirsty in the desert," Omohundro said last week, sitting in the Cardinals' facility shade underneath a new Cardinals NFC Champions ballcap.

"Man, we've been thirsting for this for a long time. It's time now."

Curses

"I hope the Steelers put the wood to them," Nick Barbetta, 94, growled over the telephone from Schuylkill Haven in Central Pennsylvania, rattlesnake venom in his voice. "I hope the Steelers knock them off, 'cause I got it in for them.

"The Curse isn't finished yet."

Barbetta was a friend and fan of the Pottsville Maroons, who beat the then-Chicago Cardinals in a 1925 contest billed as the NFL championship game. But the Maroons soon went to Philadelphia and played an exhibition against Notre Dame, whereupon the local Frankford Yellow Jackets complained. "Joe Carr, the president of the NFL at the time, sided with Frankford that we infringed on their territory," Barbetta growled some more.

"They could never produce a book of rules about territory."

Carr revoked Pottstown's franchise and awarded the championship to the Cardinals by default.

The Chicago club then played two more exhibitions, including one while using four high-school players, Barbetta claimed.

"The dirty trick played on Pottsville," he called it, "and that's when The Curse was on. The Maroons hoped [the Cardinals] would never win another championship of any kind. Called them all kinds of names you couldn't print."

The Curse worked because Chicago -- after winning the 1947 NFL championship game against Philadelphia -- lost the title game at Philadelphia in 1948, lost in its next trips to the postseason as St. Louis in 1974 and 1975 (and missedthe postseason despite a 10-4 mark in 1976), and then got lost in the desert as Phoenix/Arizona while becoming the league's losingest franchise.

The owners, the Bidwill family, have refused over the years to relinquish the trophy, even though it has gone to an NFL owners' vote on the issue -- with Dan Rooney and the Eagles' Jeffrey Lurie being the only ones to cast ballots in Pottsville's favor.

"It was a stolen championship," Barbetta said. "If they win the Super Bowl ... "

The new beginning?

Forget about Kansas City's slow-footed, 33-year-old quarterback Steve Bono running a naked bootleg 76 yards against the 1995 Cardinals, the longest touchdown run of his 15-year career -- by 71 yards.

Forget about Tampa's Lars Tate jumping over the mid-line pile in 1988 against the Cardinals, somersaulting and finding himself on his feet on the other side, whereupon he ran 47 yards for a score.

Forget about Pro Bowl tackle Luis Sharpe soon after wandering the Valley of the Sun streets addicted to drugs, taking a taxi to Palm Springs, Calif., for rehab and then another back to the Phoenix streets.

Forget about the tight-fisted Bidwills, who once sent a defensive back his new contract minus the $14 overnight-delivery charges. Forget about the dreadful, pitiable, past ... if you can.

No wonder a Phoenix radio station ran an obituary last week to bury the Same Old Cardinals, similar to the long-forgotten Same Old Steelers.

When the franchise secured that Tampa trip last Sunday, Hall of Fame safety and longtime broadcaster Larry Wilson opined: It's a cold, cold day inhell.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," added fellow Famer Roger Wehrli, a St. Louis Cardinal with him. "The thing that's amazing is ... I thought they could win a game or two. Man, they walked through the playoffs."

Through this Valley, they fear no football evils anymore.

What curse?

"When that clock was winding down [last Sunday] ... there were a lot of things, a lot of people, that came to mind -- people who helped forge that path. Some have gone to their great reward, and some are still out there," said Omohundro, their longtime trainer.

"It'll take a team of morticians a month of Sundays to wipe this smile off."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com . First Published January 25, 2009 5:00 AM


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