The Cardinals

Expectations are at an all-time low for Soupey XLIII. All the smart money is on the Steelers and their smashing defense. All the sentimentalists are pulling for the Cardinals and their wistful yearnings.

Unfortunately for Arizona, football is the least sentimental of the games nor is any team in any sport in our times less given to sentiment than the Pittsburgh Steelers. A one-sided atrocity is properly feared. Everyone says so.

Which pretty much guarantees we’ll get an inspired and nifty ballgame, compelling in its art and suspenseful to the very end.

When in doubt, always bet against the conventional wisdom.

Still, doubting the Cardinals and questioning their right to even be here is hardly unreasonable. Using only their relative performances against the Patriots -- that would be the long-gone Patriots -- illustrates brilliantly why the football cognoscenti shudder as they ponder the possibilities when the Cardinals and Steelers meet at the annual football Armageddon.

You’ll recall in November the Steelers thrashed the Patriots. It was a mugging forged by an overwhelming performance by Pittsburgh’s vaunted defense. It was arguably the Pats most ruinous defeat of the season and it made clear that even if they made the post-season they wouldn’t last long.

Then, just a couple of weeks later, the Pats caught the Cards, also at home, and laid waste to them scoring at will while playing in cruise control in a miserable sleet storm. It was a disgraceful performance by an alleged first-place team, although the Cards now maintain it was a bit of a blessing, claiming it refocused them.

So how does the team that clubbed the Patriots lose to the team the Patriots destroyed? If such syllogisms rarely apply in sports the fundamental logic remains compelling. More to the point, does a team that virtually required electric shock therapy in December and finished 9-7 in the regular season and gave up 150 points to the Pats, Giants and Eagles along the way truly deserve to be here? Does the regular season have any meaning?

But the best reason for dissing the Cards is their history. It’s as bleak as it gets not just in pro football but all of pro-sport, for that matter. Their roots go all the way back to the early twenties, making them one of the NFL’s priceless originals. For nearly 40 years they represented Chicago’s south side, camping out at Comiskey Park. It took guts to dare to co-exist with Papa George Halas through the era when his omnivorous Bears were properly called, “the Monsters of the Midway.”

Led by the legendary Paddy Driscoll the Cards were champions in 1925. But the league was then little more than a loose coalition of threadbare gypsy squads. Many were even money to disappear on any given Sunday. You’ll have a hard time finding much about the ’25 champs in the record book. Little that happened before 1933 counts for much in the NFL.

It was in 1933 that the Bidwell Family took over. The patriarch was Charlie, a lawyer and sportsman especially fond of the racetrack. He was 37 when he purchased the team and promptly lost money 14 straight seasons as the Cards humbly served as league doormat through the ‘30s and war years while the Bears were running roughshod. It wasn’t easy. But over the winter of ‘46- ‘47, Charlie sensed an impending boom in the fortunes of pro football. With the war past and the future full of promise, all the games were taking off.

So Charlie made his move, laying out big bucks for what became known as “the Dream Backfield” composed of Pitching Paul Christman, Charley Trippi, Elmer Angsman and Pat Harder with the fabled Marshall Goldberg in reserve. It paid off with consecutive western division titles and their only true NFL championship. But Charlie Bidwell, in a rather brilliant illustration of the sort of luck that has forever dodged the Cardinals, was denied the ultimate pleasure. He died of pneumonia in April of ‘47, only a couple of days after signing the college sensation Trippi to what was then a record contract of 100 grand.

They had to beat the Bears on the last Sunday of the regular season to even get into the championship round and for the first time in their history they beat them when it mattered with Christman, a wonderful player, besting the incomparable Sid Luckman, 30-21, before a record NFL crowd of almost 50,000. Raging up and down the sidelines as his dad had always done was little Billy Bidwell, only a teenager.

Next were Bert Bell’s Eagles. Led by Steve Van Buren they were heavy favorites. On an icy cold day with Comiskey’s playing field like cement, Cards coach Jimmy Conzelman, a wily old dog, pulled the mossy sneaker trick. Wearing basketball shoes enabled Trippi and Angsman to spring loose for a pair of long T.D runs each and they held on, after the Eagles had smartened up and found some sneakers, to win 28-21. In the post-game hoopla, Violet Bidwell, widow of Charlie, wept joyfully.

They met again for the title the next year and this time it was the Eagles who won, 7-0, in a blinding snowstorm with the Great Van Buren smashing across for the only score. Not only have the Cards never won again they have never come close to even making it to the title game. No team in American professional sports has accomplished less over more years. It has been, to this moment, their foremost distinction.

Not that they haven’t been interesting, mind you. The bad teams of the ‘50s still featured the majestic Ollie Matson and the rock-ribbed John David Crow. Sick of playing second fiddle, they finally escaped to St. Louis in 1960 where, for most of the next four decades, they were a tough and honest team. If you beat them, you paid the price. Charlie Johnson and Jim Hart were quality QBs while Sonny Randle and Terry Metcalf were dazzling in the open field and Larry Wilson and Roger Werlhi were Hall of Famers in the secondary as were Dan Dierdorf and Conrad Dobler in the offensive line. Hey, if you’ve been around 85 years you have to have something to boast about.

And along the way, little Billy Bidwell overcame the image of being a nerdy accountant in thick specs and bow tie to become one of the NFL’s true power-brokers in its fiercely competitive boardroom; someone everyone listens to gravely just like they do the Mara’s of New York and the Rooney’s of Steel-town. It goes with the territory when you’ve been around forever.

So it was no surprise when the Cards finally grew tired of St. Louis that their bold grab of the rich Arizona turf was routinely approved. In the NFL, such prerogatives also accrue to those who’ve been around forever. In the desert, where they are still overjoyed to have a pro-team and are willing to pay the price by embracing mediocrity, the Cards have had easy pickings thriving with minimal effort. That they should so suddenly and unexpectedly vault to the top is probably more a function of the law of averages than anything anyone actually planned or did.

It’s tough rooting against the Rooney’s. While they’ve been looking a tad dysfunctional lately, they solidly rank with the Mara’s as football authentic, twin, “‘First Families”. The Steelers are the living definition of this game and how it’s played best and that’s been the case a long time.

But if the Cardinals somehow prevail you should smile for them. Lord knows the little Bidwell gang has paid the price.