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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Arizona Cardinals in the wilderness

Posted By on 01.27.09 at 08:36 PM

The Chicago Cardinals won an NFL championship in 1947 and kissed this city goodbye in 1960. That's nearly half a century ago, but the old memories are getting raked up good these days, because  the Cardinals, to the amazement of one and all, find themselves playing in Sunday's Super Bowl.

The press is describing the interim, the years in Saint Louis and then Phoenix, as pretty much of a lost decade -- make that five of them, one right after another. This AP headline will give you an idea: "Cardinals wander country, spreading NFL mediocrity."

It's not true. As even that AP story admits, there were some good years, some playoff-qualifying years, in Saint Louis. And there was one thing more, a game that puts a lie to the most flagrant misrepresentation of the Cardinals' past.

Here's Carol Slezak of the Sun-Times recalling the Phoenix Cardinals' 9-7 wild card team of 1998: "Miracle of miracles, they proceeded to do something no Cardinals team had done since 1947 and won a playoff game."

And here's Mark Kriegel of Fox Sports with that 1998 game on his mind: "Going into this season, the team owned by Bill Bidwell had managed to win a single playoff game in 61 years." 

And Jim Rueda of the Mankato Free Press: "Since that title, the Cards have qualified for the playoffs only six times and won just four postseason games — three of them during their current playoff run of 2008-2009."

All three of these scribes -- and plenty of others -- overlook the supreme highlight of the Saint Louis era. In 1964 the 9-3-2 Cardinals defeated Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers 24-17 before 56,218 fans in the annual Playoff Bowl in Miami's Orange Bowl.

Held through the 60s, the Playoff Bowl was a third-place game between the runners-up in the NFL's Eastern and Western conferences. Lombardi told his players it was "a losers' bowl for losers," which might help explain why the Packers lost. After the game he had more to say. "A rinky-dink football game held in a rinky-dink town played by rinky-dink players," said Lombardi, swearing he'd never finish second again. And for as long as he coached the Packers, he didn't.

The case against calling the Playoff Bowl a playoff game is that playoffs lead to championships, don't they, and the Playoff Bowl led to nothing. Besides, the NFL later retroactively downgraded the Playoff Bowl to an exhibition.

The case for calling the Playoff Bowl a playoff game is that the winner got to be called the third-best team in the NFL. And look what the NFL named it, for pete's sake! Besides, you don't get to retroactively reclassify football games. They are what they were -- and a national TV audience and 56,218 fans in Miami thought the game was a big deal.

So why elide the crowning achievement of the Cardinals' long diaspora? Hail the triumph and reflect on it. This moment of glory says a lot about what the team's been through since it bailed out of Chicago.

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