Bidwill, Cardinals finally get over hump

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
11:32
PM ET
 
  Chris Morrison/US Presswire
  Tim Hightower scored the game-winning touchdown in the Cardinals' 32-25 victory over the Eagles.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Back in August, when history told us the Arizona Cardinals might never reach a Super Bowl in Bill Bidwill's lifetime, the 77-year-old owner drove his golf cart up an incline leading to the practice fields at Northern Arizona University.

The metaphor gods couldn't resist an opportunity as inviting as this one, even at training camp.

The golf cart stalled.

Bidwill backed up and gave it another run. Same result.

No matter how hard he pressed the accelerator, the NFL owner known for falling short wasn't getting over the hump.

Until now.

The Cardinals' 32-25 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game validated the theory Bidwill has advocated for years, namely that his team needed a state-of-the-art stadium to compete at the highest level.

 
  Jamie Squire/Getty Images
  Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill proudly displays the George S. Halas trophy after Arizona defeated Philadelphia to win the NFC Championship Game.
University of Phoenix Stadium opened for the 2006 season, and here are the Cardinals, one victory away from their first NFL championship since 1947.

"The first thing I'd like to say is I'm just so happy for Mr. Bidwill and [son and team president] Michael for all the work they have done," second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "It's been a tough number of years here in Arizona and I'm glad that we have this opportunity to go to the Super Bowl."

For those expecting Bidwill to revel in the chance to attack his suddenly silenced critics, the Cardinals' on-field performance will apparently do his talking.

What does this victory mean to the soft-spoken, bow-tied patriarch team employees affectionately call "Mr. B"?

"A win is a win," Bidwill told a small gathering of reporters in the Cardinals' locker room. "Some wins are better than others, and this is one of them."

Is it the best?

"No," Bidwill replied matter-of-factly. "We're going to be talking about the best in the weeks to come."

That was as close as Mr. B would come to Mr. Bravado, but his team was under no such restraints Sunday.

Led by Whisenhunt and an aggressive staff, the Cardinals are no longer punch lines. This joke is on the rest of the NFL.

Five reasons why

1. The Philly Special

No one can accuse the Cardinals of playing not to lose. No one can label their coaches as control freaks, either.

Larry Fitzgerald vs. Rest of Cardinals
  Fitzgerald Rest of team
Thrown to 10 18
Receptions 9 12
Yards 152 127
TDs 3 1
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley trusted his third-string quarterback, Brian St. Pierre, with one of the riskiest calls the Cardinals have made all season.

The result: the brilliantly-timed pass to Larry Fitzgerald for a pivotal 62-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

"It's a scary play to call and I put that on Brian St. Pierre, our backup quarterback, last night," Haley said. "I said, 'I want to call this Philly Special, but I'm putting it on you, Brian. You tell me when it's the right time, because there were a lot of variables.'"

The play, which Haley borrowed from New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton when the two were Dallas Cowboys assistants, would have blown up if the Eagles had blitzed.

"Your one job [Sunday] is to let me know when it's time," Haley said he told St. Pierre.

How many coordinators in their first full season calling plays trust their third-string quarterback to make the riskiest call in a championship game?

Haley did.

Quarterback Kurt Warner tossed the ball back to running back J.J. Arrington for an apparent running play. Arrington ran right, stopped and threw backward to Warner. Warner barely had time to deliver a jump-ball pass to the best jump-ball catcher in the NFL, and he paid a price when defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley hit him late.

The Cardinals are just aggressive enough to win a Super Bowl.

  Eagles-Cardinals highlights
  NFL.com Video
  The Arizona Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-25, in the NFC Championship Game.

2. The new Warner

Warner threw more touchdown passes over the second half of the 2007 season than any quarterback in the NFL, Tom Brady included.

Whisenhunt responded by naming Matt Leinart the starter for 2008.

The move seems laughable now, but the Cardinals had their motives. Whisenhunt and Haley wanted Warner to improve his fundamentals and cut down on turnovers.

And so they made Warner sweat out his status all the way through the exhibition season.

"A lot of times he does things a lot of older quarterbacks don't want to do [in terms of making changes to his game], and that's a credit to his humility, his competitive drive and the reason we are here today," Whisenhunt said.

Warner moved in the pocket effectively Sunday. He tossed four touchdown passes without an interception or fumble.

Warner completed 12 of 14 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns when the Eagles rushed with four or fewer defenders. He completed 9 of 14 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown when Philadelphia brought five or more.

Either way, the Eagles' pressure defense couldn't stop a 37-year-old quarterback.

3. The top-shelf game plan

With their defense allowing 454 yards, the Cardinals needed their offense to win this one.

That meant they needed to solve the Eagles' well-conceived blitzes, which meant they would need their best offensive plan of the season.

They got it.

Another look at that 62-yard touchdown pass to Fitzgerald helps explain why.

The team with three 1,000-yard receivers left two of them on the sideline for long stretches, including during the Philly Special. The personnel group in question looked like something borrowed from the old NFC Central division: two running backs, two tight ends and Fitzgerald as the lone receiver.

Before finding Fitzgerald deep, the Cardinals had run the ball 23 of their previous 24 snaps from that personnel group, dating to their wild-card game against the Atlanta Falcons.

When the Eagles saw that personnel group, their keys told them to play the run. When Arrington took off running, there was even less doubt.

That's how the Cardinals managed to get Fitzgerald matched up against single coverage.

The Cardinals also leaned far more heavily on their two-back, three-receiver grouping. They used it nine times Sunday -- matching its usage for the previous six games combined -- and the Eagles could not stop it.

  Ravens-Steelers highlights
  NFL.com Video
  The Steelers defeated the Ravens, 23-14, in the AFC Championship Game.

Instead of using a fullback as one of the backs, the Cardinals went with two halfbacks, helping them create mismatches in space. Arizona would either stick with a split or offset backfield, or motion out one of the backs, building in quick throws to help Warner beat pressure.

"You can get linebackers on athletic backs like J.J., and you've got Edge [Edgerrin James] coming out in the flat," receiver Steve Breaston said. "You've got two in the slot and me and Larry outside. It causes a lot of problems."

Warner completed 7 of 7 passes for 82 yards from the personnel group, which also produced two carries for 9 yards.

4. The smarts factor

Whisenhunt inherited a Cardinals team that too often made the stupid play, usually in the form of the 15-yard penalty.

Arizona still has room for improvement in that area, but the Cardinals were arguably smarter than the Eagles in this game.

Yes, Antonio Smith's nonsensical body-slam on Eagles running back Brian Westbrook wiped out a momentum-turning sack by teammate Darnell Dockett. But the Eagles failed to score on the drive.

The Eagles committed more penalties, including a drive-killer for intentional grounding and a roughing penalty that helped the Cardinals add a field goal right before halftime.

And what was Eagles defensive end Victor Abiamiri doing muffing that kickoff return late in the second quarter? Only an officiating error prevented the Cardinals from taking over at the Philadelphia 27-yard line.

5. The Edge

James carried 16 times for 73 yards -- a 4.6-yard average -- providing the balance Arizona needed to keep defenders off Warner.

We must also recognize James' 22-yard run in the first half. James' teammates love the way he fights for yardage, falling forward instead of dancing. But when the Cardinals need to pick up yardage in fat chunks, he usually isn't among their options.

James, after all, finished the regular season with one rushing play of 20 yards or longer, same as Brett Favre.

The 22-yarder against the Eagles proved James has unusually fresh legs for this late in a season. The coaches' decision to bench him for much of the season could work to the Cardinals' advantage in Super Bowl XLIII.

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