TAMPA, Fla. -- You can reach into the memory bag of 21 mostly dismal seasons in the desert and pick plenty of moments that summarize the Arizona Cardinals.
But let's start with Oct. 20, 1996, and a game that should be forgotten. The Cardinals were playing host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and neither team had posted a winning season in more than a decade. In front of an announced crowd of 27,738, the Cardinals defeated the Bucs 13-9.
But the nutshell of it all came about three hours before the game. As the Bucs got off their bus and walked through an end zone at Sun Devil Stadium toward their locker room, there was a sudden outburst of laughter. Players were pointing at the goal post and the letters that ran vertically.
"I had to look at it three times before I really believed it,'' former Tampa Bay public relations director Chip Namias said. "I mean, we weren't the greatest franchise going at the time either, but at least we could spell Buccaneers.''
From their arrival in Phoenix in 1988 until this Super Bowl season, the Cardinals have been as backward a franchise as the league has seen. Aside from this season and a 9-7 record in 1998, there have been no other winning seasons but plenty of other moments that either made you laugh or cry.
Heat of the moment
The Cardinals fled St. Louis largely because they were treated as second-class citizens to the baseball team with which they shared a name and a stadium. The Phoenix market was lucrative, and the hope was to spend a few seasons at Arizona State and then get a stadium of their own. That didn't happen until 2006, when the Cardinals moved into University of Phoenix Stadium. And that caused plenty of problems in the meantime.
Start with the weather. September in Arizona can be brutally hot. Although the NFL frequently started the Cardinals with at least two of their first three games on the road (which usually caused an 0-3 or 1-2 start), there still were plenty of home games at which the old aluminum slats that served as bleachers would heat up to 140 or 150 degrees.
Inevitably, some television crew would break out a couple of eggs and fry them on the bleachers. It made for better viewing than what was taking place on the field.
No home-field advantage
Those bleachers seldom were anywhere close to full.
"I remember playing in front of 25,000 fans a lot of the time and being dumbfounded by it,'' former Arizona receiver Ricky Proehl said. "Phoenix is a great place to live, but it's a melting pot, and we didn't have many true Arizona fans. If Chicago, Green Bay or Dallas came in, the place would fill up, but that's because their fans showed up. As players, we felt like we were the destination for someone else's vacation.''
The curse of Timm Rosenbach
Soon after they arrived in the desert, the Cardinals had a flicker of hope. It came in the form of quarterback Timm Rosenbach, whom they took in the first round of the 1989 supplemental draft.
In 1990, coach Joe Bugel's first season with the team, Rosenbach started all 16 games. The Cardinals went 5-11, but Rosenbach threw for more than 3,000 yards and there was hope that 1991 would mark the turning point. Rosenbach was having a great preseason until he somehow tore up his knee in a non-contact drill near the end of training camp.
The Cardinals turned to Tom Tupa, who would go on to have a long career -- as a punter. They went 4-12.
Rosenbach came back the next season, took a couple of vicious hits and wound up walking away from the game.
"Sad story,'' Proehl said. "Timmy could have been a great quarterback. But he never was the same after those hits. They just ruined his confidence, and he was always looking over his shoulder for the next hit.''
Before Ken Whisenhunt arrived and started to straighten out the Cardinals last season, you'd have to say Bugel was the most popular coach in franchise history.
"The community loved Joe Bugel, and the players loved Joe Bugel,'' said quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who arrived in 1993 and was asked to pick up the pieces from the Rosenbach mess.
That was Bugel's fourth season, and patience was wearing a little thin. Owner Bill Bidwill proclaimed the Cardinals had to have a winning season for Bugel to keep his job. That didn't happen, but the players thought they had saved Bugel's job by winning four of their last five games.
"I still believe that we were right at the turning point and we would have won the next season if Joe Bugel had stayed,'' Beuerlein said. "I have never questioned Mr. Bidwill's desire to win, and I'm happy for what's happening now. But, for whatever reason, Mr. Bidwill didn't usually make good decisions, and firing Joe Bugel and doing what he did next sent the Cardinals spiraling right back down the hill.''
What Bidwill did next was hire Buddy Ryan. At the time, the move didn't seem that bad. Ryan came with a reputation as a defensive guru, and season-ticket sales almost doubled to more than 48,000. But Ryan didn't have many fans in the locker room.
"The guy came in and decided I couldn't play, Garrison Hearst couldn't play and Ricky Proehl couldn't play,'' Beuerlein said. "In his eyes, nobody on the offense could play. He had some good defensive players, but defense was all he cared about.''
With a locker room divided, Ryan lasted all of two seasons.
"Buddy had his detractors, and he should have, but he also had some strong points,'' said a former Cardinals official who was with the team at that time. "Bugel had some good things going for him, too. But part of the problem there was they'd never keep a coach long enough to make a difference. They were always switching directions.''
Nothing grows in the desert
It was the same with players, too. Through the 1990s, the Cardinals drafted some players (Hearst, Jeff Christy and Simeon Rice) who went on to have very good careers -- elsewhere. The Cardinals let many of their own players go and didn't have much success in free agency.
"In the '90s, when the courts said that free agency was here, it was a new era of football,'' team president Michael Bidwill said. "If you had new stadiums, you had the revenues to go out and sign the kind of players you needed to be successful.''
The '90s and much of this decade slipped by before the Cardinals got their new stadium and started winning.
Remember that bag of memories at the top of this story?
Reach in again and grab another piece of Arizona history. Four days short of the 10th anniversary of the day C-A-R-D-I-N-L-A-S adorned the goal post, another event took place that still makes you think of the Cardinals when you see beer commercials.
On Oct. 16, 2006, Dennis Green, another coach who couldn't turn around the Cardinals, had one of the most memorable meltdowns in sports history. After squandering a 20-point lead and losing to the Chicago Bears on "Monday Night Football," Green went on a tirade in his postgame news conference.
Among other things, Green repeatedly said, "The Bears are who we thought they were.''
Ironically, that day and those words also sum up the Arizona history of the Cardinals -- until now.
With their first Super Bowl appearance Sunday, are the Cardinals still who we thought they were?
Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.