Last Saturday a plump old fellow sporting a string tie walked into a crowd of Cardinals fans who had gathered at Rockin' Rodeo in Tempe to watch the NFL draft on a huge TV screen. The 2,500 attendees rose as one.
In the 10 years since he moved the Cardinals from St. Louis to Arizona, owner Bill Bidwill has received few standing ovations. Not that he has deserved many. After relocating the team, he priced many fans out of Sun Devil Stadium with the highest average ticket price in the league. He has delivered exactly zero winning seasons. He has failed in his bid to get a new stadium.
The 67-year-old Bidwill, however, is finally on the rise in the estimation of Cardinals fans. In February 1997 he handed foot-ball operations to street-smart scouting veteran Bob Ferguson, and on day one of this year's draft, Bidwill was wise enough to turn away bids for the No. 3 pick, including a tempting 11th-hour offer from the Cowboys. Arizona used the choice to take Florida State defensive end Andre Wadsworth, the closest thing to Bruce Smith the league has seen since Smith came out of Virginia Tech 13 years ago. Now, after an uncharacteristically productive off-season, the Cardinals seem poised to contend in the NFC Fast for the first time since new return threat Eric Metcalf's dad, Terry, carried the mail for Don Coryell's Cardiac Cards in St. Louis. "With what they've done," Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson said last Saturday night, "they've gone from an also-ran to a contender pretty quick."
Aside from throwing $2.75 million a year at so-so free-agent guard Lester Holmes, Arizona, which went 4-12 last season, has upgraded its roster, at running back (1,000-yard rusher Adrian Murrell, acquired in a predraft trade with the Jets, replaces Leeland McElroy as starter), third receiver-return man ( Metcalf, brought in by a March trade with the Chargers, supplants Kevin Williams) and left defensive end ( Wadsworth takes over for Brad Ottis). The Cardinals re-signed defensive tackle Eric Swann for the relative bargain price of $5 million a year and committed to quarterback Jake Plummer, the former Arizona State star whom the Cards stole in the second round of the '97 draft.
"Getting Jake last year was the key to everything," says the 47-year-old Ferguson, who worked for the Seahawks, Cowboys, Bills and Broncos before landing with the Cardinals. Having Plummer on board enabled Arizona, which originally had the second pick, to ignore quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, trade down one spot and still get Wadsworth. To swap places with Arizona, the quarterback-desperate Chargers gave up two players ( Metcalf and linebacker Patrick Sapp), a second-round choice this year and next year's No. 1. Who knows? If San Diego, with Leaf learning on the job, struggles mightily and hands the Cardinals a top five pick next April, Arizona may end up with a chance to grab the franchise back they've been seeking for years, Ricky Williams of Texas.
Of course, no four-win team addresses all its weaknesses in one off-season. The offensive line still looks leaky—Plummer was sacked a league-high 5.2 times per game in 10 appearances last year—and there are holes at linebacker and safety. But the defensive front should be the NFL's best, with Wadsworth and the athletic Simeon Rice on the outside and 300-pound tackles Swann and Mark Smith (six sacks in 1997) in the middle. "I want to go out and prove I'm a Bruce Smith-type player," Wadsworth said on Saturday from his family's home in St. Croix. "If I am, then this line ought to be able to go out and wreak havoc. And with Jake running our offense, this team's going places."
If Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had had his way, Wadsworth would have gone to Dallas. On the day before the draft, Jones proposed this swap: the Cowboys' first-round selections in 1998 (the eighth pick) and '99, plus a second-rounder this year, for Arizona's top choice. "I'm convinced that some of the best trades are the ones you don't make," Ferguson said on Saturday. "You don't get a chance to pick the Bruce Smiths, the Deion Sanderses very often—maybe once every 10 years. Plus, you think I want to hand Jerry Jones the Super Bowl again? That's what we'd be doing by trading him Wadsworth."
In 1987 Ferguson, then the Bills' director of pro personnel, persuaded Buffalo coach Marv Levy to trade three high draft choices and running back Greg Bell for the rights to linebacker Cornelius Bennett. On Saturday, however, Ferguson was prepared to leave blood—his own—on the walls of the Cardinals' war room if trade talks for the No. 3 pick heated up. "They could fire me tomorrow," a drained Ferguson said at the end of the day, "but that's how I have to do it. I know we've got this team headed in the right direction. We've got two first-round picks in 1999, a local quarterback icon, an excellent coaching staff and young players dying to win."
Mitchell Gets A Message