This was last Saturday afternoon, the day before new coach/franchise czar Buddy Ryan officially began the task of raising Arizona, and the Cardinals already had their game faces on. They filed off their charter flight at Southern California's John Wayne Orange County Airport dressed to the nines—linebacker Seth Joyner in a white linen suit, safety Lorenzo Lynch in a Cardinal red suit, the portly Ryan in a lime-green blazer—and with a look in their eyes that said they were ready to play the Los Angeles Rams right then and there, not in 21 hours.
"Hey," said the airline employee greeting the flight, "you guys dress a lot better than most teams."
Ryan shot the guy a no-nonsense look. "Well, we play a lot better than most teams, too," he said.
Maybe, maybe not. One training camp, a ton of press clippings and four quarters into the 1994 season, the Cardinals shaped up this way: ferocious defense, feeble offense. In Sunday's 14-12 season-opening loss to the Rams, the Cards, counted on by Arizonans to win the franchise's first playoff game in 47 years, showed that they can dominate opponents with Ryan's 46 defense; Los Angeles didn't get its first first down until a minute before halftime, and 1993 Rookie of the Year Jerome Bettis gained just 52 yards on 21 carries during the entire game. But Arizona won't be able to back up Buddy's bravado unless quarterback Steve Beuerlein adds a few miles per hour to his fastball (his throws seemed to hang in the air too long against the Rams, and two were picked off), unless the run blocking improves (the Cardinals averaged just 3.2 yards a carry) and unless wide receiver Ricky Proehl gets some glue for his fingertips (he dropped a perfectly thrown, potentially game-winning touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter). Worse, all this occurred against an L.A. team that went 0-4 in the preseason.
The game was a dreary affair in which the two clubs combined for only 382 net yards; five other teams surpassed that mark on their own on Sunday. Middle linebacker Eric Hill expressed what every defensive player in the Cardinal locker room must have felt afterward. "We stopped 'em three-and-out 80 percent of the time," Hill said, "but look at Buddy's history. His defense has to score. His defense always scores. This defense has to win games for us."
This defense will win a few games for Arizona—outside linebackers Joyner and Wilber Marshall and defensive end Clyde Simmons were flying around the ball on Sunday—but a few won't be enough. Ryan had whipped Phoenix into such a frenzy over this team that folks forgot one thing: These are the Cardinals we're talking about, a club that has averaged fewer than six wins a season over the last decade and hasn't made the playoffs since 1982.
But it's pretty easy to get swept up by Ryan's hope, because he's so dang sure of himself, so unafraid of failure that you're certain he'll succeed, so charismatic that you almost hope he'll win, just so he'll be able to stay around and keep things lively. To wit, Ryan's actions in recent days included the following:
•Calling the agent for departed Card linebacker Ken Harvey "an ass" for not giving Arizona a chance to match the contract the Washington Redskins offered Harvey, who was a free agent.
•Praising himself for his reconstruction of the late-1980s Philadelphia Eagles, saying, "Who in the hell built a great team from scratch quicker than I did in Philadelphia?" The Eagles never won a playoff game under Ryan.
•Calling Kevin Gilbride, the fellow Houston Oiler assistant he punched on national TV last January, "a dumb, stupid high school coach."