Listening to Jeff Blake talk about this year's Cardinals, you want to shake him, snap him out of his delusional state. Blake, Arizona's new starting quarterback, is discussing his team's prospects this year. "I guarantee you, we are going to turn this franchise around—myself, Emmitt and Coach Mac," says Blake. "Every year, a team no one thinks is any good goes to the playoffs. I've played in the worst place there is, and I'm telling you, this team will win some games." He says this with a megawatt smile lighting up his face. Which seems appropriate—until you realize he's not joking.
Blake, who started for the Bengals from 1994 to '99, does know something about losing. And he's right in thinking that the Cardinals have a way to go to usurp the Bengals' title as the NFL's worst franchise. But one glance at their inexperienced, wafer-thin roster suggests the Cardinals are on that course. Arizona's off-season signing of Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, provided a slight p.r. bounce, but it can't mask the Cardinals' grim reality. They lost a number of key players to free agency, including their starting quarterback, tarnished golden boy Jake Plummer, and their top three wideouts from 2002, the most notable being former Pro Bowler David Boston.
Despite a nonexistent pass rush, they chose not to take local Arizona State end Terrell Suggs, whose NCAA-record 24 sacks as a senior were more than the Cardinals' total (21) in '02. And their most significant addition after dropping 10 of their last 11 games a year ago? A much-maligned quarterback who is playing for his fourth team in the last five seasons and has a giant chip on his shoulder—Blake.
Oddly enough, that's just what the team has lacked. "We need a guy like Jeff, someone who's a bit angry, who feels like he has something to prove," says Dave McGinnis, in his third full season as the Cardinals' coach. "Everywhere he's been, he's proved he can play, and then they've decided they want someone else. Here, he's the guy. The team has taken to him, and he's been great, particularly for the young receivers."
Blake heartily endorses himself as well. "Everybody says the Cardinals are doormats," Blake says. "I've tried to show the guys that perceptions are worth nothing. It might not happen overnight, but I want to get this team fixed."
With a judiciously employed Smith running behind a talented line, at least first down shouldn't be too bad. But things could get ugly when defenses stuff eight players into the box and dare Blake to throw. New offensive coordinator Jerry Sullivan likes big-strike, multiple-receiver sets to take advantage of Blake's rifle arm, but the receiving talent isn't there. Second-round pick Anquan Boldin, a former Florida State quarterback, emerged as Blake's favorite target after having a consistent camp, but he's too slow and raw to scare defenses. Wideout Bryant Johnson, a rookie from Penn State, appeared out of his depth during camp. "Each of our wideouts has had some good days, but they haven't strung them together," Sullivan said before a mid-August practice.
Few people expect Arizona's defense to string together many good days. It's a woeful unit that gave up 376 yards and 26 points per game last year. Rather than take Suggs with the 10th pick in the draft, the Cardinals traded down to get Johnson in the 17th spot and Wake Forest defensive end Calvin Pace at 18, and now Arizona has to hope that Pace can be an impact pass rusher, a tall order for a rookie. The line-backing corps is average, and the secondary, though solid, will be done in by Arizona's inability to pressure the passer.
In Blake the Cardinals have found the ultimate company man, relentlessly optimistic in the face of certain disaster. Asked why things will be different in the Valley of the Sun this time, he points to his career touchdown-to-interception ratio (119 to 83) versus Plummer's (90 to 114) and his experience with untested receivers. "And I still throw the best ball in the league," he says. "It ain't no secret."
Given what he's got to work with, being delusional may serve him well.
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