It has been years since the St. Louis Cardinals have been considered for anything but the birds. After all, what other NFL club could claim such a firm hold on mediocrity that its fans thought the team slogan was: For God, For Country and Four-Nine-and-One. Now suddenly, after last week's 31-28 victory over Dallas ran their record to 5-0, the Cards clearly have become something new and unexpected. What they are for is for real.
At least they have proved as thoroughly as a team can in less than half a season that they are genuine playoff contenders. That alone is a refreshing change in St. Louis, where the Cardinals' reputation for ineptness on offense was surpassed only by their notoriety for porousness on defense. Somebody presumably made a tackle for the Big Red last year, but the occasion went unnoticed; the Cards, never famous for their tight teamwork, got together to yield 365 points and almost three miles in yardage to their unhindered opponents.
The prospects for this season indicated more of the same before team unity, a daring offense, plain good fortune and a stout new defense put the Cards in competition with the also-unbeaten Patriots for the title of Most Instantaneously Improved.
St. Louis opened the season with a 7-3 win over Philadelphia, stopping four Roman Gabriel passes inside the 10-yard line in the last 30 seconds. A week later in Washington the Cards won by a touchdown. None of this was too surprising since fast starts are not unheard of in St. Louis. Alas, they are invariably followed by faster flops, so it was not until the team slammed Cleveland 29-7 and San Francisco 34-9 that some people got the idea that the Cards were jokers no more. Among those folks were the Cardinals themselves.
Even though St. Louis had become one of the league's most spectacular scoring teams with seven of its first 11 touchdowns coming on plays of 56 yards or better, the more dramatic reversal concerned the defense. The year before, that unit had suffered so many injuries that only indestructible Linebacker Larry Stallings and Defensive Tackle Bob Rowe had played in all 14 games. With everyone healthy, St. Louis suddenly found it indeed could stop opponents, cold. In the first four games the Cards allowed only 29 points and sacked opposing quarterbacks 13 times, nearly half the total for all of '73.
"As a unit, I think we've touched more balls on deflections, interceptions and blocked passes than we did all of last year," says Stallings. "Take my personal totals. I've got an interception and I've knocked four passes down. That's normally as many as I get in a season. When you do those things, you're going to give a quarterback problems."
As they prepared to meet Dallas, the Cards were no less impressed by the early wonders their offense had performed. "When you're 4-0 you can actually start seeing the possibilities that can develop," says Running Back Jim Otis. "If we win Sunday, we'll be in the playoffs. We have the ability to go three, four or five yards at a crack and the ability to make the big play. Not too many teams can do both. Another thing is the little extras the guys do, like taking extra laps after practice or working longer on the weights. It's really amazing. The guys here do all those things without having to be told."
Coach Don Coryell, whom the Cards hired away from San Diego State last season, was aware that his unlikely assortment of pretenders was catching the Cowboys at the worst possible time.' 'It's just fate that they weren't 4-0 instead of 1-3," he said. "When you go up against a team like that, with its back to the wall, it makes your job doubly difficult. There's no way to sneak up on them like we might have in other seasons. We're going to have to come up with something super to stay in the game. We can't afford to give them any free TDs."
Indeed, Dallas' Tom Landry must be wondering what the fates have against his team. The once high-riding Cowboys have turned in only one truly bad performance, a 14-6 loss to the Giants. Their other defeats have been frustrating affairs such as the one at Minnesota two weeks ago, when the Vikings kicked a disputed field goal with one second showing on the clock. "Damn! When is this stuff gonna end?" fumed one Cowboy official.
It seemed that it might end immediately against the Cardinals, when they gave up one of the "free" TDs Coryell feared in the form of a 97-yard punt runback by Dennis Morgan the first time the Cowboys had the ball. St. Louis quickly evened things on a one-yard touchdown run by Donny Anderson that was set up by another of those long gainers that the Cardinals have come to expect as their offensive due.