The Phoenix Cardinals Rode the three miles from their hotel to Veterans Stadium in near silence on Sunday morning. They always stay quiet before games; it's a get-on-the-game-face ritual of coach Joe Bugel. The team buses snaked through industrial South Philadelphia, past a hazardous-waste storage site, past a grocery warehouse, past a pollution-control facility. Climbing the ramp onto I-95, the buses rolled by an auto graveyard and then crossed the Schuylkill River. The huge Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was on the right, and oil storage tanks dotted the gritscape. As the buses exited I-95 and approached the Vet, Bugel noticed tail-eaters in bowline shirts and jeans already filling the stadium parking lots, firing up the charcoal grills and popping their first of many cold ones. I love the NFC East, Bugel said to himself.
For most of his 19-month tenure as coach of the Cardinals, a franchise that lost 61 of 95 games the past six seasons and hasn't won in the postseason since 1963, Bugel has preached the gospel of smash-mouth football—an NFC East trait. "A two-yard run," he tells his offensive players, "is a thing of beauty." He tells all his players to honor the Cardinals' football roots, which trace back to 1898 on Chicago's South Side, wind through St. Louis (1960-87) and now reach to Phoenix. More than anything else, though, he tells them to relish their ties to the NFC East. "There's an air about the NFC East," Bugel says. "NFC East teams win Super Bowls. Love this division! You're among the elite."
He tells them to visualize New York, Philadelphia and Washington. "We will never change our Eastern mentality," he says to a group of men who work 2,374 miles from Philly.
The unsuspecting Eagles weren't aware of Phoenix's new focus on intradivision games, nor did they know of the significance of this game to Bugel, who had paid annual visits to the Vet as an assistant on Joe Gibbs's Redskins staff for nine years before becoming the head man in Phoenix. "This is a pivotal game for our program," he said last Saturday night. "A huge game. We have to win on the road to be a good NFC East team. Our guys go big time with a win here, boy."
Welcome to the big time, Buges. After going 2-17-1 on their previous 20 trips to the megalopolis, where they were regularly overwhelmed by big linemen and steamrollered by power backs, the Cardinals on Sunday turned from muggee to mugger—on both sides of the ball.
Philadelphia's tremendous pass rusher, Reggie White, never got through Phoenix tackle Tootie Robbins to get his paws on inexperienced quarterback Tom Tupa, who played competently and within himself. Conversely, a brutally efficient Cardinals defense, particularly bookend outside linebackers Ken Harvey and Freddie Joe Nunn, knocked down Eagle quarterback Jim McMahon 11 times, including two sacks, and forced him to run about six miles. Phoenix also forced six fumbles, recovering five of them, and intercepted McMahon once.
The 26-10 whipping that resulted from all this was no fluke. It was a coming-out party for a Cardinals team that has won its first two games and believes it is ready to play some meaningful football in December. "Finally, the Cardinals are opening some eyes," said Harvey, Phoenix's No. 1 draft pick in '88 and a player with the potential to be an NFL star. "People have to look at us with a little respect now."
Until now, getting people to look at them at all has been one of the Cards' biggest obstacles. Dwindling attendance was a motive behind owner Bill Bidwill's exodus from St. Louis, but he screwed up one of the most lucrative franchise moves in sports history when he jacked up ticket prices so high that he turned off the new fans in Phoenix. The team's performance on the field hasn't helped either. Probably only two NFL teams have a lower season-ticket base than Phoenix's 27,328. Obviously, a winning team, a home playoff game—the Cardinals have never played host to a playoff game in their 72-year NFL history—could win back some fans.
Bugel knew that to turn themselves around on the field the Cards had to get tougher than they had been under former coach Gene Stallings, who's now at Alabama. "Joe's always said he'd keep the toughest 47 guys," says running back Johnny Johnson. "He's kept his word."
It's odd that toughness has been cultivated in an environment as plush as the Cards' $11.5 million state-of-the-NFL-art training facility in south Tempe. It's lighted by passive solar energy. The practice fields were marked off at the precise angle of Sun Devil Stadium, to duplicate the position of the sun during home games. There's a 15-person sauna, with cold plunge, naturally, near the locker room. (Locker room? It's more like a luxurious lounge.) How can these guys focus on the NFC East? The Valley of the Sun is more akin to Palm Springs than to Passaic.