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IN 1905 the Morgan Athletic Club on the South Side of Chicago split into two factions. One would become an Irish gang called Ragen's Colts, which later worked for Al Capone. The other would become a football team called the Cardinals. � From their NFL beginnings, the Cardinals were hard to watch. They played their home games at Comiskey Park, seven blocks from the stockyards, the stench of cow manure in the air. Their fans—stockyard workers, steamfitters, mobsters—were known to set fires in the bleachers to keep warm. When a brawl broke out between the Cardinals and the hated Bears during one game, some of Capone's associates came down from the stands to mediate.
The Cardinals eventually moved from Chicago, where they were overshadowed by the Bears, to St. Louis, where they were overshadowed by the other Cardinals, to Arizona, where, until very recently, they were ignored altogether. "In St. Louis and in Arizona the wives' section was right behind the bench," says Vai Sikahema, a kick returner for the Cardinals from 1986 through '90. "By the fourth quarter you could hear them telling each other, 'Let's go to Ruby Tuesday after the game.' You'd start making dinner plans with the guys." Tables could be hard to come by. "I'd go to a bar in Scottsdale," says Ed Cunningham, a Cards center from 1992 to '95, "and if there was a long line, I'd go to the front and say I played for the Cardinals. They'd point to the back of the line."
Throughout their history the Cardinals have been known as nondescript losers, but that was never fair. They were colorful losers. The franchise has lost 674 regular-season games, 105 more than the Lions. The Cards once lost 29 games in a row, including an 0--10 season in 1944, when many of their players were serving in World War II and the rest merged with the Steelers. Card-Pitt, as it was called, had an interception-to-touchdown pass differential of 41 to 8, earning the team the nickname "Car-Pitts," because other teams walked all over them.
Before Ken Whisenhunt was hired in 2007, the Cardinals had burned through 37 coaches in 87 NFL seasons. Four—Guy Chamberlin, Curly Lambeau, Joe Stydahar and Jimmy Conzelman—are in the Hall of Fame, but only Conzelman lasted more than two years with the Cardinals. The team fired Jim Hanifan in '85 by changing the locks on his office at halftime of a home game against the Redskins. Buddy Ryan was let go in '95 after he left the sideline of a game against Dallas with one second still on the clock, the last straw in his failed two-year tenure.
Still, coaches have enjoyed job security compared with Cardinals quarterbacks. Since 1960 the team has had 39 starting QBs. In 1950 Jim Hardy threw eight interceptions in the season opener. In late '73 Gary Keithley had a passer rating of 0.00 in consecutive weeks. In 1981 the Cards snapped a nine-year streak without a quarterback sneak. And yet, in '95, they allowed a 76-yard sneak by Kansas City QB Steve Bono, one of the slowest players in the league.
Not that they didn't try to find quarterbacks. The Cards drafted Joe Namath in the first round in 1965, but he signed with the Jets of the AFL. They drafted Kelly Stouffer in the first round in '87, but he sat out for a season until his rights were traded to Seattle. They brought in Joe Montana for a visit in 1993, when the 49ers were taking trade offers for him, but someone reportedly lost the keys to the facility and couldn't show him inside. He went to the Chiefs.
"The night before the draft I would get down on my hands and knees and say a rosary," says Hanifan, an assistant coach from 1973 through '78 and head coach from '80 through '85. "I would ask God, 'Please get us somebody good this year.'"
Such prayers went unanswered. First-round picks included running back Larry Stegent (1970), who did not have a rushing attempt in his one NFL season; defensive back Tim Gray ('75), who was traded after a single season; quarterback Steve Pisarkiewicz ('77), who started four NFL games; wide receiver Clyde Duncan ('84), who caught four career passes; and placekicker Steve Little ('78)—yes, the Cardinals drafted a kicker in the first round—who was 13 for 27 on field goal tries in his three-year career.
Placekicking was always a problem. In 1983 Neil O'Donoghue missed three field goals in overtime. In '85 Novo Bojovic punctuated a 40-yarder against the Giants by running into the end zone and spiking the ball; New York scored the next 34 points to win 34--3. And in '01 Bill Gramatica tore his ACL while celebrating a 42-yard field goal.
There have been great Cardinals through the years—their 11 Hall of Famers include halfback Ollie Matson, cornerback Night Train Lane and tackle Dan Dierdorf—but for a time the team's best-known player was likely Rod Tidwell, the fictional wide receiver played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire . Gooding won an Oscar for his role in the 1996 film, but the first time he read the script he asked himself what every other football fan did: "Why the Cardinals?"