GLENDALE, Ariz. – The defending NFC champions were 38 yards from forgiveness, and as Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) jogged onto his home field with 3:11 to play and reached a huddle that included star wideouts Larry Fitzgerald(notes) and Anquan Boldin(notes), it didn't take a mind-reader to get inside the veteran passer's helmet.
"Obviously," as Warner would say later, "I'm thinking, 'We're in a position to win this game.' You figure we were gonna make the pivotal play, one way or the other."
Instead of marching toward a winning touchdown, the Cardinals went the wrong way: A false start on tight end Stephen Spach(notes), a holding penalty on tackle Mike Gandy(notes) (with a dropped pass by Jerheme Urban(notes) to boot), and suddenly it was first-and-25. Incomprehensibly, the Cards were in their own territory and, as they had been for much of a frustrating Sunday afternoon against the San Francisco 49ers, hopelessly out of sync.
To put it gently, the Cardinals, as they have all summer, bore a strong resemblance to the dudes from "The Hangover." If a tiger had wandered into the huddle and Mike Tyson had lined up at fullback, the picture would have been complete.
Minutes later, after their 20-16 season-opening defeat to an NFC West rival was a matter of record, the Cardinals retreated to their locker room and listened to Boldin, perhaps their toughest and most emotional player, angrily deliver a reality-check.
His basic message: The mistakes have to stop, and all of us have to take it upon ourselves to get it together, right now. Oh, and that Super Bowl we came within 35 seconds of winning last February? It means nothing. The 2008 season is so last year.
While Boldin's speech certainly got his teammates' attention, none of them should have been startled by the message. Deep in their hearts, they know the Cardinals haven't been right since they flew home from Tampa after that heartbreaking Super Bowl XLIII defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Shortly thereafter the Cards lost Todd Haley, their brainy and fiery offensive coordinator, when the Kansas City Chiefs hired him as head coach. Then, in April, they said goodbye to veteran halfback Edgerrin James(notes). Somewhere between then and the beginning of a disjointed preseason, the Cards also lost their perspective.
Forgetting the truth about '08 – that they were a maddeningly inconsistent team that magically gelled in January and rode a great quarterback's desert-hot hand (and record-setting effort by Fitzgerald) to uncharted postseason heights – Arizona's returning players (and, probably, some of the team's new additions) acted as though they could return to prominence by clicking their cleats together three times and saying, "There's no play like Warner throwing it up to Fitzgerald."
"That was a bunch of [expletive]," free safety Antrel Rolle(notes) said after Sunday's game. "There wasn't enough enthusiasm. We didn't make the plays we needed to. There were missed assignments and missed opportunities. We've been doing that all preseason and it carried over. Now we know we just can't go out there and turn it on."
They should have known better, but that wasn't the only lesson Arizona absorbed on its own turf Sunday. After delighting 61,981 gratefully air-conditioned fans by unfurling their NFC championship banner before the game, the Cardinals were reminded of a harsh reality that was evident from coast to coast on Sunday: If you think one NFL season inevitably bleeds into the next, you've already given your opponents a head start.
On a happier note, ask Ravens coach John Harbaugh. He smartly realized that to defeat Haley's instantly competitive Chiefs, his team had to evolve past the conservative offensive approach that helped it reach last season's AFC championship game – and Baltimore and newly unchained quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) put up a franchise-record 501 total yards in its 38-24 victory.
"Not only is this a year-to-year league, it's week-to-week," said 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill(notes), who spent much of the day handing off to Frank Gore(notes) and watching the halfback slam into a wall of Cardinal-colored jerseys but coolly led a 15-play, 80-yard drive for the winning points midway through the fourth quarter. "Next week, when we come out and take the field, this win means nothing – except in the standings."
Next Sunday, when the Cardinals face the Jaguars in Jacksonville, they'd better be a lot more polished than they were against the Niners. Sunday's lowlights included 12 penalties for 82 yards (most brutally, a delay-of-game call coming out of a 49ers timeout), a pair of interceptions by Warner (26-of-44, 288 yards) and some atrocious offensive-line play that led to three sacks and far too many hurried throws.
While the Cards' defense generally played well, Gore was totally uncovered on his game-winning, three-yard touchdown pass from Hill, and 36-year old wideout Isaac Bruce(notes) got behind the secondary on third-and-10 for a 50-yard reception that led to San Francisco's first TD (for a 13-3 lead 2:23 before halftime).
After the game Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt told his players that "guys that make penalties are not going to play," and Boldin – limited to two catches for 19 yards while playing through a painful hamstring strain – later underscored the message.
"This league is real simple," the receiver said quietly as he sat by his locker after the game. "Either you get the job done, or they get somebody else to do it. We definitely have to get some things ironed out. We didn't play like we were" an elite team Sunday.
Part of the problem is that the Cards, in essence, were only elite for a single month. Before last January's postseason run, as Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson(notes) acknowledged Sunday, "we were 9-7. I mean, let's be real. It wasn't like we were 13-3. There's plenty of room for improvement, and we intend on doing that. The leaders on this team are going to make sure we tighten things up. A lot that happened out there [Sunday]; that's the last time it's gonna happen."
That's the plan, anyway. Warner, as a past sufferer of the so-called Curse of the Super Bowl Loser – his '01 Rams are part of a string this decade in which seven of the past eight teams to have played for the championship and lost failed to reach the following year's postseason – knows all too well how much focus and ferocity is required to stop the negative inertia.
"It's just a lot of little things that we're not doing right," he said. "You'd think it's easy for us to clean them up, but we haven't done it yet. For us, it's about consistency. Even last year, we were an inconsistent team until that one run when we put it all together.
"We have to learn that in this league, to truly be successful, you have to play like champions every week."
Instead, the Cardinals played into the hands of Niners coach Mike Singletary and his risk-averse approach – as exemplified by his decision to call three running plays and punt from his own end zone with a four-point lead in the final minutes, putting Arizona 38 yards away from victory.
Singletary's call turned out to be the right one: The Cards went backward, and on fourth-and-5 from the San Francisco 33-yard line with 1:55 remaining, Warner's linemen couldn't protect him in the pocket, and Niners defensive end Justin Smith rushed him into a desperate incompletion.
Afterward, the Cardinals insisted they aren't a desperate team. "It's the first game of the season," Rolle said. "It's no time for panic. It's time for adjustment. It's time for a wakeup call. But no, it's not time for panic. I think we fought out there. We just didn't fight hard enough."
If you're a Cardinals player, it's time to fight like Tyson in his prime, to channel that inner tiger – and to shake off that hangover and get back to work.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Remember all those close games Aaron Rodgers(notes) couldn't pull out last year, causing some Packers fans to conclude that he was an unworthy replacement for You Know Who? Well, as of Sunday, You Know Who is officially the quarterback of one hated division rival while Rodgers is the newly appreciated engineer of a dramatic comeback victory over another. One reason I was so high on Green Bay before the season was my belief that Rodgers and the Pack will find a way to pull out the kind of tight games they habitually lost in '08. So far, so good. What the second-year starter did on "Sunday Night Football" against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field should not be underestimated: For a lot of Packers backers, this was the night Rodgers' voice changed and he grew hair on his chest. After an underwhelming effort against the Bears' rejuvenated defense, Rodgers got the ball at his own 28-yard line trailing 15-13 with 2:28 remaining. He drove the team to midfield with 1:18 to go, and on third-and-one – executing a smart call by coach Mike McCarthy – Rodgers sold a pretty play-fake to Ryan Grant(notes), turned back to his left and lofted a pinpoint pass to wideout Greg Jennings(notes), who caught the ball in stride at the 15 and cruised in for a game-winning, 50-yard TD. Final score: Packers 21, Bears 15, and Rodgers one big step in trying to follow a legend.
• Wow, football gods – that was an interesting choice, rewarding the Broncos' Josh McDaniels with an opening-game victory after one of the more tumultuous offseasons in rookie-coach history. In fact, given Jay Cutler's(notes) four picks for the Bears, Sunday was like a twisted fantasy for those Denver fans who blame the estranged franchise quarterback for the feud that led to his departure. The madness began at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium, where the Broncos defeated the Bengals 12-7 thanks to one of the wildest finishes in recent memory. After Cincy's Cedric Benson(notes) bulled into the end zone from a yard out with 38 seconds remaining and Shayne Graham(notes) nailed the point after to give the Bengals a 7-6 lead, Eddie Royal(notes) slipped on the ensuing kickoff return, and Denver took over at its own 13. Cutler's replacement, Kyle Orton(notes), has a much weaker arm than the man for whom he was traded (along with the bounty of draft picks Chicago sent to Denver), and his first pass toward the sidelines was nearly intercepted. Then, insanity: Orton, with 28 seconds to go, sailed a ball toward wideout Brandon Marshall(notes) on the left sideline, at the Denver 35. Bengals cornerback Leon Hall(notes) reached up and deflected the ball, which caromed 10 yards upfield and into the arms of Broncos slot receiver Brandon Stokley(notes), who'd been left unattended by the Bengals' overly aggressive safeties. Then Stokley was dashing to the end zone like a poor man's Franco Harris, and all was weird in the world. I know that at least three people, when they saw Stokley score, had the same reaction I did – my former Sports Illustrated colleagues Mark Godich, Jeff Chadiha and Josh Elliott. Eight-and-a-half years ago, during a gluttonous brunch in my Tampa hotel room before Super Bowl XXXV, I shared with the skeptical trio a conversation I'd had the previous day with then-Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer(notes). He'd told me that Stokley, the team's seldom-used, second-year backup receiver, was going to burn the Giants' secondary. "He'll get into the end zone," Dilfer assured me. "You mark my words." Upon relating Dilfer's quote, I was repeatedly mocked by my editor and fellow writers until Stokley, eight minutes in, hauled in a 38-yard pass from Dilfer for the game's first score. I was sitting in the main press box at Raymond James Stadium, and Godich, Chadiha and Elliott were together in an auxiliary press section in the stands. I will never forget the stunned expressions on their faces as Stokley celebrated in the end zone and they looked up to see me leaning out the press box window with a massive "I told you so" grin on my face. Ah, memories. On Sunday, I was stoked for Stokley and bummed for the Bengals, who deserved better. I also firmly believe that, by season's end, Broncos fans will be missing Cutler in a huge way. On this day, however, the football gods were determined to make them feel better about their offseason from hell.
• It's silly to draw too many conclusions after one game, but Sunday did reinforce three things we already knew: 1. Sean Payton and Drew Brees go together like live music and bowling in the dark. With Payton drawing up brilliant game plans and the relentlessly prepared Brees executing them to perfection, the Saints are capable of making any defense look foolish. That's especially true when the opponent in question is coming off an 0-16 season. On Sunday against the Lions, Brees completed 26 of 34 passes for 358 yards and a career-high six TDs. That's just scary. "He's pretty good, isn't he?" New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita(notes) cracked via text message. "O.C.D. all the way. I'm glad he's on my side." 2. Thomas Dimitroff is pretty damn smart. When the Falcons got rid of five defensive starters over the offseason, their second-year general manager assured me that additions like ex-Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson(notes) would fill the apparent leadership void. Then he went out and traded for future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes), giving second-year quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) a great reward for his brilliant rookie season. Both newcomers shined in Sunday's victory over the Dolphins: Peterson forced a fumble and made a nice interception; Gonzalez caught five passes for 73 yards, including the 20-yard TD on which he became the 21st NFL player (and only tight end) to reach 21,000 career receiving yards. This will be the year that the Falcons finally have back-to-back winning seasons. 3. Haley became a hot coaching candidate last January for a very good reason, and new Kansas City GM Scott Pioli knew what he was doing when he hired the highly regarded offensive coordinator away from the Cardinals. Even with the quarterback he traded for over the offseason, Matt Cassel(notes), on the sidelines with a knee injury, Haley got backup Brodie Croyle(notes) and the Chiefs, coming off a 2-14 season, to believe they could battle the powerful Ravens on even terms (the two teams were tied at 24 deep into the fourth quarter before Baltimore scored twice in the final 2:14). "Really had a chance to win against a good team," an upbeat Haley said via text message Sunday night. "We had two penalties and no turnovers so that was encouraging." Trust me, Chiefs fans – it'll get better.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• When we last saw Jake Delhomme(notes), the Panthers' quarterback was having one of the worst playoff games of anyone's life and his future in Carolina was being questioned. But the Panthers decided that the 34-year-old Delhomme, who had reconstructive elbow surgery in '07, was worthy of a long-term contract extension that included $20 million in guaranteed money. It kind of seemed like the organization was trying to will Delhomme into being its unquestioned franchise quarterback. Um, OK, guys. Delhomme is a great dude, and the former NFL Europe castoff has been a fighter his entire career, but his '09 season couldn't have started any more ominously: Four interceptions and a fumble (recovered for a touchdown) in a 38-10 home defeat to the Eagles. If he gets to start next week's game against the Falcons in Atlanta and is only a third as bad as he was on Sunday, Delhomme probably will be cheering for Josh McCown(notes) or Matt Moore(notes) by Week 3. By the way, how brutal was it that Donovan McNabb(notes) suffered a cracked rib on a gratuitously late hit in the end zone by Panthers defensive tackle Damione Lewis(notes) after the third-quarter touchdown run put the Eagles up by 28? I hate that.
• While the Eagles were announcing themselves as the obvious team to beat in the powerful NFC East, and the Cowboys and Giants were shaking off bad endings to '08 and summoning impressive debuts, the Redskins were disturbingly flaccid in an opener for the second consecutive year. As an untested coach working for a demanding owner, Jim Zorn knew he'd be under to pressure to win quickly in D.C., and I give him credit for having the guts to fake a field-goal attempt at the end of the first half with the 'Skins trailing the Giants 17-0 (holder Hunter Smith(notes) ran it in from eight yards). But Washington didn't score an offensive TD in a 23-17 defeat to the Giants until 1:30 remained, and overall it was an underwhelming effort from Zorn and quarterback Jason Campbell(notes), each of whom will face serious job-security issues if things don't improve. Shall we do the math? With marquee coaches like Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden and Mike Holmgren theoretically there for the taking and Snyder, who loves big names, willing to spend what it takes to get his man, Zorn could find himself in a very awkward spot if his team falls too far behind in the division race.
• Outstanding work, Eric Mangini: You not only avoided announcing that Brady Quinn(notes) would start Sunday's opener for the Browns against the Vikings, but you also successfully scared your newly anointed leader into becoming the secretive, paranoid Mini Me of his coach's eye. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot, Quinn avoided talking to his mother, sister, brother-in-law and agent in the week preceding Sunday's game so that he wouldn't reveal the information you, King Eric, so desperately wanted to conceal. (Never mind that budding information man Terrell Owens(notes) actually broke the news Wednesday. Of course he did.) And what did the information embargo do for you, Coach? Did it mess up the Vikes' practice week by forcing them to prepare for both Quinn and Derek Anderson(notes)? I can't say for sure, but the Browns' offense looked every bit as inept as it did during the final six games of last season, when Cleveland scored zero offensive touchdowns. The Browns finally broke that streak on Quinn's pass to Robert Royal(notes) with 28 seconds left in Sunday's 34-20 home drubbing by Minnesota. Before that point, Cleveland's only trip to the end zone came courtesy of a typically sensational 67-yard punt return by Joshua Cribbs(notes) – you know, the guy you're trying to stiff out of the contract extension the player says was promised him last season by owner Randy Lerner and former general manager Phil Savage. For what it's worth, I really like what I've seen of Quinn and think he can be a star. I just wish he were in a healthier situation with a coach who worried more about winning than flexing his power and intimidating players into activating their inner mute buttons. Oh, one other thing, Coach: You'd better win, and quickly. If not, your players are going to start giving anonymous and pointed quotes to people like me about just how toxic the situation really is. Good luck with that.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How the editors in charge of last Monday's Orange County Register sports section allowed this column to run – and, of course, that it was written in the first place.
2. Why Bears coach Lovie Smith would empower his long snapper (Patrick Mannelly(notes)) to make the type of dubious executive decision that cost Chicago three points on Sunday night. For those who weren't watching: With the team up 12-10 early in the fourth quarter and facing a fourth-and-11 on its own 26, Mannelly apparently counted 12 Packers on the field and quick-snapped to up-back Garrett Wolfe(notes), who was stuffed after a four-yard gain. Smith challenged the play, but replays showed Green Bay rookie Clay Matthews(notes) had raced off the field before the snap, costing the Bears a timeout. The Packers went three-and-out and kicked a go-ahead field goal as NBC's Cris Collinsworth put the blame on Mannelly and absolved Smith. Not so fast: If you (and/or your special teams coach) are going to have a system in which a player is taught to react to a situation, it shouldn't be an all-encompassing pass. Instead, you need to have a clear discussion about context: Would the penalty lead to a first down? (In this case, no.) Is it the fourth quarter of a tight game? (Yup.) Are we so deep in our own territory that a mistake would almost certainly cost us points? (Affirmative.) If you're not absolutely sure you can snap the ball before a defender gets off the field, should you take the chance in that situation? (Hell no.) Even if Smith, in fact, had a discussion like this with Mannelly at some point, the coach obviously didn't do a forceful enough job of laying down the rules. On a positive note, Smith's takeover of the defense, which I detailed during training camp, was a rousing success, even with star linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) sidelined for more than half the game with a wrist injury. (The Chicago Tribune reported that Urlacher dislocated the wrist and will have surgery Monday. Ouch.)
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I'd like to wish Michael Crabtree(notes) a happy birthday – the 49ers' first-round draft pick turned 22 Monday – and I hope he gets a call from his mother, a yummy cake, lots of awesome presents … and, most important, a clue. As it becomes increasingly likely that Crabtree, the talented wideout from Texas Tech picked 10th overall by the Niners in April's NFL draft, will sit out the season and reenter the 2010 draft (and I realize this can all change very quickly), I'm wondering whether the young man has really, truly, thought this all through. Look, I tend not to get overly worked up about contract squabbles, and over the years I've been prone to sympathize with the player, rather than management, in a vast majority of cases. (My parents and sister are employee-side labor lawyers; what can I say?) In this instance, however, I think Crabtree is the one being unreasonable. Unlike the Bengals, who lowballed tackle Andre Smith(notes) (the sixth overall pick) before finally getting him to swallow a below-market deal, the 49ers aren't trying to screw Crabtree.
While I've certainly pummeled the Yorks over the years for doing things on the cheap, I don't believe that's what happening here. The Niners' standing offer to the receiver, which includes $16 million in guaranteed cash, is entirely fair given the spot where he was drafted. A team source says the 49ers are willing to give Crabtree incentives that push the deal "up to a dollar less" than the package the Packers gave ninth overall pick B.J. Raji(notes) (a reported five-year, $28.5 million pact with just under $18 million in guaranteed money), "but we won't go over that. Otherwise, we're going to have the same problem next year, and the year after that …" Team president Jed York, general manager Scot McCloughan and Singletary are uniformly supportive of holding the line, even if it means losing out on Crabtree altogether. They also rightfully believe that, with each missed game, his value to them (for this season, at least) is decreased on a prorated basis. (Translation: The team just reduced its offer, and it will continue to do so with each passing week.) And the birthday boy? Let me give some direct advice: Dude, do you really think this is the right play? If I were you, I'd stop thinking about this in terms of what you think you're worth relative to others who might have been picked ahead of you (like Raiders wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes)) and start asking yourself if the Niners' package that's on the table is preferable to zero salary and a wasted year of your career – with no guarantee that things will work out better in 2010. Look, I've been involved in some tense negotiations before, and there are times in the past when I've felt undervalued by my employer (note to Y! Sports powers that be – not you). But in the end, it's about controlling your emotions and making the most pragmatic business decision you can. Please think about that as you're blowing out your candles, because in my opinion, you're totally blowing it.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"I caved … My wife wouldn't stop begging!"
– Text Tuesday morning from Warner, referring to our shared pact to keep canines out of our respective households. (My wife's gleeful reaction: "You're so done.") That day Warner's wife, Brenda, brought home a Shih Tzu that the family's oldest daughter, Jesse, named Lola. Personally, I'd have named her after Buck Laughlin, the announcer played by Fred Willard in Christopher Guest's hilarious "Best In Show."
"Of course I saw that they sorry ass lost … Haven't seen it yet, but I heard bout it, good teams create luck bad teams lose"
Text Sunday evening from Seahawks wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes), good-naturedly hating on his former team, the Bengals, after their wild last-minute loss to the Broncos. (I'm pretty sure he was at least half joking.)