TAMPA, Fla. – Unless you remember the 1947 NFL title game with clarity and fondness – and I'm guessing there aren't a whole lot of people who fit this description – this is unquestionably the greatest time ever to be a Cardinals fan.
Six days from now, you'll see your red-clad heroes charge through the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium and battle the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. Early on you're likely to watch an accomplished and amazingly accurate quarterback, Kurt Warner, fake a handoff to veteran halfback Edgerrin James and zing a pass to tenacious receiver Anquan Boldin, who'll catch it in stride and bull his way upfield for a nice gain.
Now close your eyes and imagine, a little more than seven months from now, Arizona opening its 2009 season without any of those players. It sounds crazy, I know, but it could happen.
So much for that everlasting Super Bowl buzz.
Tell me the last time a team headed into a Super Bowl with so much potential for offseason upheaval. Was it when the Patriots, before losing to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI, were dealing with the rumor (true, it turned out) that coach Bill Parcells would bolt after the season? Was it when the 49ers, in what ended up being championship architect Bill Walsh's final game as their head coach, were about to capture their third title in a Super Bowl XXIII classic against the Bengals?
Does anything in the Super Bowl era compare to this in terms of comprehensive uncertainty?
I'm not saying it's likely that Warner, James and Boldin will all be gone after this season. If anything, it's more probable that all three players will return to the Cardinals next season. Yet there's no debating that the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl is going to be a very interesting time in the Valley of the Sun, as a franchise that has almost zero experience handling success tries to resolve some important questions.
"We have a commitment towards keeping this team at a highly competitive level for years to come, and those guys represent our core players," Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said Saturday. "We've always said we're going to try to address those guys first and go from there. But obviously there's got to be cooperation on both sides to get that done."
In other words, if the agents for Warner (Mark Bartelstein) and James and Boldin (Drew Rosenhaus) spend most of the next few weeks screaming, "Show me the money!" all bets are off.
Then there's the matter of Arizona's backup quarterback, Matt Leinart, the 10th overall pick of the '06 draft, who suddenly finds himself as the unlucky successor to the Packers' Aaron (How Long Must I Wait) Rodgers.
Let's assess the players' situations:
The reborn quarterback and his restless understudy
The question is not whether the Cardinals want Warner back – they do. And the question is not whether Warner, whose contract is about to expire, wants to shop his services to the highest bidder – he doesn't. The real question is: Does Warner, who turns 38 in June, want to keep playing football?
Warner nearly retired after the '06 season, and last October he considered quitting after watching Boldin suffer a potentially horrific injury in a defeat to the Jets.
So the question is definitely out there in the desert air, and I asked it again while sitting with Warner and his wife, Brenda, in their Paradise Valley, Ariz., home last Sunday night after the Cardinals' 32-25 victory over the Eagles in the NFC championship game: If you win the Super Bowl, would you "pull a Jordan" and walk away?
"I don't think anything that has to do with football is going to affect whether I retire or not," he said as Brenda nodded her agreement. Then he smiled and added, "But [retirement] sounds pretty good right now. It is the perfect ending."
That may be, but I believe Warner, after years of feeling blown off, is enjoying his current situation so much that he'll gladly re-sign with the Cardinals. And I think Arizona will come up with a deal that compensates Warner enough (maybe $18 million over two years) to reward him for his performance while accounting for his age and affinity for his current situation.
"We've made it clear to Kurt that we certainly want to see him finish his career here," Graves said. "He has indicated a desire to end his career here, and I look forward to working with his representative toward that end. We'll certainly come up with a deal that hopefully is beneficial for both parties. Kurt has been outstanding, not only on the field but as a representative for our organization. We want to come up with something that reflects that."
I expect the Cardinals to pull it off. But if the team essentially commits to Warner for two seasons, that may make it difficult to appease Leinart, who started 16 games over his first two years before being beaten out by Warner in the '08 preseason.
Leinart has three more years on his rookie deal, and he has yet to make any noise about wanting to leave Arizona for an opportunity to play elsewhere. And with good reason: Who knows what might happen on Super Sunday? Were Warner to get injured and Leinart come in and win the game in relief, it could alter the equation in a dramatic way.
"From the start of the season to now, and clearly all the way through the Super Bowl, all that's important to Matt is this team and this season," says Chuck Price, one of Leinart's representatives. "He's never going to put himself or his future ahead of the team.
"At the end of the season the Cardinals will address the situation, and I'm sure Mike [Bidwill, the team's president] and Rod, who I respect very much, will make their intentions clear. Matt has started 16 games and has gone 7-9 in some tough circumstances. You could put that record up against either Manning [Peyton or Eli] in his first 16 games and it looks pretty good."
I think Leinart won't object to going into 2009 as Warner's backup, but if he believes he has to wait until 2011 to play he may try to force a trade. Whether he'd be successful is another story.
"We still believe that Matt will eventually be our quarterback and be an extremely good one," Graves says. "And I can't help believe that spending all this time around Kurt Warner can only make him that much more effective. He's a competitor, and he wants his opportunity, but he understands the situation and realizes he's playing with one of the greats of the game. I think he'll be patient."
Oh, by the way, there's one final wrinkle to the upcoming contract negotiations with Warner: He still thinks the team owes him $500,000, and he wants that factored into a new deal. After taking over the starting job during the 2007 season, Warner suffered a dislocated left elbow but, with Leinart on injured reserve with a broken clavicle, played through the painful injury. However, he took himself out in goal-line situations because it was hard for him to hand off, and then-backup Tim Rattay ended up throwing three short touchdown passes.
Warner, who finished the season with an 89.8 passer rating, unsuccessfully argued that the team should pay him a $500,000 contract incentive for finishing with a 90.0 or above rating, reasoning that any of the missing touchdown throws would have put him over the top. It sounds crazy, but Warner is a man of principle, and I believe recouping that $500,000 in some form will be a factor in his wanting to return for at least one more season.
The comeback halfback
A few weeks ago, this was a no-brainer. James, the 11th-leading rusher in NFL history, had been banished to the sideline (11 carries over eight games), and at one point during that stretch he had asked the Cardinals to release him.
He was as gone as the Bush Administration, and everyone knew it.
Now? Things are a lot murkier. Reinserted into the starting lineup for the regular-season finale, James has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance since, adding balance to the Cardinals' attack at the optimal time. After two years of lobbying, he has finally persuaded coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley to incorporate some of the stretch plays with which he had so much success during his years in Indianapolis.
"We've all had our input," James said nearly two weeks ago as we dined at a Scottsdale, Ariz., steakhouse. "It's a meeting of what Coach Whisenhunt and [offensive line coach Russ] Grimm liked to do in Pittsburgh, of the shotgun stuff that Kurt's comfortable with and of what I feel I do best. Everybody's had to give a little bit, but it's working."
In December James wasn't even pretending he'd be back for the final season of the four-year, $30-million deal he signed as a free agent in 2006. However, that was predicated on the belief that there's no way the Cards would keep him. Though rookie Tim Hightower, a fifth-round pick out of Richmond, is a powerful runner with a lot of potential, the organization does not consider him a franchise back. Unless Arizona secures a suitable replacement for James, 30, in the NFL draft or free agency, the team may elect to honor the contract.
"We'll deal with these questions after the season," Graves says. "Edgerrin has been nothing but professional this entire season, and we suspected there might be an opportunity, whether based on injury or performance, where we'd be forced to come back to him. To his credit, he stayed ready, and things have worked out."
Will they work out beyond this season?
"I'm not thinking about it," James said Sunday night. "Just Super Bowl talk. [Expletive] the future."
My gut feeling is that James, who hails from Immokalee and has a home in Miami, would prefer to be closer to the Sunshine State, if not playing for one of the three pro teams located here. If given a chance to secure his freedom – or, failing that, if he can pressure the Cardinals to release him – I think he'll try to play elsewhere in '09.
The riled-up receiver
When Boldin stormed off the field as the rest of the Cardinals were celebrating their victory over the Eagles, there was more going on than his frustration at having been removed during the team's game-winning touchdown drive and the sideline argument with offensive coordinator Todd Haley that ensued.
Boldin has been angry ever since the offseason, when the team signed Larry Fitzgerald, his fellow Pro Bowl wideout, to a four-year, $40-million contract extension. Upset at the fact that he now essentially makes half of what Fitzgerald earns, Boldin stewed when the team didn't offer him a similarly lucrative deal over the summer, at one point vowing that he would play out his contract (which runs through 2010) and not re-sign with the Cardinals under any circumstances.
Arizona's higher-ups weren't exactly shivering with fear. Boldin, 28, is a passionate, productive player, but his style seems to lead to frequent injuries, a belief reinforced by the facial fracture he suffered during the regular season and the hamstring strain which kept him out of the Cards' divisional-round playoff upset over Carolina. It also didn't help Boldin's cause that the team went 4-1 without him this season – and that Fitzgerald was in the process of seizing the mantle as the game's best receiver.
With all of that said, the Cardinals will still try hard to keep Boldin. Mindful that he has little leverage, the team will likely offer him an extension that increases his salary while leaving him short of Fitzgerald's numbers – perhaps something along the lines of the five-year, $35-million extension that the Giants gave Plaxico Burress at the start of this season.
"I know this has been an emotional period," Graves says. "I don't want to get too far ahead of the process. We're looking forward to getting together with Anquan after the season and trying to work something out. We've always said he was a core member of our football team, and we are committed to keeping our core players together. I'm hopeful we can do that at some place that makes sense for all of us."
In the meantime, here's my advice to Cardinals fans. Savor Super Sunday for everything it's worth.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• As I make my return to a Super Bowl city which, eight years ago, was woefully unprepared to host an event of that magnitude – yes, I'm talking about the overloading of the cell-phone system for nearly 48 hours and the brilliant decision to move the massive, unruly Gasparilla Pirate Fest up a week so it would coincide with the Ultimate Cluster You Know What – there is some very promising news out of Louisiana. The Saints and Louisiana officials are talking about a deal that would extend the team's stay in New Orleans and provide for upgrades to the Superdome that could get the stadium back up to Super Bowl-hosting standards. That means the Super Bowl could be back in NOLA, where it belongs, as soon as four years from now. Ideally, I'd prefer that the NFL fund a new facility similar to Houston's Reliant Stadium – retractable roof, natural grass – where the Superdome now sits and move the Super Bowl there on a permanent basis. That probably won't happen for a number of reasons: The league likes spreading the game around and using it as a carrot for voters being asked to approve stadium improvements or public funding for new facilities (good luck with that in today's economy), for starters. But as most of us who spend more than a week in each Super Bowl city on an annual basis can attest, for reasons having to do with logistics, vibe and ability to handle nightlife, planting the game in the Crescent City is exactly what the NFL should do.
• Don't get me started on the Raiders' ridiculously bush-league search for a new head coach, one which seems destined to end with the spectacularly uninspired removal of Tom Cable's interim tag. It's not even worth getting into the whole "Hey, Kevin Gilbride called us" nonsense during this otherwise exciting stretch of the NFL season. However, I did see one interesting report: Owner Al Davis may be considering Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman, one of football's foremost offensive minds, as his offensive coordinator. Trestman held that same position in Oakland during the team's last respectable season six years ago, which ended with a Super Bowl defeat to the Bucs. During that '02 campaign the Raiders produced some eye-popping offensive numbers and quarterback Rich Gannon was voted the league's MVP. Last year Trestman, frustrated by a lack of NFL opportunities, took the Alouettes gig and guided a lightly regarded team to a division title and Grey Cup appearance, earning CFL coach of the year honors. He is L'Homme in Montreal, and I'm not sure he'd leave to return to the NFL as a coordinator. Personally, I'm all for Davis interviewing Trestman – but for the head coaching job. If Davis is intent on ignoring the solicitations of Jim Fassel, a former NFL head coach with a gifted offensive mind (and a Super Bowl on his résumé), he should at least be open to giving Trestman the shot he has long deserved.
• The Patriots may end up dealing with some uncertainty at the quarterback position, given that there's some question about how quickly Tom Brady's knee is healing, soon-to-be-franchised Matt Cassel is staring at a lucrative deal from numerous potential suitors and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels left to become the Broncos' coach. But however the situation plays out, I'm convinced that New England will avoid the sort of public messiness that can negatively impact a team, because that's how the Patriots handle their business. The principals may not be all that accessible, but when they do speak publicly they typically manage to say intelligent things that happen to be true. Cassel, coming of a big year in relief of the injured Brady, made a point of telling ESPNews, "This is Tom's team. The Patriots have been Tom's team. He's built that franchise up with his own two hands. He's the guy, and he was the MVP the year before. I realize that. He's been such a mentor for me that I would say 'No, there is no quarterback competition.' But I've learned so many things from Tom, and hopefully it'll help me in my career." Meanwhile Brady, in an interview with Toronto radio station FAN950, was asked about the departures of assistant coaches McDaniels, Dom Capers and Brad Seeley and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli and how they might affect the Patriots. His response: "As long as we have Robert and Jonathan Kraft and as long as we have Coach Belichick, we'll be just fine." Add Brady's name to that sentence, and he's 100 percent correct.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• I understand why Pioli, 10 days after being named the Chiefs' general manager, fired incumbent coach Herm Edwards. For one thing, Edwards had lost 23 of his last 25 games. Also, Pioli was brought in to serve as the franchise's most important force on the football side, and it makes sense that he would want to start things out with a coach of his choosing. However, it's a little frustrating to me that Edwards won't get the chance to coach this young team in '09, because I believe there's a strong chance he'd have guided the Chiefs to a surprising playoff berth, something he has done on previous occasions in K.C. and with the Jets. If anything, Edwards' fate reinforces the notion that there is no room for rebuilding in the NFL, at least for men who desire to keep their jobs. Because Edwards finessed an aging Chiefs team into the postseason in his first year as coach, then-GM Carl Peterson made the mistake of trying to gear up for another run, which also meant staving off the process of replacing some aging stalwarts for an entire year. (Surely, the decision to re-sign halfback Larry Johnson to a high-priced deal in that context was a highly regrettable one.) Ultimately, that approach spelled doom for both Peterson and his coach. Once the Chiefs finally bit the rebuilding bullet, Edwards knew he was in a tough spot – he was coaching a team that wouldn't be competitive until '09, at the earliest. In another era he'd have been able to enjoy the fruits of his labor; in this era, his successor likely will.
• Mike Singletary may turn out to be a highly successful NFL coach, but he's probably not the one 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan would have chosen during an open search – and I suspect McCloughan is looking at Pioli's decision to fire Edwards with a bit of jealousy. The history: At the end of San Francisco's disappointing '07 season, owners John and Denise DeBartolo York promoted McCloughan to general manager and were all set to fire coach Mike Nolan. McCloughan, however, talked them out of it, persuading them to give Nolan another year to turn things around. This is what I believe McCloughan was thinking: I can hire another coach right now, or I can settle into the job, take a full season to target Nolan's ideal replacement and buy myself another year. Or, if Nolan somehow turns them into a winner in '08, I'll look smart for keeping him. It's win-win. Except, as McCloughan soon found out, it was lose-lose.
Nolan, from the initial news conference to announce McCloughan's promotion, acted like he was still the guy in charge. After getting his way and bringing in Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator, Nolan brutally mishandled the alleged quarterback competition, which was essentially rigged in J.T. O'Sullivan's favor. Nolan started out poorly and was fired after seven games, leading to Singletary's promotion as interim coach (after McCloughan considered Martz and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky). Singletary, in his first game, called out his players and dropped his pants, but he ultimately started winning games, which enhanced his standing in the organization. Jed York, John and Denise's son, took a larger role in running the franchise (he was named team president last month) and became sold on Singletary. Now McCloughan has a coach who was shoved down his throat, and he seems to have lost some clout in the organization, in relation both to Singletary and Jed York. I think McCloughan can end up being a highly successful GM, but I'll bet he wishes he had a do-over.
• I'm hearing through the media grapevine that Rachel Nichols, ESPN's tireless and tremendous field reporter, won't be making an appearance in Tampa. Don't cry for Nichols – word is she'll soon be dispatched to Hawaii, where she'll be covering the Pro Bowl with her usual comprehensive excellence, and I suspect she wouldn't complain if given the chance. Yet the decision not to have her work the Super Bowl is a bummer for ESPN's viewers, depriving them of the services of one of the best in the business. It's kind of like the Steelers choosing to save James Harrison for the Pro Bowl and fly him straight to the islands. Perhaps I'm partial to Nichols because she's also an accomplished writer, but what really stands out is her work ethic, which consistently allows her to thrive in a highly competitive and over-saturated realm. I realize that the people ESPN is sending to Tampa are no slouches – you know Ed Werder as a slender dude with a mustache; to me he is a cold, vicious killer on the information warpath – and that everybody in just about every business is cutting back. I just happen to think that the network blew this one.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How some of the relentlessly ebullient people who work at Jamba Juice successfully add up the hours on their timecards each week, given their apparent aversion to simple math. I like Jamba, but I don't enjoy it when my wife asks me to get her a Matcha Green Tea Blast smoothie without the sherbet, because it brings up an inevitable conundrum: How do I honor her wishes at an establishment where such a request is baffling? Me: "Matcha Green Tea Blast, no sherbet." Cheerful person at the register: "What would you like instead?" Me: "Nothing." Person behind the counter: Blank stare. Me: "You know, just put more of everything else." Person behind the counter: "Yeah, but what do you want instead of the sherbet?" It's like the famous "These go to 11" scene from "This is Spinal Tap," with me as Marty DiBergi and the person behind the counter as Nigel Tufnel. What I want to convey in that situation is this: Simply increase every other ingredient proportionately, so that I would have the smoothie that would be made in a world in which sherbet did not exist. What I think the person behind the counter would like to say, but can never seem even to attempt to enunciate, is: We have preset recipes that measure out each ingredient, and eliminating the sherbet while proportionately increasing the others requires math skills that are beyond our inclination and capabilities.
After going through this drill a dozen times – the same thing happens when my dad asks me to get him a smoothie without ice – I finally stopped trying. Now, when the person behind the counter asks what I want more of, I just say, "Frozen yogurt." The strange thing is, I had already written this riff on Sunday morning before connecting at the Denver International Airport, where I paid a quick visit to the new Jamba on the upstairs level of the United terminal. I had a ton of writing still left to do and wanted to do some serious drinking, so I asked for the original size (24 ounce) Bright Eyed and Blueberry. Person behind the counter: "We don't do that in 24 ounce. It only comes in 12 or 16." I smiled knowingly; I'd been through this predicament before, and they'd always managed to ring it up at a higher price and give me the 24-ounce size. I said, "Can't you just get me a 24-ounce smoothie and charge me more?" Person behind the counter: "We don't have a recipe for that." I thought about suggesting to her that she simply double each of the ingredients listed on the 12-ounce recipe, but I had a pretty tight connection, and it has been a long season. "I'll take the 16-ouncer," I said cheerfully.
2. Why Terrell Suggs, the Ravens' courageous and productive pass rusher, is talking publicly (to Sirius NFL Radio) about the "home discount" he and fellow free agents-to-be Ray Lewis and Bart Scott might give Baltimore in order to keep playing together in '09 and beyond. It's a touching sentiment and all, but I have to believe it's one that Suggs' savvy agent, Gary Wichard – and the agents for Lewis and Scott – wish T-Sizzle would have kept on the down-low. Considering that Suggs, by his own estimation, played the AFC championship game at "35 to 40 percent" with a shoulder injury and still managed to register a pair of huge sacks of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, this is not someone who should be uttering the word discount, even if he ultimately intends to accept one. Because, trust me: The second the Ravens feel they can get better value from younger, less accomplished players at the same positions as the three men in question, the franchise will be insisting that the veterans accept a much bigger discount – or voiding the contracts altogether.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
On Friday I chastised Chargers general manager A.J. Smith for mocking LaDainian Tomlinson in comments he made about the star halfback's future to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Now I see that the beat writer to whom Smith made the statements, Kevin Acee, is sticking up for the Lord of No Rings, insisting the idea "that Smith meant disrespect toward Tomlinson is ill-informed." My, that is so touching. Not only does Acee gather quotes, but he also uses his powers of interpretation to ensure that nobody will misunderstand the intentions of the GM he covers. In fact – cue the violins – Acee takes his defense a step further, claiming that Smith is not taunting LT but is "feeling the weight of a decision that will shape a franchise …" All that was missing was a clip of former President Clinton saying, "I feel your pain."
At the end of this diatribe, I am going to print the two quotes in question: The one Tomlinson put on his website, and the one the tormented and "uniquely straight-forward" Smith nobly gave to Acee as a reaction. I'm going to let you all decide whether Acee's statement – "I assure you he did not mean to mock LT" – is credible. I've already given you my uniquely straight-forward opinion, but apparently you had to be there. I also got a kick out of Acee's rationalization that, "If anything [Smith's] comments were a shot across the bow at the greater Tomlinson camp – namely agent Tom Condon – and what Smith perceived as repeated attempts to paint a certain picture." So let me get this straight: In an effort to show that horrid, picture-painting agent who's boss, the GM of the Chargers gave a quote that mimicked the prior statement of one of the agent's prized clients – who, you know, just happens to be the most revered player in franchise history. Way to stick it to him, A.J., and thanks for clearing that up, Acee.
Tomlinson's quote: "I have been getting a lot of messages on my site regarding me leaving San Diego. I feel that I need to make it very clear that I have NO intentions of leaving San Diego. San Diego is where my career started and where I'd like it to end. I have nothing but love and the upmost respect for this team, the players, and the Spanos Family. Me being traded is completely out of my hands. I have ABSOLUTELY no control in that decision making. All I can do is wait and see how it all plays out. As for now, I am a Charger and will be until I am told otherwise …"
Smith's quote: "My first reaction was we both have similar feelings. I have no intentions of leaving San Diego. San Diego is where my GM career started and where I'd like it to end. I also have nothing but love and the utmost respect for this team, the players and the Spanos family. I have absolutely no control over how long I will be with the Chargers. As for now, I am the Chargers' GM, and I have major decisions to ponder for the organization now and in the future. My recommendation to Dean Spanos will be what's in the best interest of the team – both short and long term. That's my job. That's what Dean hired me to do."
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Oh dead! Wondering if I need to reserve a plot to look up at the grass."
– Text Saturday night from Dolphins media relations coordinator Fitz Ollison, unimpressed by the Tampa nightlife eight days before Super Bowl XLIII. (I suspect that will change drastically in the coming days."
"Wish I was there."
– Text from ailing New York Post NFL writer extraordinaire Mark Cannizaro, whose presence will be missed. Come next February, his presence at Super Bowl XLIV in Miami will be celebrated heartily.
- Super Bowl