GLENDALE, Ariz. – Nine of his Arizona Cardinals teammates were celebrating in the end zone, and 62,621 fans at University of Phoenix Stadium were roaring their approval, but Larry Fitzgerald(notes) paid no attention to the pandemonium in his midst. The All-Pro wideout had a more important job to do.
Instead of giving high fives, Fitzgerald was cradling his dazed quarterback in his long arms, providing a pick-me-up of the literal variety with 2:19 to go in the first half of Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints. Max Hall(notes), an undrafted rookie making his first NFL start, lay there limp at the 2-yard line, his head facing the opposite end zone, his dislodged helmet at his side. Hall had also parted company with the football, which had been fortuitously recovered by tackle Levi Brown and advanced into the end zone for a game-tying score. The points, however, were not Fitzgerald's primary concern.
"We need you," Fitzgerald told his quarterback, who'd just run headfirst into a quartet of ill-intentioned defenders, one of whom, safety Malcolm Jenkins(notes), had delivered a forearm smash that knocked Hall into another plane of consciousness. "You started this, and now we need you to finish this off for us."
It was a surreal scene which, until very recently, would have been inconceivable: There was Fitzgerald, one of the best players in football, pleading with a kid whose signing bonus likely was less valuable than one of the receiver's earrings not to cash out on him. This is what things have come to for the Cardinals, who rose up on Sunday to score a 30-20 upset of the defending Super Bowl champions yet look nothing like the elite team they were before Kurt Warner(notes) traded cleats for dancing shoes.
"Don't try to figure us out – you'll spend a lifetime," Arizona's Pro Bowl defensive tackle, Darnell Dockett(notes), said after the NFC West-leading Cards improved to 3-2, a half game ahead of the Seattle Seahawks.
Or, as Fitzgerald put it, "We've been humbled a couple of times this year. We've got a ways to go. But our quarterback played well, and that's something positive."
The Cardinals' triumph over the sloppy Saints (3-2) was positively peculiar. Arizona's three touchdowns were scored by Brown, the team's 324-pound left tackle, and a pair of defenders – safety Kerry Rhodes(notes) (27-yard fumble recovery) and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) (28-yard interception return). The latter two scores came in the fourth quarter, allowing Hall to walk off a winner while his superstar Saints counterpart, Drew Brees(notes), hit the showers in a mood that was pretty far from Super.
"We could certainly be playing a lot better," Brees, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, said as he left the Saints' locker room.
The Cardinals can certainly relate.
Nine months ago, the Saints KO'd Warner in what would be the great quarterback's final NFL game, a 45-14 win in an NFC divisional playoff game that helped propel New Orleans to its first title.
Warner, who snuck in a break between "Dancing with the Stars" duties to be part of the Fox broadcast team for Sunday's telecast, encountered a much different team than the one he'd left behind, with three standouts (receiver Anquan Boldin(notes), linebacker Karlos Dansby(notes) and safety Antrel Rolle(notes)) having relocated over the offseason.
Coming off a humiliating 41-10 defeat to the San Diego Chargers – two weeks after an equally abysmal 41-7 thrashing by the Atlanta Falcons – the Cards had the league's lowest-ranked scoring defense going into Sunday's game. Arizona, which eked out a road victory over the St. Louis Rams in the season opener, could easily have been 1-3, having defeated the Oakland Raiders by a single point after Sebastian Janikowski(notes) missed a 32-yard field goal as time expired.
"Everyone in the NFL has talent," Warner said last Friday. "When players leave, you can usually find talented people to replace them, guys who seem to have the same type of 'tangibles.' What really makes the difference in the NFL, though, are the game-changers, the guys who can make plays that change the momentum or turn the game your way. They lost four guys like that, and replacing them hasn't been easy."
Replacing Warner has been about as easy as the Chilean mining rescue. Heir apparent Matt Leinart(notes), the team's former starter and 2006 first-round draft pick, was demoted and released a week before the season opener. Next up was Derek Anderson(notes), a 2007 Pro Bowl selection signed over the offseason after having washed out in Cleveland. Anderson got tossed like a bad fish taco during the debacle in San Diego, and coach Ken Whisenhunt gave Hall the next crack at running his offense, one currently plagued by injuries and ill-timed mistakes.
That meant Hall – whose $5,000 signing bonus is about $49,995,000 less than the guaranteed money received by No. 1 overall pick and Rams rookie starter Sam Bradford(notes) – would become the first undrafted free agent to start a game at quarterback this early in the season (not counting the replacement-player-laden games during the 1987 strike) since Jim Zorn did so for the expansion Seahawks in 1976. The early results weren't promising. On his second pass of the game, Hall heaved a regrettable pass toward Fitzgerald, who was double-covered. Saints cornerback Jabari Greer(notes) easily intercepted the ball and returned it the Cardinals' 49-yard line, setting up John Carney's(notes) 31-yard field goal.
On the sidelines, Fitzgerald tried to settle down the keyed-up kid – by lying. "I told him what you're always supposed to tell your quarterback: 'It was my fault. I've got to make that play for you,' " Fitzgerald said.
Eventually Hall (17-for-27, 168 yards) started making a few of the downfield throws in the 15- to 35-yard range that were Warner's specialty, and Fitzgerald (seven receptions, 93 yards) began vaguely to resemble the weapon he was in the Warner era. Still, Hall wasn't especially smooth, and things could easily have gone the other way: The quarterback fumbled twice, and each was recovered by a Cardinals teammate.
The first time Hall lost the ball was the play that left him sprawled on the turf, until Fitzgerald lifted him to his feet. Trailing 10-3 and facing a third-and-goal from the 1 after linebacker Paris Lenon's(notes) interception, the first of three thrown by Brees, Hall took the snap and rolled to his right on what turned out to be a broken play. Lacking an open receiver, he drifted back to his left, tucked the ball into his right arm and made a run for the goal line.
Bad decision – two yards before hitting pay dirt, Hall encountered that four-player "Welcome to the NFL" committee and practically got blasted back to Provo.
"Oooh, man, it was loud," Fitzgerald said of the collision.
On the sidelines, many of Hall's teammates winced. "This ain't BYU no more," said Rhodes, the former New York Jets standout signed over the offseason to replace Rolle. "You better get down. These guys'll kill you out there. I think he figured it out [Sunday]."
Added Dockett, who forced the Ladell Betts(notes) fumble that led to Rhodes' touchdown return: "It's a learning experience for him. He learned his lesson. I knew he'd get back up. First start, they knock you out? You don't want to live with that [expletive]."
Or, in Hall's words, "You're not gonna keep me out of a game – I'd have to be out cold or have something broken."
After being helped up by Fitzgerald, Hall went to the sidelines and watched Brees drive the Saints into field-goal range, with Carney's 32-yarder giving New Orleans a 13-10 lead. Anderson came in to finish off the half, but Hall returned after intermission with more of the same: Early in the third quarter, on third-and-5 from the Arizona 44, he ran up the middle and fumbled the ball forward. Cardinals guard Alan Faneca(notes) recovered for a 10-yard gain, and four plays later Feely's 44-yard field goal tied the score.
That was Hall's last mistake. Weirdly enough, it was Brees who would falter down the stretch, while Hall did enough to convince his teammates and his coach that he gives them the best chance to capture a very winnable division and, they hope, evolve into a legitimate contender by season's end.
"The thing I like about Max is he bounced back," Fitzgerald said. "When he had some adversity early, he didn't go in the tank. He got knocked down, and he got back up."
Sure he did – with a little help from his sure-handed friend.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• I am duly impressed by the Giants' 34-10 pummeling of the Texans in Houston, New York's second consecutive dominant victory, and it's great to see that defensive end Osi Umenyiora(notes) (two sacks, forced fumble) and his fellow linemen are wreaking havoc the way they did in their 2007 championship season. But did it really take former Giants halfback (and my Y! Sports video colleague) Tiki Barber's criticism of coach Tom Coughlin and a glaring lack of discipline to fire up this team? If so – and if the Giants were, in fact, capable of these type of performances all along in sputtering out of the gate – doesn't that kind of prove Barber's point?
• It was a great day for Tampa Bay, which got big plays from its young defense and an absolutely ice-cold sideline pass from second-year quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) to Micheal Spurlock to set up Connor Barth's(notes) game-winning field goal, and a miserable ending for Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, who heads into the bye week with a disappointing 2-3 record and a very uncertain future. The 3-1 Bucs have already matched their 2009 victory total and bounced back nicely from that beatdown by the Steelers two weeks ago.
• Though the Lions, in losing their first four games, looked as hapless as usual to the untrained eye, players on other teams have been assuring me that Detroit is a lot better than people realize. After the Lions ramrodded the Rams 44-6, St. Louis halfback Steven Jackson is a believer. "They are good," Jackson said Sunday night. "They have my respect. Calvin Johnson(notes) and [Ndamukong] Suh are special. They have something to build around on both sides of the ball."
• Congratulations to the Oakland Raiders, who ended a 13-game losing streak to the Chargers with a 35-27 home victory, and to quarterback Jason Campbell(notes), who shook off his early season benching to spark a late comeback. San Diego, as usual, had an impressive stat line, but the team that played the hardest won this game.
• In September 2009, Titans coach Jeff Fisher and I sat together at Aggie Stadium and watched his oldest son, Brandon, help visiting Montana to a victory over UC Davis. (We attracted a bit of attention because, you know, I'm kind of a big deal around there. Or not. But it was fun to pretend.) Another guy who played for the Grizzlies that day, Marc Mariani(notes), is now a rookie kick returner for Fisher's Titans, and his 73-yard runback with 4:17 remaining – facilitated by a 15-yard penalty for a clumsy TD celebration by Cowboys Jason Witten(notes) and Marc Colombo(notes) – set up the winning touchdown in Tennessee's 34-27 road upset of the Cowboys. The Titans are now part of a four-way tie in the AFC South and face division foe Jacksonville next Monday night.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How frequently I must apply lip balm when I’m in the Valley of the Sun to avoid looking like this.
2. Sean Payton’s decision to punt on fourth-and-2 from the New Orleans 19 with 5:18 remaining and his team trailing 23-13. Let me qualify this by noting that Payton is a terrific coach who, long before he won a Super Bowl, was someone I consistently described as one of football’s foremost offensive strategists. In this case, however, I think he goofed. The logic Payton expressed in his postgame news conference – “The game’s immediately over if you go for it [and miss]” – makes some sense, but given that the Saints had already squandered two timeouts, I believe it was a risk he had to take. Consider how things played out: After punting, New Orleans forced Arizona to go three-and-out, and the clock stopped on Hall’s third-down incompletion. Even then, the Saints didn’t get the ball back until 3:25 remained. By the time Brees connected with Robert Meacham on a 50-yard touchdown, the clock read 1:49, and an onside kick was imperative. Personally, I like my odds of converting a fourth-and-2 with Brees as my quarterback a lot more than I do of recovering an onside kick; the Saints, for what it’s worth, jumped offsides on the attempt that Fitzgerald easily cradled for the Cards. By all rights Arizona should have been able to milk all but about 10 seconds from the clock – but Whisenhunt, another shrewd coach I greatly admire, made the dubious decision of having Hall throw a pass on third-and-8 from the Saints’ 33 with 59 seconds to go. The short pass was caught by tight end Ben Patrick(notes), who was stripped of the ball by Roman Harper(notes). Naturally, it bounced upfield, and Fitzgerald alertly recovered near the sidelines. More clock weirdness (after initial confusion by the officials as to whether Fitzgerald was out of bounds, before concluding he wasn’t) gave the Saints, following a punt, the ball at their own 9 with 24 seconds remaining – at which point Rodgers-Cromartie’s interception return for TD sealed the outcome.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Attention, Chargers special teams coach Steve Crosby, please pick up the white courtesy telephone. John Bonamego, fired by the Dolphins after last Monday night’s debacle against the Patriots, is on the line, and he wants to tell you that your special teams suck. Seriously, two punts blocked in one quarter in Oakland on Sunday, one leading to a Raiders safety, the other a touchdown? Is that even fathomable? (Sadly, I know that it is, having watched Stanford block two Nick Harris(notes) punts in one quarter of the 2000 Big Game, at which point I attempted to leave California Memorial Stadium, but was restrained by my friends, until my wife negotiated a settlement that caused me to stay in my seat while facing the top of the stadium with a blue-and-gold fleece sweatshirt covering my head. I later turned around and removed the sweatshirt to watch the Golden Bears lose in overtime. But I digress …) Anyway, I keep hearing how awesome the Chargers are statistically – they went into Sunday’s game ranked No. 1 in the NFL in offense and defense – along with the usual refrain regarding how lousy the AFC West is, and how Norv Turner’s San Diego teams always start slowly and turn it on when they need to. Maybe so. After Sunday, however, I think it’s officially time for Chargers fans to become alarmed.
I know that in this fantasy-obsessed era it’s tempting for some readers to look at statistical discrepancies like Sunday’s, when the Chargers outgained the Raiders by a 506-279 margin, and become falsely optimistic. I also think the adage that “special teams are one-third of the game” is a bit of an exaggeration. But what I see when I look at the Chargers is a 2-3 team that’s sloppy, lacks defensive playmakers and has already lost to a pair of AFC West opponents (including the season-opening defeat to the division-leading Chiefs) and could easily get outscored by the Broncos in one or both of their meetings. And it’s a real shame, because Philip Rivers(notes) is a fabulous quarterback in his prime with a highly gifted play-caller, Turner, as his head coach. I’m not sure how much blame Crosby deserves for all of this, but I do know it goes beyond punt protection. Consider Mike Scifres’(notes) third and final punt of the day, with 10:38 left in the third quarter. After fielding a high snap from the 50, he floated a gorgeous kick to the Oakland 8 – and Nick Miller(notes) dodged the gunner and raced 46 yards up the right sideline before Scifres made what was essentially a lucky, touchdown-saving tackle. When it’s an adventure every single time you send out the punting unit, you have serious issues.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Sunday night from Scifres, perhaps exercising restraint by leaving out two letters.