NFL History 101 – The Cardinals

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Take another dive into NFL history, but use proper pressurized air breathing, for we’re plunging into a void…

Know thy enemy…

The Cardinals date back to the amateur Morgan Athletic Club in Chicago back in 1898.  They are the oldest professional football club in the country, and, along with the Bears, one of two NFL charter clubs still in existence.

They were started by Chris O’Brien, a Chicago painting and building contractor, in 1898.  They later moved to Chicago’s Normal Park and were renamed the Racine Normals, since Normal park was on Racine avenue. In 1901 O’Brien bought used maroon uniforms from the University of Chicago. The color was very faded, and O’Brien claimed that “that’s not maroon, it’s cardinal red”.  This prompted their name change to the Racine Street Cardinals.

 In 1920, they became part of the NFL for a franchise fee of $100 and renamed to the Chicago Cardinals.  They were largely overshadowed by the Bears, and almost went broke.  A group of investors, including Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, tried to buy the team.  Failing that, they decided to start the AFL.

Since they were in Chicago, they had to do Chicago-type things.  In 1925 the champion was decided purely by winning percentage and the schedule wasn’t fixed.  The Cardinals found themselves in second place after losing to the Pottsville Maroons.  They quickly scheduled two games against weak teams, the Milwaukee Badgers and the Hammond Pros.   Unfortunately, these two teams had already dispersed for the year, so fill-in players were used.  These two wins got them into first place.  However, the league sanctioned them because it was learned that a Chicago player, Art Folz, had hired four Chicago high school boys to play for the Milwaukee Badgers under assumed names to assure victory.

The plot gets thicker though.  The league also found that Pottsville had played an unauthorized game in another teams territory, so they were stripped of the title.  They finally decided not to even give a title that year.  Eventually the league offered it to the Cardinals, but O’Brien refused it because he felt Pottsville had beaten them and deserved it.  Later in 1933 when the Bidwell family bought the Cardinals, they had no qualms and quickly claimed the 1925 title.

Remarkably, this case came up again in 1963 when the league investigated it again, and in the owners’ meeting in 2003.  The Bidwell family strongly opposed reversing the championship, as they wouldn’t win another one for 22 years.  It’s believed they were cursed by Pottsville.

The Chicago Cardinals were one of the few teams to have African-American players at time, primarily Duke Slater.  When the NFL decided to follow baseball and their racist policy of not allowing African-Americans to play,  he was the only one that remained playing.  He’d end up playing 10 years, never miss a game, and went on to be a lawyer and judge.   Impressive man. 

Charles Bidwell bought the team in 1932, and it’s remained in their family ever since.  You may notice we haven’t said much about their on-field performance.  That’s because they sucked.  In 1944, due to manpower shortages caused by WWII, the Cardinals merged with the Steelers for a year, and lost every game.  In 1947, they finally had a winning record of 9-3, and won the league championship.  They’d do even better the next year with an 11-1 record, but lose in the championship.

We are now at 1949, and they returned to being bad – as in they wouldn’t have a winning record until 1963.  Also in 1949, Cardinals owner Violet Bideill married St. Louis businessman Walter Wolfner.  I’m guessing this city might be mentioned again soon.

Because they were terrible, and the Bears weren’t, fan attendance was weak.  The Bidwells tried to get the NFL to let them relocate, but the NFL wanted a relocation fee that they couldn’t afford.  Then the AFL started. The NFL, feeling the competition, moved quickly to help the Bidwells relocate the team, getting a deal to move them to St. Louis beginning with the 1960 season.  The reason was to keep the AFL out of that city. 

For the next many years they would continue to be mired in mediocrity, or worse, until they hired a coach named Charley Winner in 1966.  False alarm.  Nothing changed.  In 1973, they hired Don Coryell to coach.  Finally, they got some double-digit win seasons, but still not win in the playoffs.   Because of the number of close games and come from behind wins, they became known as the “Cardiac Cardinals”.  Some of the top players they had at the time were Conrad Dobler, Dan Dierdorf, Tom Banks, Mel Gray, Terry Metcalf, and Jim Otis.

In 1977, they dropped to 7-7 and Coryell would be gone.  So, we are back to the Cardinals losing a lot of games. Naturally attendance dropped, and the Bidwells wanted to relocate.  The choices were narrowed down to Baltimore, Phoenix, or Jacksonville.   The few Cardinal fans remaining weren’t happy, and Bidwell avoided many games out of fear for his life.  The NFL allowed them to move to Tempe for the 1988 season.  The name was changed to the Phoenix Cardinals.

They had a great plan.  They’d play at the Arizona State University temporarily while a new stadium was built. Then the savings and loan crisis hit, killing the funding.  Their temporary location lasted 18 years.   The team continued to play poorly, and in 1994 Bidwell caved in to fan preference and changed their name to the Arizona Cardinals.  Phoenix apparently didn’t like their name being associated with the mess that was the Cardinals.   That year they brought Buddy Ryan in as both coach and GM.  He guaranteed a win against the Browns in week 3, and lost 32-0.  That was the highlight.

In 2007, they brought in Ken Whisenhunt to try and straighten things out.  He got them to 8-8 his first year and 9-7 the following year. They went on a playoff run and got to the Super Bowl, where they’d lose to the Steelers 27-23 with Kurt Warner quarterbacking and Larry Fitzgerald receiving.  After this year they faded, with 5-11 season to end 2012

Bruce Ariens took over coaching in 2013, getting them back to 10-6. The next year they’d be 11-5 and lose in the playoffs, and in 2015, at 13-3, they’d make it to the Conference Championship.  The next couple of years they’d be back to mediocre.  Ariens and Carson Palmer retired at the end of the season.

Steve Wills was hired to coach. 3-13 and he was fired.

In comes Kliff Kingsbury to coach and Kyler Murray as their first pick in the draft.  They’d go 5-10-1 their first year.  They would steal Deandre Hopkins from the Texans in 2020.  With high hopes going in to the season they would disappoint with an 8-8 record.  

They currently hold the longest championship drought in major US sports with no NFL titles in 74 years, dating back to 1947.

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07/29/2021 6:45 pm

Fire Bidwell and bring the Cards back to St. Louis. I hated them leaving. Growing up in central Missouri we had two teams, the Chiefs and the Cards until the Cards left town. The Rams were never accepted by me.

Big Chief
Big Chief
07/28/2021 3:10 pm

That mid-70s Cardinals team was fun to watch. I think Conrad “Dirty” Dobler was the first lineman ever to get a isolation camera on him during an NFL game so they could show what kind of cheap shots he took as a matter of course. Jim Hart should have been on that list of players as well. He was really good with Coryell as his coach.

Bill Bidwell is probably the worst long term owner in NFL history. I still know people from St. Louis who speak of him the way Browns fans speak about Modell.

07/28/2021 11:09 am

Larry Wilson. Best player they ever had.

Reply to  hoosierchief
07/28/2021 4:22 pm

The Cards pretty much died for me when they left St Louis, except for a short rebirth with Warner, but yeah, after I wrote that I thought “Larry
F is pretty good, too”

Reply to  NovaChiefs
07/29/2021 6:51 pm

Wilson, Stovall, MacArthur Lane, Gilliam, Mel Gray, Bob Rowe, Irv Gooden, Hart, they were loaded. A break or two here or there and they could of gone all the way

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