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History of the Arizona Cardinals

This article details the history of the Arizona Cardinals American Football Club. The Cardinals are the oldest extant professional football club in the United States.

Chicago years (1920–1959)

St. Louis years (1960–1987)

Arizona years (1988–present)

Early years (1988–89)

Not long after the 1987 season, Bidwill agreed to move to the Phoenix area on a handshake deal with state and local officials, and the team became the Phoenix Cardinals. They planned to play at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe on a temporary basis while a new stadium was being built. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the savings and loan crisis derailed financing for the stadium, forcing the Cardinals to play at Arizona State for 18 years.[1] In defiance of all geographic reality, the Cardinals remained in the NFC East.

In March 1994, Bill Bidwill renamed the team the Arizona Cardinals due to fan preference (Bidwill had initially resisted the name "Arizona Cardinals" due to the NFL's tradition of team names that identified home cities, although the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots were longstanding exceptions and the Carolina Panthers were set to start play the following year.).[2] The rest of the NFL owners quickly approved the name change.

The Cardinals had missed the playoffs by a single game in their final season in St. Louis, and for much of the 1988 season they were poised to build on that momentum. At the end of week 11, they were 7-4 and in first place in the NFC East. However, they dropped their final five games to finish 7-9. They got off to another strong start in 1989, with road victories over the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. However, a rash of injuries decimated the roster. With five games to go in the season, Gene Stallings, who had followed the team from St. Louis, announced he was retiring at the end of the season. Instead, general manager Larry Wilson ordered Stallings to leave immediately and named running backs coach Hank Kuhlmann as interim coach for the remainder of the season. The change cut the legs out from under the team, which lost its last five games to finish 5-11--the first of four straight 11-loss seasons.

Bugel era (1990–93)

Joe Bugel, the architect of the Redskins' famous "Hogs" offensive line in the 1980s, coached the Cardinals from 1990 to 1993, usually finishing last in the dominant NFC East, which produced the Super Bowl winner in each of those seasons (Giants in '90, Redskins '91, Cowboys '92-93). Bugel's first three teams finished 5-11 in 1990 and 4-12 in both 1991 and 1992 before improving to 7-9 in 1993. During the 1993 season, the Cardinals outscored their opponents by 57 points, but suffered eight losses by seven points or less, five of those setbacks coming to playoff teams. A three-game winning streak to close the season, including a 17-6 triumph over the playoff bound Giants, was not enough to save Bugel's job.

Ryan era (1994–95)

Buddy Ryan replaced Bugel in 1994, also serving as his own general manager. With typical bluster, he declared, "You've got a winner in town."[3] He guaranteed victory in the 1994 week 3 game at the Cleveland Browns, which Cleveland subsequently won, 32-0. The Cardinals, who ranked third in the NFL in total defense in 1994 but suffered from a lack of consistency at quarterback, entered the final week of the season with an outside chance at a playoff berth, but a 10-6 loss to the Atlanta Falcons ended those hopes as Arizona finished 8-8.

The 1995 season saw the Cardinals drop to 4-12, including an embarrassing 27-7 loss to the expansion Carolina Panthers. Ryan was fired on December 26, less than 24 hours after the Cardinals lost 37-13 to the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. Dallas returned to Sun Devil Stadium 34 days later and defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX.

Tobin era (1996–2000)


Ryan was followed by Vince Tobin, who improved the Cardinals to 7-9 in 1996, led by defensive end Simeon Rice, the third overall pick who became the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and a rejuvenated Boomer Esiason at quarterback. Esiason threw for 522 yards in an overtime victory over the Redskins in the Cardinals' final game at RFK Stadium, and two weeks later led a fourth-quarter comeback against the playoff-bound Eagles. The 1996 season also featured a lowlight: a 31-21 loss at home to the New York Jets, the only game the Jets won during a 1-15 season.


The Cardinals fell back to 4-12 in 1997, but that season saw the debut of rookie quarterback Jake Plummer, who the previous season guided Arizona State to a remarkable 11-0 regular season before falling just short of the national championship with a loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. The highlight of the 1997 season was a 25-22 overtime victory over the Cowboys in week 2, ending Dallas' 13-game winning streak over the Cardinals which dated back to 1990. The momentum generated by the victory over the Cowboys was squandered with losses in the next two games, falling to the Redskins 19-13 in overtime in the first-ever game at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, and an 18-17 setback to the playoff-bound Buccaneers.

Playoff year (1998)

During the 1998 season Jake Plummer enjoyed his greatest stretch of success during his tenure with the franchise, in terms of victories at least, as his quarterback rating was still an average 75.0. The team during that time had once again been dubbed the Cardiac Cards by the local and national media[4] as eight of their 16 regular-season games were decided by three points or less, and seven of those games ended in favor of the Cardinals. Solidifying their status as the team to beat in the clutch, the Cardinals, sporting a 6-7 record going into the 15th week, defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in overtime on a field goal by Chris Jacke, then returned home to defeat the New Orleans Saints by two and the San Diego Chargers by three to clinch a wild-card playoff berth.

The close calls and the fact that none of their victories had been to teams with winning records (New Orleans was the best of the group at 6-10; San Diego was 5-11 and Philadelphia 3-13) made them heavy underdogs going into their Wild Card Playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys. Considering their two regular season losses to the Cowboys and the fact that they had been on the losing end of 16 of the last 17 games against their division rivals, including 9 straight losses at Texas Stadium,[5] the "Team of the Nineties" seemed to have history and ample statistical evidence on their side. To further the situation, the Cardinals franchise had not won a single playoff game since their title year of 1947, resulting in the longest active drought in professional sports history.

However, Arizona dominated the Cowboys on both ends of the football throughout the game. At Texas Stadium that afternoon, the Cardinals jumped out to a 10–0 halftime lead. The Cardinals would later increase that lead to 20-0 in the final minutes of the 4th quarter. The Cowboys' only score was a touchdown late in the 4th quarter, and the Cardinals held on for a 20-7 upset that wasn't even that close. The Cardinals, who had suffered for 51 years as the NFL's doormat, finally had a playoff win. However, the distinction was short lived as the Cardinals fell in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Minnesota Vikings who possessed a 15-1 record as well as the highest scoring offense in NFL history at the time. The Vikings won the game 41-21 in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.[6]


Coming off their playoff run in 1998, the Cardinals were expected to do bigger and better things in 1999, but a tough schedule ranked in the top 5 as well as key injuries returned the team to their losing ways, getting off to a 2–6 start. However, the Cards would make another run, winning 4 straight games to get back into the playoff chase, but it was not meant to be; Arizona lost their last 4 games to finish with a disappointing 6–10 record.

McGinnis era (2000–03)

Tobin was fired during the 2000 season and replaced by existing defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis, who remained head coach until his firing in 2003; McGinnis compiled a win-loss record of 17-40 during his tenure. In McGinnis' second game as head coach, Aeneas Williams tied an NFL record by returning a fumble 104 yards for a touchdown in a 16–15 victory over the Redskins. Other notable victories during McGinnis' tenure included a 34–31 overtime victory over the Oakland Raiders in 2001 in the Cardinals' first-ever visit to Oakland, and an 18-17 triumph in the final game of the 2003 season over the Minnesota Vikings, in which Josh McCown threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Nate Poole with no time left on the clock, eliminating the Vikings from the playoffs.

The Cardinals did not win more than seven games in any season between 1999 and 2006, and had one of the worst yearly attendance records in the NFL. Sun Devil Stadium gained a reputation for being one of the quietest stadiums in the NFL during the Cardinals' tenure there (which stood in decided contrast to Sun Devil home games). The few fans who did show up for games were most often rooting for the away team, creating "home games" on the road for many opposing teams—a phenomenon most noticeable when teams with great national followings, such as the Packers, Bears, 49ers, Raiders, Redskins, Steelers and Cowboys, came into town. A significant percentage of the state's residents only live there during the winter and live elsewhere for the rest of the year, and many of Arizona's permanent residents either grew up in other states or have roots outside the state.[7]

In 2002, the addition of the Houston Texans caused the NFL to realign into eight divisions of four teams each. After 32 years of being in the NFC East, the Cardinals were finally moved to the NFC West with the 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams, which made far more sense from a geographical standpoint.

Green era (2004–06)

In 2004, the Cardinals hired former Vikings coach Dennis Green as their head coach. Prior to his signing with the Cardinals, he compiled a 97-62 record in ten seasons with Minnesota (1992–2001), leading that franchise to four NFC Central Division titles and two NFC Championship games. The Cardinals continued their mediocre ways, going 6-10 in 2004 and 5-11 in 2005, the final two seasons for the team in Sun Devil Stadium.

Tragedy struck the team on April 22, 2004 when former safety Pat Tillman, a popular player who was an All-American at Arizona State, was killed in Afghanistan while serving in the United States Army. Tillman left professional football following the 2001 season to serve in the military in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Tillman became the first NFL player to lose his life in war since Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Bob Kalsu died in 1970 during the Vietnam War. Tillman's jersey number 40 was retired at the Cardinals' first home game of 2004. In early 2005, Cardinals signed Kurt Warner to a one-year, 4 million dollar contract and later extending it to six years. Warner retired on January 29, 2010. Matt Leinart was drafted tenth overall in the 2006 NFL draft. After four seasons, Leinart was released on September 4, 2010 and signed a one-year contract with the Houston Texans two days later.

New stadium (2006)

In 2000, Maricopa County voters passed a ballot initiative by a margin of 51% to 49%, providing funding for a new Cardinals stadium (as well as for improvements to Major League Baseball spring training facilities in the greater Phoenix region; and youth recreation). After some legal obstacles, the Cardinals began construction of their new facility in April 2003, in Glendale, one of the western suburbs of Phoenix. University of Phoenix Stadium features a retractable roof and a slide-out grass surface, which is good for the hot desert weather; the new stadium has a state-of-the-art air conditioning system and high-back seats.

For some time, many team officials blamed Sun Devil Stadium for the Cardinals' woes. Being merely a tenant in a college-owned stadium, especially considering that it was never intended as a full-time home, denied the Cardinals access to many revenue streams that other NFL teams took for granted.

The 63,500-seat stadium (expandable to 72,800) opened on August 12, 2006 when the Cardinals defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-13, in a preseason game. The Cardinals then hosted their first regular season opening day game since moving to the Phoenix area in 1988, defeating the San Francisco 49ers in a rematch of the 2005 blowout in Mexico City, 34-27, in front of a sellout crowd of 63,407. In February 2008, the stadium hosted Super Bowl XLII.

Despite the new stadium, the team began the 2006 season with a 1-8 record, punctuated by a 24-23 loss to the Chicago Bears on October 16 (before a sellout crowd enjoying a rare Cardinals appearance on Monday Night Football) in which Arizona blew a 20-point lead in an extremely bizarre game as Chicago scored zero offensive touchdowns and the Cardinals led in several statistical categories including Time of Possession, Passing Yardage, Rushing Yardage, Giveaways, Takeaways, and Interceptions. Despite all the overwhelming statistical evidence the Bears capitalized on the two turnovers the Cardinals did commit, a pair of fumbles, and promptly returned them both for touchdowns. They also converted a punt return into a touchdown. The Cardinals had a chance to redeem themselves with a last minute field goal which would give them the victory, but their offense turned conservative and stalled just past midfield, and a 40-yard field goal attempt by Neil Rackers missed wide left. Afterwards Green fired off an uncharacteristic, angry tirade in the postgame press conference, stating "The Bears are who we thought they were...and if you want to crown them, then crown their ass! The Bears are who we thought they were...and we let 'em off the hook!"

Following the game against the Bears, Green fired his offensive coordinator, Keith Rowen; the game's final drive with the conservative play calling being the reason behind the firing. In the first game after the Monday Night debacle, the Cardinals were dominated in a 22-9 loss to the previously winless Raiders, one of only two games Oakland won in 2006.

Whisenhunt era (2007–2012)

On January 1, 2007, after a 5-11 season and a 3-year record of 16-32, the Cardinals announced the firing of Green. After a brief period of speculation, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was named the Cardinals head coach for the 2007 season.

In the 1st round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the Cardinals selected offensive tackle Levi Brown from Penn State with the fifth overall pick. The Cardinals selected cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with their first pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.

The Cardinals finished 2007 with an 8–8 record, just their third non-losing record since moving to Arizona.

The Super Bowl season: 2008

The Cardinals began the 2008 season by splitting their first four games, including a 56-35 loss to the New York Jets in which Jets quarterback Brett Favre threw six touchdown passes, and Arizona receiver Anquan Boldin suffered a fractured sinus and concussion following a helmet-to-helmet hit by Jet cornerback Eric Smith. Arizona recovered to win five of its next six games to improve to 7-3, but lost two games in a five-day stretch of late November to the Giants and Eagles. On Dec. 7, the Cardinals clinched the NFC West Division championship with a 34-10 victory at home over the St. Louis Rams to ensure the club's first playoff berth since 1998, as well as their first division title since 1975. It also assured the Cardinals of hosting at least one playoff game at home—only the second home playoff game in franchise history (they never played a home playoff game while in St. Louis despite winning two division titles).

The Cardinals followed up winning the division title with two lackluster performances, losing at home 35-14 to the Minnesota Vikings, then suffering a 47-7 rout to the New England Patriots at a snowy Gillette Stadium. The Cardinals then defeated the Seattle Seahawks at home to clinch their first winning season since 1998, and thus avoided becoming the third team to win a division title with an 8-8 record (after the 1985 Cleveland Browns and 2008 San Diego Chargers).

On January 3, 2009 the Cardinals won their first home playoff game in 63 years by defeating the Atlanta Falcons 30-24 in the Wild Card Round. They then upset the Carolina Panthers 33-13 in Charlotte in the Divisional Playoffs. With the Philadelphia Eagles winning the next day, the Cardinals, as the only remaining division champion, earned the right to host the first Championship Game in team history. On January 18, 2009, the Cardinals defeated the Eagles 32-25 to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. They lost Super Bowl XLIII 27-23 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.


The 2009 Cardinals season started off with high expectations from fans following the team's improbable run to the Super Bowl the previous year. The Cardinals drafted Chris "Beanie" Wells with the 31st pick in the 2009 NFL Draft to help improve their lack of a running game with the loss of Edgerrin James. But, with the Cardinals losing their offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, to the Kansas City Chiefs and having contract disputes with certain players, many outsiders thought the Cardinals would not return to the playoffs. The Cardinals started the season with a frustrating loss to their division rival, the San Francisco 49ers. They regrouped by beating Jacksonville, but followed that with another embarrassing loss at home to the Indianapolis Colts. They quickly recovered after their bye-week, winning 6 of their next 7 games. While playing the Rams in Week 11, Kurt Warner sustained a concussion and sat out the game against Tennessee the following week. Matt Leinart took his place as starter in a 20-17 loss. After Warner returned, the Cardinals hosted Minnesota and inflicted a sensational 30-17 defeat on them. After that, they fell again to San Francisco with a score of 24-9 on Monday Night.

Coupled with a win over the Detroit Lions and loss from San Francisco to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cardinals clinched their second straight NFC West division title on December 20, 2009.

The Cardinals finished the season 10-6, which was the team's best record since moving to Arizona. In the final game of the year, they were blown out by the Green Bay Packers, 33-7. The game was meaningless to both teams in terms of playoff positioning. With a Minnesota victory just shortly before the start the Cardinals and Packers game, the Cardinals learned that they would be playing the same Packers team the following week in a NFC Wild Card game at home. Both teams took a different strategy to the game. The Packers decided to play their starters through three quarters, while the Cardinals played most of their starters for only a few plays.

File:Big Red Cardinals Training Facility April 21, 2009.jpg
Big Red, the Cardinals team mascot, at the team's headquarters in 2009.

With injuries being a factor the Cardinals started the NFC Wild Card game as a 2.5 point underdog at home on January 10, 2010. The Cardinals ended up beating the Green Bay Packers 51-45 in overtime in the highest scoring playoff game in NFL history, keeping alive the Packers-Cardinals rivalry which began on Nov. 20, 1921 when the two teams played to a 3-3 tie. For the game, Kurt Warner had 5 touchdown passes and only 4 incomplete passes, going 29 for 33. With the playoff victory, the Cardinals earned the right to play the New Orleans Saints in the divisional playoff game on January 16, 2010.

The Packers game exposed Arizona's weak defense however, and they were out-gunned by the Saints during the Divisional playoff game, losing by a lop-sided score of 45-14. Kurt Warner went 17-26 for 205 yards passing, but failed to throw for any touchdowns. The Cardinals went 1-8 on 3rd down conversions. Warner was knocked out of the game in the second quarter when he threw an interception that was caught by Saints DE Will Smith. A few days after the game, Kurt Warner announced his retirement from the NFL. This took the team by surprise, as they had expected him to play for the last year of his contract.


Several QB options were floated for 2011, including veteran Donovan McNabb (a part-time resident of Chandler, a local suburb). In the end, the Cardinals got Eagles backup QB Kevin Kolb in exchange for trading CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. They beat Carolina in Week 1 for Kolb's first regular season game on the team, but lost the next three against Washington, Seattle, and New York despite close scores. In Week 5, they headed to Minnesota seeking their first win there since 1977.

Week 8 saw the Cardinals returning from their bye week to play the Baltimore Ravens, in Baltimore. Despite having a 21-6 lead at halftime, a poor performance in the second half led to 27-30 loss. During the game, QB Kevin Kolb injured his toe and after the game, it was announced that he was suffering from a serious turf toe and would miss time on the field.

Week 9, the 2nd year/2nd string QB John Skelton came off the bench to start against the St. Louis Rams. Due to Kolb's lackluster performances in the games leading up to his injury, many fans and commentators suggested that if Skelton played well enough, the starting job might end up his, and that Kolb would be benched. Skelton gave an average performance, throwing for 222 yards, but it, coupled with an effective defense, gave the Cardinals the win. At the end of regulation, DT Calaias Campbell blocked the would-be game-winning field goal attempt by the Rams, forcing overtime. After one drive, the Rams were forced to punt. Rookie CB Patrick Peterson fielded the punt from the ARI 1-yard line and returned the punt 99 yards for a game winning score, and also setting the record for longest punt return for TD in NFL history. The Cardinals would win this game, 19-13 in overtime.

In Week 10, Kolb was still not ready to return, so John Skelton would start again, with the team traveling to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles. Historically, the Cardinals had struggled when playing on the east coast, but they made short work of the Eagles, winning 21-17, with Skelton throwing for 315 yards, including 146 yards and 2 TD's to Larry Fitzgerald.

The two wins with Skelton gave way to the suggestion by fans and commentators that Skelton may end up the permanent starter. But after an abysmal week 11 performance against the San Francisco 49ers that resulted in a 23-7 loss, the discussion stopped and fans eagerly awaited the return of Kolb.

Kolb was still not ready to start in week 12 when the team traveled to St. Louis to again face the St. Louis Rams. Skelton gave a mediocre performance, throwing for just 112 yards with 2 interceptions. But RB Chris "Beanie" Wells made up for the weak passing game by running for a career high 228 yards. It was during this game that CB Patrick Peterson returned another punt for TD, for a total of 4 on the season to that point, tying the NFL record. The Cardinals would win 23-20.

Week 13 saw the return of Kevin Kolb as the starter against the Dallas Cowboys. After a slow first half for the Cardinals, the score at halftime was 10-0, Dallas lead. The Cardinals defense played well, holding the Cowboys to just 10 first half points. In the second half, the offense got going, and Kolb went on to throw for 247 yards. At the end of regulation, the Cowboys were on offense, and poor clock management led to a 49-yard field goal attempt for the win. Dallas head coach Jason Garrett called a time-out as the kicker was lining up to kick, and essentially "iced" his own kicker. After the time-out, the Cowboys lined up to kick again, and this time, the kick was short, leading to over time. The Cardinals received the ball first, and moved down the field rapidly, with a 52-yard pass to LaRod Stephens-Howling which resulting in a TD, giving the Cardinals the overtime win.

The next week in a divisional game against the San Francisco 49ers, on just the third play of the game, Kolb was inadvertently kicked in the head and suffered a concussion. The concussion eventually caused Kolb to miss the rest of the season. Skelton came in and pulled off the upset over the 10-2 49ers. Skelton would go on and start the remainder of the season. Despite the Cardinals starting the season 1-6, they won 7 of their last nine to finish 8-8, including four overtime wins, an NFL record for most overtime wins in a single season. The Cardinals sent three players to the 2012 Pro Bowl: wide receiver and team icon Larry Fitzgerald, rookie cornerback and punt returner Patrick Peterson (made it in as a returner after tying an NFL-record 4 punt returns for touchdowns in a single season), and safety Adrian Wilson.


With their first-round pick (13th overall) in the 2012 NFL Draft, the cardinals selected wide receiver Michael Floyd.

After Skelton's strong finish to the 2011 season, coach Ken Whisenhunt declared that Kolb and Skelton would compete for the starting quarterback position. Skelton would eventually win the battle and be named the opening-day starter. However, Skelton was injured near the end of the opening game against the Seattle Seahawks, which saw Kolb come in off the bench and lead a game-winning drive. Kolb would start the next week and pull off a surprising upset over the AFC champion New England Patriots in Foxborough. Kolb played well enough to stay the starting quarterback even after Skelton was healthy, but Kolb himself would become injured in a 19-16 overtime loss to the Buffalo Bills. Kolb suffered broken ribs and was expected to miss six to eight weeks, but would eventually be placed on injured reserve. The Cardinals started off a surprising 4-0, but would then lose nine straight games, including an embarrassing 58-0 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Skelton would eventually be replaced by rookie Ryan Lindley in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but was re-inserted as starter after Lindley's struggles.

Arians era (2013-present)

On December 31, 2012, Whisenhunt was relieved of his head coaching duties by the Cardinals after 3 straight non-playoff seasons. Rod Graves, general manager at the time, was also relieved of his duties.[8] On January 17, 2013, the Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator (and temporary interim head coach) Bruce Arians agreed on a 4 year deal that would make him their head coach. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton was also a leading candidate for the HC position; after Arians' hiring, Horton was hired as the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns.[9][10]


  1. ^ The San Francisco Chronicle  Missing or empty |title= (help)[dead link]
  2. ^ Arizona Cardinals team history,
  3. ^ Pierre Mornell, "45 Effective Ways for Hiring Smart! : How to Predict Winners and Losers in the Incredibly Expensive People-Reading Game", p. 131, Ten Speed Press, 1998, ISBN 1-58008-514-8
  4. ^ "'Boys wary of cardiac Cards", December 29, 1998
  5. ^ National Football League (2004). 2004 NFL Record & Fact Book. Time Inc. Home Entertainment. p. 444. ISBN 1-931933-71-5. 
  6. ^ National Football League (2004). 2004 NFL Record & Fact Book. Time Inc. Home Entertainment. p. 535. ISBN 1-931933-71-5. 
  7. ^ Boeck, Greg (October 23, 2003). "Cardinals Feel the Heat". USA Today. Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  8. ^ Somers, Kent (Jan 1, 2013). "Arizona Cardinals fire head coach Ken Whisenhunt, general manager Rod Graves". Retrieved 3 January 2013. 
  9. ^ Garafolo, Mike (2013-01-17). "Cardinals hire Bruce Arians as next head coachh". USA Today. Retrieved 2013-08-30. 
  10. ^ "Ray Horton, Todd Bowles to get jobs".