Sports

John McGrath: Cardinals are more imposing, but harder to hate than 49ers

The Arizona Cardinals weren’t supposed to emerge as the Seattle Seahawks’ newest rivals

A bad-blood feud? That’s why God created the San Francisco 49ers. Between serial moper coach Jim Harbaugh, bicep-flexing quarterback Colin Kaepernick and their three consecutive appearances in the NFC championship game, the ‘Niners have been a well-positioned foil for the defending Super Bowl champs.

But trends are short lived in pro football. Less than three months after the Seahawks-49ers Thanksgiving night duel appeared destined to draw boffo TV ratings, the Cardinals have put together the best record in the league.

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to point out the Cards have come out of nowhere. They’ve come out of the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, which is almost the same thing.

Pro Bowl defensive end Darnell Dockett suffered a season-ending knee injury in August, which followed the news of the one-year suspension of linebacker Daryl Washington for substance-abuse violations. Another standout linebacker, Karlos Dansby, bolted to Cleveland as a free agent.

The Cardinals violated the Seahawks’ aura of invincibility at CenturyLink Field last December, and finished with a 10-6 record that should have — and yet didn’t — qualify them for the playoffs. But injuries and the drug suspension and free agency suggested coach Bruce Arians would be challenged to work wonders again.

But here they are, 9-1 and presumptive shoo-ins for the playoff berth denied them in 2013. Turns out the most imposing opponent for the Seahawks is an opponent few were paying attention to in September.

The Cardinals inspire neither fear nor loathing. Despite their seemingly insurmountable three-game lead over Seattle in the standings, they opened as 6.5-point underdogs on the Las Vegas line. I’m assuming there have been previous instances of odds-makers spotting a 9-1 team a virtual touchdown in an NFL game, but I can't recall any.

The questionable status of future Hall-of-Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald, nursing a sore knee, explains some of that point spread. But there’s also a sense the Cardinals’ 9-1 record is more a reflection of good fortune than a terrific team on a roll — which is curious, because the loss of veteran quarterback Carson Palmer to a knee injury hardly defines “good fortune.”

In any case, Arians and his players are blithely indifferent about point spreads and anything else the outside world thinks. This tunnel-visioned refusal to whine about disrespect makes Arizona a dangerous team for the Seahawks to face, and a difficult team for the rest of us to consider.

Dissing the 49ers is as easy as Sunday morning, but how do you muster ill will toward a group of overachievers symbolized by a quarterback — Drew Stanton — who has started eight times in six seasons?

For that matter, how do you muster ill will toward Arians, who had to wait until he was 60 years old before was appointed a full-time NFL coach?

There isn’t a lot of history between the Cardinals and Seahawks, but there is some. The Cards, then based in St. Louis, were original opponents of the Seattle expansion team that debuted at the Kingdome on Sept. 12, 1976.

In a sneak preview of the sort of we’ll-make-it-fun-even-if-we-don’t-win games played by those early teams of Jack Patera, the Hawks stormed back from a 30-10 deficit in the third quarter before losing, 30-24. Seattle placekicker Don Bitterlich scored Seattle's first points on a 27-yard field goal.

An aside on Bitterlich: He was an accomplished musician who excelled at the accordion, but I won’t expound on this because I realize how tired we’ve gotten reading about NFL players who excel at the accordion.

Another aside on Bitterlich: A few weeks after his milestone kick in the Kingdome, he missed all three of his field goal attempts against the 49ers, and was cut. He retired from the NFL with one field goal.

As a consequence of the Seahawks changing conference affiliation to the AFC in 1977, they didn’t get a rematch with the Cardinals until 1983, and didn't beat them until 1998, by which time the franchise had moved to the Southwest and renamed itself, from the Phoenix Cardinals to the Arizona Cardinals.

Before last season's upset at The Clink, the most memorable incident between the Cards and Hawks might have been the elbow Dockett jabbed into the throat of former Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, victim of a sack during a 2009 game. Dockett insisted it was unintentional, but he was fined $7,500.

Dockett won’t be in uniform Sunday, and Hasselbeck's 16-year career is winding down in Indianapolis, seriously undermining the potential of a festering Seahawks-Cardinals feud.

One of those teams won the Super Bowl last season, and the other is on a fast course to get there. It’s the stuff of a not-so-natural rivalry that will be born in front of us.

  Comments