Stately, plump Bill Bidwill moved in regal fashion past the food line in the press box at Sun Devil Stadium last Saturday.
Mexican food was being dished up. Bidwill's hands remained at his sides, however. The Phoenix Cardinals owner did not reach for a platter.
"Have a plate of food, Mr. Bidwill," one of the servers cried out. "It's delicious." "No thanks," Bidwill said, "I prefer to take a doggy bag home after the game." He wore a blue blazer, his trademark bow tie and tortoise-shell glasses, and a wistful smile on his pale face. The season has become something of an embarrassment to him. Consequently, Bidwill's weight, about which he has been sensitive since his youth, has ballooned again. In the last month, Bidwill has grown as wide in the seat as Derek Kennard, the Cardinals center--the player police have arrested more than once this season for drunk driving. As the Phoenix Cardinals owner galumphed alongside the food line, he delivered cool Christmas glances to the few sycophantic sportswriters with whom he still remained on speaking terms.
Bidwill looks down on sportswriters. He considers them social inferiors. He prefers publishers. At least they understand the bottom line.
Still, for a long time, Bidwill couldn't quite understand why sportswriters always ended up penning such snide articles about him. Finally, he ascribed their antipathy to envy of the rich and wrote them off entirely.
An hour remained before the final home game of the season, with the Denver Broncos, would get under way. But Bidwill had reason to be cheerful, even optimistic.
John Elway was in the line-up for Denver, after all. And Bidwill's money counters had assured him that more than 56,000 people had bought tickets for the game. There would be a hefty payoff.
The sportswriters could write all the nasty things they wanted about his handling of the franchise. Who cared about Bob Costas and Brent Musburger and Dan Dierdorf and what they said on TV? They should all learn to talk nicely about the Cardinals like Jude LaCava and the other fine young men on KTAR. Why must everyone be critical? There's a lot of money to be made if only everyone could learn to play the game like LaCava.
The sky boxes turned out to be a touch of genius. They were his ace in the hole. An owner with plenty of sky boxes would never go hungry. There were always the fixers like Keith Turley, Karl Eller and their kind ready to fill the boxes by spending their stockholders' money. Even if the general-admission seats remained more than half empty all season long, Bidwill knew he could still continue to make a bundle every year.
There's a line from an old Zero Mostel movie called The Producers that comes to mind. "That's it, baby!" Mostel shouts maniacally. "When you got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!" You can imagine the conversation that Bidwill had last week with Larry Wilson, his subservient general manager.
"I want you to tell Hank Kuhlmann to start this Timm Rosenbach kid at quarterback," Bidwill says.
Wilson wasn't sure that was such a good idea.
"The kid's awful green, Mr. B." Wilson says. "He never gets to handle the ball much in practice. I don't think he's got a clue as to how the offense runs." "Larry," Bidwill says, "I've been watching the Cardinals offense since before the days you played defensive back.
"Let me tell you something. I don't give a damn if Rosenbach knows the offense and neither do the fans. They're sick and tired of seeing Gary Hogeboom. They want to see somebody else. Even I want to see somebody else." "But what will I say to Kuhlmann. He still thinks he's a long shot to coach the club next year. He wants to win at least one game. He'll be against starting Rosenbach." "Just tell Kuhlmann I'd like to see Rosenbach. Kuhlmann's like every other marginal coach in this league. You'll find that when push comes to shove, he'll do what he's told." And so Timm Rosenbach, the Washington State phenom who missed all preseason training while his agent worked out a deal to make him a millionaire, got the start.
Rosenbach was simply awful. He was worse than that. He was positively dreadful.
Some players have such disastrous debuts that they are forever remembered for their initial appearance no matter what happens subsequently.
Rosenbach clearly never understood his role.
Once, he simply dropped the ball that had been placed in his hands by the center. A Denver linebacker scooped it up and ran for a touchdown.
Not long after this, Vai Sikahema totally eluded the Denver defender covering him. All Rosenbach had to do was loft a soft pitch in his direction and it would have been a Cardinals touchdown. Any high school quarterback could have completed that pass. But Rosenbach managed to overthrow Sikahema, costing the Cardinals an easy score.
Actually, it really doesn't matter. If you watched the Cardinals play this year, you saw a whole lot of plays you didn't want to see. And they kept repeating themselves. Hogeboom throwing interceptions. Earl Ferrell fumbling. Hogeboom wandering around in the backfield looking for receivers who never got open.
They are a strange conglomeration, these Cardinals. There are a handful of players like J.T. Smith, Roy Green, Tim McDonald and Ron Wolfley who would fit in on a Super Bowl team. They are magnificent athletes caught on a roster dominated by second raters.
The disgraceful 37-0 defeat by the Denver Broncos was an appalling way to finish their second season here in Arizona.
Season-ticket sales will surely plummet next year. It isn't even a question of price-gouging anymore. It's now a matter of pride. Anyone who buys a season ticket to watch this Cardinals team appears to be a sucker.
Around the league and the country, the Cardinals are perceived to be a laughingstock. They're drawing small crowds in a prime market and playing the dullest brand of football imaginable.
Sitting there last Saturday and watching the crowd cheer for the Broncos as if they were the home team was a startling experience in the NFL.
People in the stands dressed in orange had come to see Elway and the Broncos. Clearly, they didn't care about the Cardinals. Something struck me about halfway through the first quarter. It isn't even that the Cardinals aren't worth paying the highest prices in the league to see. They simply aren't worth the leisure time it takes. A fan would have a more scintillating afternoon at the movies.
You could rent the tape of Lethal Weapon sixteen times instead of watching the Cardinals play, and be assured of having a more entertaining time.
This franchise is close to being a lost cause. It can only look forward to diminishing attendance, growing apathy and contempt.
Sportswriters who dine routinely at Bidwill's table can write off their meal obligations by reporting that bad officiating and injuries are to blame.
They won't be the first sportswriters who sold out for the home team. It is practically a tradition in their business, as it most certainly is at KTAR, which has such a financial interest in the whole affair.
The Cardinals keep losing for many reasons. All of them center around Bidwill.
First of all, everyone in the league knows that Gary Hogeboom is not a winner.
After the first game of the season, Hogeboom told the writers in an effulgent moment: "I've got this attitude. I work as hard as I can. I go out each week to prove that I'm a pro." Marvelous.
The reality, as Hogeboom keeps proving every week, is that Hogeboom is still a dud.
It has become a historic certainty in NFL football circles that any team with Hogeboom at quarterback will ultimately find a way to lose.
It's bad enough that Hogeboom throws almost as many passes to the opposition as he does to his own receivers. But it's even more of an insult that Hogeboom is being paid $3.27 million for a three-year period to do it.
It turns out that the Cardinals are spending as much money on quarterbacks as Ronald Reagan wanted for Star Wars. Neil Lomax, injured beyond repair, will receive millions for the next couple of years. Rosenbach, whether he plays or not, also has contracted to receive millions.
One position is costing them approximately $5 million a season. With figures like that, no one need ask for whom the bell tolls.
I sat there with growing dismay throughout the afternoon watching the Cardinals perform. The glass in the press box prevents sound from getting inside. It was like watching an execution being performed behind glass.
This Cardinals team makes all the same kind of mistakes and does all the grousing that the Chicago Bears used to do in George Halas' final mediocre years as coach and owner.
You find yourself expecting most plays to end in some kind of comedy, and they invariably do.
And where does anyone expect this to go in coming years?
Bidwill hints to his favorite writers that Wilson, his general manager, will find a way to win.
Wilson was a good defensive back in his time. Since then he has become nothing more than a comfortable family retainer and lap dog to be fed twice a day and taken for a walk in the park so he can relieve himself. He is an integral part of the system that has turned mediocrity into an art form.
And can it ever be forgotten that Wilson was the man who went out of his way, certainly at Bidwill's orders, to knife the unfortunate Gene Stallings in the back?
It was a foul deed performed with Shakespearean exactitude to gain further favor with the mad and frightened King Bidwill, who was growing ever more terrified by Stallings' TV popularity.
Bidwill won't have to worry about Kuhlmann, the interim coach, getting popular. He won't be around after next Sunday in Philadelphia.
This is a team that finds itself without running backs. Earl Ferrell grew more listless and unpredictable as the season wore on.
The only thing you could count on with Ferrell was that if he carried the ball enough times, he would fumble at just the wrong moment.
Stump Mitchell was over the hill even before his injury in the New York Giants game. He had become an outside runner who could no longer get to the outside.
Tony Jordan is a bust who should find other employment.
And what of their offensive line?
For some reason, the Cardinals have collected the chubbiest offensive line in the NFL. These players are obese, pudgy, rotund and, yes, even stout. They can't run. They can't block. All they do is remain in place and grunt. No wonder the Cardinals have no running game.
Don't expect a big-name coach to come riding in over the mountain to take this job and turn the franchise around.
Bidwill won't pay the money. More important, he is uncomfortable with coaches who think on their own. Bidwill's zone of comfort dictates that his two household pets, George Boone and Wilson, continue to call the shots.
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An optimist might predict that despite these shortcomings, the advantages the college draft gives to losers will eventually bring the Cardinals to the top.
A realist would predict continued mediocrity and an early departure of the franchise to another city.
But don't expect Jude LaCava or any of the boys at KTAR to tell you these things. They have too much of a stake in Bidwill's con game to dare to tell the truth.
The future of pro football here should be spoken of in the past tense.