The Fat Boys Stink It Up Against The Chargers
William V. Bidwill seemed lost.
The Phoenix Cardinals' owner strolled forlornly about the shiny new press box at Sun Devil Stadium. He wore an expression of extreme melancholy.
Bidwill's press box sits so high an occasional visitor might think he was looking out the window on a flight into Sky Harbor Airport.
It is eerie. And inside those sealed windows last Sunday, it was quiet as a tomb during the depressing game which Bidwill's Cardinals lost to the San Diego Chargers.
Sportswriters, normally a raucous group of free spirits, spoke to each other only in whispers all afternoon. Instinctively, they knew they were attending a wake. Just one year ago, football fans in Arizona were clamoring to buy Cardinal tickets. They were desert rats. They were toughened to the heat. They didn't care that they were buying the highest- priced seats in all North American sports.
But that's all changed now. They saw last year's Cardinals drop their final five games in a row. They learned how boring a losing team can be. Futility plus 100-degree weather can suddenly make one think a lot about how high-priced the tickets are, too.
So on Sunday, at game time, there were 30,000 empty seats in a facility that seats 74,000. The upper decks on the east side and north end were barely covered with spectators. This was the kind of sparse turnout that made life miserable for Dr. Ted Terrific when he owned the Arizona Wranglers and George Allen was his coach exceeding still one more unlimited expense account.
It was the same kind of crowd that drove out the Tatham family who not only had Frank Kush, the legend, as coach but Doug Williams, the future Super Bowl most valuable player, as quarterback.
Bidwill left St. Louis because his team had to play games in Busch Stadium where some 30,000 seats remained empty.
"It's too cold here," Bidwill used to say. "We should have a domed stadium where the fans can be comfortable." One year out of St. Louis, Bidwill is singing another chorus.
"It's too hot here," he says. "People won't buy seats in the east stands that face into the sun. We need something to cover them." Sunday he was hinting at special promotions. But nothing that will get "out of hand," he quickly added. Bill Bidwill is a cautious man with a buck. The only sensible answer for the National Football League is to allow the Cardinals to play night home games until mid-October.
However, what the fans may actually need is something to cover their eyes. They are being driven away by something much more elemental than searing heat.
It's bad football. Boring football.
And the Cardinals' key trouble is actually simple to define. All they need to do is open their eyes. Read the scales.
Their offensive linemen are too fat. They are overweight to the point where they can't make the necessary athletic moves to block for the running backs. They lack dexterity. They are so encased in suet, they are like knights imprisoned in armor.
They look like a gang of sumo wrestlers imported from Japan. They are built for a tug of war, not for the National Football League. Coach Gene Stallings pronounced the running game would come alive last Sunday. Well, the Cardinal runners accounted for all of 69 yards against one of the worst defensive teams in the league.
That's coming alive?
John Madden, the television commentator, spotted this problem in the Cardinals game with the New York Giants the week before.
"Look at those guys," said Madden, who was coach of the former Oakland Raiders. The camera panned the huge, overlapping midsections of the Cardinal linemen. "These guys may be able to push you forward, but they sure can't go sideways," Madden said.
Here are some examples:
Todd Peat, the left guard, is listed at 294 pounds but must weigh 310.
Derek Kennard, the center, says he weighs 285 but looks closer to the 318 pounds he was when drafted several years ago.
Luis Sharpe, who came into camp late because of a salary dispute, must be close to 300. He was forced to leave the game last Sunday because the heat became too much for him.
They call the Cards' offensive line The Wide Bodies. Is this what is supposed to serve as a role model for physical fitness? Is this part of George Bush's "kinder and gentler America"? The Cardinals could trade tomorrow for a running back as excellent as Roger Craig of the San Francisco 49ers and he wouldn't be able to gain yards behind this motley collection of suet, either.
All losing teams complain about two things: There are too many injuries; the referees are making wrong calls.
The Cardinals' problem isn't so much that they have an unusually high incidence of injuries.
Their biggest problem is that they've somehow managed to acquire--at vast expense--the services of Gary Hogeboom, widely acknowledged to be the most inconsistent quarterback in the league.
It's not surprising they went too long with Neil Lomax. Lomax was, after all, probably the league's best pure passer. But it was to protect Lomax that they brought in all the fat offensive linemen who could remain stationary and protect against a rush.
Now Lomax is history and the pudgies are rendered helpless. They are as out-of-date as the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. When a team performs as poorly as the Cardinals did last Sunday, there are few questions left to ask.
The Cardinals lost the game in the third period because linebacker Ken Harvey grabbed the Chargers tight end on a field-goal attempt and tried to jerk him out of the way. It was a designed strategy to make it possible to block the kick.
The officials called a holding penalty on Harvey. The ball went back to the Chargers, who promptly scored a touchdown.
Within a minute, the Cardinals were struck by another disaster. This time, Earl Ferrell fumbled after catching a pass. The Chargers picked up the loose ball and scored again. San Diego, who had been trailing, 13 to 7, was suddenly leading, 21 to 13. The game was over. There is a question that demands to be asked.
Must Earl Ferrell commit fumbles in the crucial moments of every game?
Ferrell gained almost a thousand yards last season but most of the performances are marred by inexplicable fumbles. Hasn't Ferrell learned how to concentrate on holding the ball? Is there another factor involved? Why haven't the Cardinals been forthcoming about Ferrell's failure to pass his tests for cocaine consumption last season?
That brings us to the case of Freddie Joe Nunn, the defensive end who has been suspended thirty days for substance abuse. Why do the Cardinals refuse to admit that Nunn's problem is with cocaine?
Stallings is a stolid sort of man. He learned as an assistant under Tom Landry that there was nothing to be gained after a game by making news with your mouth.
"We make a big fumble and that's the ball game," Stalling said. He was standing on a platform in a special interview room outside the Cardinals dressing room.
"We tried to block the field goal and got a holding penalty. We were out of it after that. You fight and you fight and suddenly there's only two minutes left and you're two touchdowns behind." Stallings shrugged.
Someone asked Stallings if there was something he could put in his game plan to cause turnovers.
Stallings exhibited patience.
"If there was," he said, "I'd have done it by now."
Ron Wolfley, the most articulate of the Cardinals, was philosophical about the holding penalty on the field goal.
"Everybody else has been doing this," Wolfley said, "and they never call it. We do it one time and they nail us.
"We must have grabbed one of their guys and pulled on him. But it's an unbelievable call. Everybody in the league does it. Everybody. I've never seen it called in the five years I've been in the NFL."
Wolfley suffered a shoulder injury and spent a large portion of the game watching from the bench with his shoulder tightly wrapped.
"How did you get hurt?" a man asked.
Wolfley grinned sadly.
"It was probably the best kickoff return block of my life," he said. Wolfley is a specialist at this sort of thing and is so adept that he has been repeatedly voted to play in the Pro Bowl.
"It was something a guy like me dreams about. I ran thirty yards on a sprint and the other guy ran right at me. I just hit him with everything I had and then I felt the pain in my shoulder.
"It burned all through my shoulder. We call it a burner. I've had them before. I figured it would go away. But then it just vised up on me real bad. I wanted them to throw a pad on me so I could go back out there and play. But then I tried to move my shoulder again and there was no way." Wolfley has an answer for everything. He is so bright that he could move into the television booth tomorrow and be a media star.
"Ever been on a team that had so many injuries before?" he was asked.
"I've never even heard rumors of people going down in these numbers," he said.
"I feel like they got a doll of me down in Haiti and somebody's sticking pins in it every week." Winners always find a way to smile and philosophize.
Over in the San Diego dressing room, Billy Ray Smith, a linebacker, had one of his best days as a pro. He recovered two fumbles. He ran twenty yards for a touchdown with the first. The second set up the Chargers' final field goal.
He looked on the crucial penalty on the field goal from a totally different viewpoint.
"They tried to grab our tight end and pull him inside so they could run around him and block the kick," Smith explained. "They got caught." Smith laughed.
"But I've never seen it called before." It was Smith who picked up Earl Ferrell's fumble and ran it into the end zone.
He was still happy about scoring his first touchdown in seven years in the league.
"This is definitely going to change my life," Smith said.
Jim McMahon puts himself on the spot every week. It has been this way since the first weekend when he broke in as quarterback for the Chicago Bears nine seasons ago.
He has created a track record that only causes the pressure to mount. McMahon is a game winner. He is also regarded as a brittle performer who may not be around when you need him.
McMahon is high-strung and outspoken. He is also overbearing. He is a big moneymaker who wrote a book that was on the New York Times best-seller list for a year.
In Chicago, he played for Mike Ditka, a coach who was also a big moneymaker and who wrote a book and opened a restaurant. Ditka, too, was overbearing.
Together, they won the Super Bowl but it didn't make them any better friends. Too many little things pulled them apart. Ditka insists on having the last word. So does McMahon.
One night, after a big Bear victory over the 49ers in San Francisco, the Bears held a victory party on the flight home. Ditka was overserved.
While on his way home from the airport, Ditka was arrested for drunk driving. McMahon cruised by in his own car and gave Ditka the finger. Ditka never forgot.
The rivalry between Ditka and McMahon was every bit as serious as that between Ditka and Buddy Ryan, who now coaches the Philadelphia Eagles. McMahon opened a restaurant, just as expensive and glitzy as Ditka's. McMahon's place eventually flopped. Ditka's became one of the most successful in the country.
Ditka's book was a modest success but it didn't compare to McMahon's. But Ditka wrote the final chapter for McMahon in Chicago. He traded him to San Diego. That's about as far away from Chicago as you can go. Better still, it's in a different division.
And on Sunday, it was odd to see McMahon in a different uniform, far away from Soldier Field. There was no Walter Payton. No William (The Refrigerator) Perry.
In Chicago, every time McMahon completed a long pass he would race downfield and bump helmets with his receiver and offensive linemen. McMahon is much more subdued now. He plays more cautiously. Perhaps he has something to prove. This time he wants to finish the season on the playing field rather than on the injured list.
San Diego's coach is dry. He seems deliberately to downplay the importance of McMahon to the Chargers. But McMahon is their key. If he holds up, they have a chance to be winners for the first time in years.
"I want him to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem," Dan Henning said after Sunday's game. He is not a man who cares much for originality.
And there's one thing for certain. McMahon is an original.
Every player in the National Football League conducts interviews while standing in front of his dressing stall in the clubhouse.
He remained secluded for twenty minutes after the game and then announced he would conduct his postgame interview while using the same platform provided for the coaches.
A big crowd gathered. Dozens of cameras and microphones were at the ready.
McMahon arrived wearing blue sunglasses, a pink tank top and blue shorts. His left knee had a brace. He carried a plastic pith helmet in one hand and a Luis Vuitton traveling case in the other. In his left ear was a gold earring that matched the chain around his neck and the Rolex watch on his left wrist. His whole attitude was clearly confrontational. He is still an intimidator.
"I'm irritated," McMahon began. "I keep doing this week after week. I'm not throwing the ball well." McMahon spoke of a ball he had lofted fifty yards which had been caught by Anthony Miller, a wide receiver.
"I thought I threw it out-of-bounds. I saw the defensive back fall as I threw it and I thought, there goes a chance to have a touchdown. But Miller made a hell of a catch."
Later, McMahon did throw for a touchdown.
The Cardinals defense blitzed and McMahon spotted Miller alone in the end zone.
"Once again," McMahon said, "it was Miller who made a great catch." McMahon had no interest in prolonging the session.
"Any more questions?" he asked. There were none. He walked down the hall and out to the team bus.
He spotted an elderly woman and moved toward her quickly and kissed her on the cheek. The woman's name is Florence McMahon, his grandmother who had flown in from her home near Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Also present were McMahon's father, Jim, and his mother, Roberta.
"I played like shit," McMahon told his father.
But then McMahon loosened up. He began signing autographs for small children who approached him, their eyes filled with wonder.
After ten minutes, McMahon hugged and kissed his parents and grandmother again. He walked slowly to the bus, just a few feet away. The Luis Vuitton bag stood out.
"They mob him every week," McMahon's father said. "That's why we always try to get next to the bus so we can catch him for a minute." A man asked the elder McMahon what he thought of the game.
"They run the damn ball too much," he said. "I thought the play calling was absolutely atrocious." He has seen every game. He's convinced that his son is throwing the ball just as well as ever.
There had been a play, late in the game, when instructions had been sent in from the sideline for McMahon to run a naked bootleg.
The play was risky. Earlier in the game, McMahon had suffered a twisted neck.
But McMahon, who has always been an excellent running quarterback, ran the bootleg as instructed. He turned it into an important first down.
"But why risk it?" his father said now. "That was a dumb call." The father sighed. "Jim's enjoying himself again. He went to training camp with the Bears this summer and Ditka didn't speak to him for three weeks.
"One day, Jim just got on the phone with his agent and said: `Get me out of here. Try San Diego. I just can't play for Ditka anymore.'
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.