Best Offensive Reason to Believe the Cardinals Will Go Far in the Playoffs

Running backs Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower

Though the Arizona Cardinals' running game improved vastly last season — from terrible to all right — we predict it will become respectable in this year's regular season. Maybe even good. Running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, the team's first-round pick, was beset with rookie-itis in 2009-10: He had to get used to bigger, tougher defenders; hard-ass pro coaches; the NFL's longer schedule; and travel demands — and being away from Mama. One of 11 children, Wells was homesick for his family in Akron, Ohio. But mostly the Ohio State star missed his mother, whom he consults about practically all of life's trials and tribulations (doing it over the phone wasn't cutting it). This year, Wells is more rooted in Arizona and has a son with his girlfriend. The result of his experience in the league and a more stable home life is certain, barring injury, to be increased production for the Cardinals. The Cards have used third-year back Tim Hightower as the starter in the early-going, but look for Wells to take over that role as the season progresses. Wells and Hightower will be a solid tandem; they set a good foundation last year. Wells rushed for 793 yards on 176 carries for a 4.5 average. He ranked second in the NFL among rookie running backs behind Denver's Knowshon Moreno. His seven rushing touchdowns put him in a tie for first among rookie backs. As for Hightower, who started all 16 regular-season and two postseason games last year, he rushed for 598 yards on 143 carries last season. He also was a receiving threat, with 63 receptions — second in the NFL — for 428 yards. With Kurt Warner gone and a new QB behind center, Arizona will need Wells and Hightower's one-two punch to be a serious contender this fall and winter.

Best Defensive Reason to Believe the Cardinals Will Go Far in the Playoffs

Tackle Darnell Docket

Darnell Docket is a wild-haired, supremely tattooed mammoth who's an NFL quarterback's worst nightmare. He's the Cardinals' best defensive player, and a premier defensive lineman in the league. Without this defensive anchor, we shudder to think how porous the team's D might become. Last season, he had seven QB sacks, leading all NFL defensive tackles and earning him his second Pro Bowl berth. In his previous six seasons with the Cardinals, the Florida State star has 26 career sacks, four interceptions, eight fumble recoveries, and six forced fumbles. All of it resulting from his magnetic ball-location savvy, quickness — for a 6-foot-4, 290-pound freezer-locker of a man — and intensity. The guy's a beast, continually taunting opposing players, yelling at slacker players on his own team, and charging like a rhino. His over-the-top behavior sometimes gets on head coach Ken Whisenhunt's nerves — the guy posted an online video of himself taking a shower. Also irking the head coach has been Docket's over-the-top behavior on the field — he'd become so emotional that he'd rack up loads of penalties. But that problem's as close to being resolved as it can be with a guy like Docket, and the Mighty Mouth last season was voted a team captain. One last note: We wouldn't want to be rookie QB Sam Bradford. After the Oklahoma star was taken first in the draft by the St. Louis Rams, Docket twittered gleefully that Bradford's "fresh meat." By the time you read this, the Cardinals will have opened the regular season with the Rams. You tell us how Sam fared. They play the Rams again December 5.
We have both fond and melancholic memories of Phoenix's all-time greatest boxer, Hall of Famer Michael Carbajal, who reached the top of his brutal sport only to be ripped off blind by his trainer and oldest brother, Danny. No one in town has come close to replicating Michael's fame and skill level, but teenager Jose Benavidez Jr., from the Central Boxing Gym on West Van Buren Street, seems headed in the right direction. Out of the ring, the bespectacled, reed-slender (about six feet and 140 pounds) boxer looks tame, but that's a deceptive appearance that belies a warrior within. The kid has exceptional skills and seemingly unlimited potential. Promoter Bob Arum signed Junior, as he's known, to his stable of boxers and put legendary Las Vegas trainer Freddie Roach on the case. Jose's dad is very much involved in the youngster's budding career, and father-son boxing teams usually scare us — too much baggage, too many hopes. But hope springs eternal, even in the fight "game," and we wish this homegrown pugilist the best as he pounds his way to the top.
Jason Richardson is one hell of a basketball player, but he's an even better tattoo canvas. Dude has 26 tats on his cut physique, more than any other Suns player and rivaling that of all but a few players in the league. Before he came to Phoenix, Richardson played for the Charlotte Bobcats and the Golden State, and his largest tattoo — "THA FACTOR" — was the nickname his Warriors teammates gave him. Another prominent tat is the image of a muscle man holding a basketball. Above the muscle man is a tattoo that his brother and cousin also have: "E.L.I.T.E." — which means "Enjoy Life Into the End." Many of THA FACTOR's tats are in honor of family members. There's an intricate image on his chest that includes the names of his brothers, cousins, and three children, along with Asian characters that spell out a private message. "Rich" is on his left bicep, and "boys" is on his right. This is a reference to his sons, whom he calls "rich boys." Chinese letters that represent the words "father," "strength," "talent," and "smooth" are on his left forearm. He's also adorned with a popular-among-NBA-players Grim Reaper image. (If you want to read more about players' tattoos, check out New Times staff writer Niki D'Andrea's story on our Web site.)
Grant Hill is a specimen. But here's how he became one. He's been in the NBA since 1994, and he hasn't played that much. As they say, he's got young legs — until he got to the Suns. He spent six years with the Detroit Pistons and seven with the Orlando Magic before getting here, and he was injured a lot: ankle injuries, a life-threatening staph infection, a sports hernia. When he was with the Magic, he played only a third of the time. Two years ago, we gave Hill our lofty Best Sports Gimp award, but we have to eat, um, a little sweat sock now that Hill has been so, well, durable over the past couple of seasons. Iron-man durable. The third-oldest starter in the NBA last year had logged 128 straight games until a heal injury sidelined him for a measly game last January. Part of the reason is that run-and-gun poobah Mike D'Antoni is long gone as coach. Our argument in 2008 was that the hard-headed D'Antoni, who insisted on playing starters nearly whole games, had worn out Grant, who was injured at the end of D'Antoni's last season here, thus giving the Suns nothing in the playoffs. Coach Alvin Gentry has developed something D'Antoni never had: a stellar bench. Thus, Hill isn't needed as much. He starts but is spelled by the younger and brawnier Jared Dudley, among others. Thus, the team gets his slashing offense, glove-like defense, and floor-general ability (along with Steve Nash, with whom he's co-captain, Hill has the coolest head on the court and is an admirable playmaker in his own right. He was point-forward back in his Pistons days). The young Suns team — Robin Lopez, Earl Clark, Dudley, and a couple of new front-court acquisitions added in the off-season, notably — need the soon-to-be 38-year-old's wizened hand.
Gary Bender is simply the gold standard of sports broadcasting in Phoenix. You're in good hands with him. He's traditionally upbeat (after all, sports is entertainment), but he isn't afraid to call out players and coaches when they've messed up. You may be saying that giving Bender, 69, the nod ain't saying much, considering the competition of play-by-play guys like the Arizona Diamondbacks' fawning Daron Sutton. But Bender would shine in any market. Indeed, he has. He started his career broadcasting University of Kansas basketball and football games. He worked for CBS Sports doing National Football League broadcasts, alongside the likes of John Madden, for 11 years in the 1970s and '80s; he spent two years in the late '80s as a play-by-play baseball broadcaster for ABC, and worked NFL games for TNT, beside Pat Haden, from '92-94. In his autobiography, Call of the Game, Bender cites Reggie Jackson's huge ego in describing run-ins he had with the baseball great in the broadcast booth: "Reggie demanded things he hadn't earned the right to demand. He wanted more attention. He insisted we adjust our way of doing things for him." Last year, Gary took a break from his regular gig on Fox Sports Arizona to broadcast a TNT game with Reggie Miller. Let's hope Reggie and Charles Barkley don't persuade the national network to steal him away. We're lucky to have a pro behind the mic in this desert of bush-league talent.
Eddie Johnson drives us nuts. He spends way too much time bragging about his exploits in the NBA, where he played for a bevy of teams, including the Suns, the Houston Rockets, and the Kansas City-turned-Sacramento Kings. He was what commentators like himself nowadays call "well-traveled." Not that Johnson was any slouch in his prime. Though he never made an All-Star team, he did score 45 points once in a game against the Clippers in 1988 and was Sixth Man of the Year as a bench player for Phoenix in 1989. But when he compares himself with some of the greats of the game today, we have to wince.Before he became a Suns assistant coach, Dan Majerle used to share color-commenting for Suns games with Johnson, and Majerle, who also had a high on-air opinion of himself, came across as retiring. Eddie, you're a well-preserved former player (at 51, an NBA elder statesman) whom today's players obviously like, but . . Stop ragging on sometimes broadcast play-by-play partner Tom Leander as a wimp who never played serious basketball. Of course he didn't — Leander's no bigger than a pygmy. You'd never pull that with your other broadcast cohort, Gary Bender. The old guy'd probably pop you one. Stop talking about yourself. Dude, you've been out of the game for a decade-plus. Nobody cares. Also stop using "rhythm" so freakin' much! Granted, "rhythm" is something basketball players need to turn in great performances, but, Eddie, you can barely speak during broadcasts without using the word. This guy's lost his rhythm, that guy's got great rhythm, the other guy needs to find some rhythm, basketball's a game of rhythm. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Stop it, before we go crazy!
When it comes to pro sports in this town, these gals wear the capes. First of all, the best woman's basketball player in the game today, Diana Taurasi, plays for the Phoenix Mercury. Among her many accolades, Taurasi's a three-time WNBA All-Star, a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, 2004 WNBA Rookie of the Year, her league's scoring leader in both average (25.3 a game) and points in a season (860), and a number-one draft pick out of Connecticut. And by the time the six-year pro is done with her career, she'll probably be the WNBA's best ever. But the unstoppable Taurasi isn't responsible for the Mercury's success alone. There've been Cappie Pondexter, who now plays for the New York Liberty; Penny Taylor; and Tangela Smith. The Mercury are, by far, the most successful (when it comes to winning it all) sports franchise in the Valley. Sure, the Suns have been to the NBA Finals, the Cardinals have been to the Super Bowl, and the Diamondbacks have won the World Series, but the Mercury have won two (two!) WNBA Championships. Two: in 2007 against the Detroit Shock, under legendary coach Paul Westhead, and in 2009 against the Indiana Fever, under coach Corey Gaines. This is not to mention the team's three Western Conference Championships in their 13-year history. They're not destined to go all the way this summer season, but they've still won two out of four trophies in the last four years. Okay, you're probably saying that the champions mean nothing because the WNBA's just a bunch of tall girls. Say it again, and Tenacious D will kick your ass.
What's the point of Dennis Erickson? When he was hired to replace embattled coach Dirk Koetter back in 2007, eyebrows raised. But not nearly enough among alumni hungry for a head coach who could bring Arizona State University the consistent gridiron glory it longed for. As we pointed out in a cover story back then, the veteran coach brought baggage, including a dozen scholarship players getting arrested at the University of Miami, where he'd been coach in the 1990s. Miami's sins became so bad that Sports Illustrated published a feature in '96 with the cover headline "Why the University of Miami Should Drop Football." He was with the NFL Seattle Seahawks by the time the NCAA stripped 34 scholarships from Miami's football program and placed the school on three years' probation, which meant it was banned from bowl-game participation during the period. The thuggery of players while Erickson was at Miami was particularly troubling since dismissed ASU coach Koetter had coddled a thug of his own, Loren Wade, whose erratic behavior escalated until he killed a former player in an argument over a girl in a nightclub parking lot (he's now serving time in Arizona). But none of this mattered to a majority of alums, who only cared about Erickson's two national championships at Miami. Okay, now ratchet forward three years and ask yourself: Was Erickson — after two losing seasons in a row at ASU (the first such sorry succession in six decades at the school) and little hope of posting a winning season this fall — a good hire? Clearly, Athletic Director Lisa Love must be kicking herself over this boneheaded blunder. Hmm, maybe Erickson didn't bring in enough sociopaths this time around.
No one, and we mean no one, invigorated the long-moribund professional football franchise known as the Arizona Cardinals more than Kurt Warner, a future Hall of Fame quarterback with a penchant for connecting on long bombs and suffering too many concussions in the process. We watched as Warner, seemingly on his way out of the league a few years ago and on board to serve as a bench mentor to then-anointed QB-of-the-future Matt Leinart, ascended to the starting role and led the Cards to the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The dude with the big-time gun was one of the best we've ever seen at downfield throwing, and with just a little flick of his wrist. But we also saw old Kurt (37 years and counting) take shot after shot from those hulks of monstrous defensemen known as middle linebackers. How many times can one guy's brains get rammed into the turf before he turns into, say, Muhammad Ali? Time to call it a day, and for real. We strongly suspect that Kurt's wife, the ubiquitous mother of seven, Brenda, will make sure that he doesn't pull a Brett Favre and come out of retirement to play "just one more year."

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