Two years ago, the Arizona Cardinals were a team on the rise. They had a swashbuckling young quarterback who was being compared to Joe Montana, two high draft choices who offered what most believed would be the best pass-rushing defensive end duo in the league for years to come, and an overall defense that was being compared to some of the great units of the past when they were in their formative years.
All of that has seemingly unraveled for the Cardinals. Quarterback Jake Plummer is completing his second consecutive injury-riddled, unproductive season, defensive ends Simeon Rice and Andre Wadsworth had 6.5 and no sacks respectively after week 13, and that promising defense was ranked 29th in the league.
Oh, yeah, the Cardinals are 3-10, a fact that caused Vince Tobin to be fired at midseason. Under interim head coach Dave McGinnis, the Cardinals scored an uplifting win over the Redskins, then slipped back into their losing ways.
The Cardinals and Jaguars will meet for the first time ever, at Alltel Stadium this Sunday. The Cardinals are attempting to find something on which they might hang their hat this winter. The Jaguars are bent on finishing their season with a flurry and posting the franchise's fifth consecutive winning season.
"I've got a plan and I know where I'm going with this thing. I meant it when I said I'm not letting go of this football team," McGinnis said recently, as though he knew he will be retained as the Cardinals' head coach.
"I'm going to get it tuned down even more as far as things I want to get done. They're doing things I want, but we're not getting any results early in the game," McGinnis added.
If you're looking for good things to say about the Cardinals, then point to the fact that a recent referendum approval to build a new stadium would seem to give the franchise a long-term future in the desert. The Los Angeles Cardinals? No.
That is either the good news or the bad news for Arizona football fans. For the Cardinals to reverse their fortunes, they will have to rely on Plummer's return to the form he displayed in his second season, 1998, when he spearheaded seven comeback victories that lifted the Cardinals to a playoffs berth and a playoff win at Dallas. Plummer, as is the case with all quarterbacks, would seem to be the key to recovery.
"I have not done all I can," Plummer said recently of his development as an NFL passer.
The Arizona State favorite son had thrown 10 touchdowns vs. 15 interceptions through 12 games. His completion percentage was an impressive 59.1, but his propensity for throwing interceptions kept his passer rating down at 69.5, next to last in the NFC. Of course, that's considerably better than the league-low 50.8 Plummer posted in 1999.
"Obviously, I'd like to have some of the interceptions back. This year, I've tried to develop and be patient and hit my check-downs. When I hit them, we weren't getting the yards out of them that we needed, so then I felt I needed to take it upon myself to make plays. I took risks and tried to make it happen; make the extraordinary play. We haven't had many big plays," Plummer said.
He may be the victim of a weak supporting cast. He lost high-priced wide receiver Rob Moore in the preseason, doesn't have an adequate offensive line in front of him, and hasn't gotten the production out of rookie running back Thomas Jones that the Cardinals expected when they made Jones the seventh pick of last spring's draft. Jones had rushed for just 294 yards through 12 games.
"We need to strengthen the interior of our lines on both sides of the ball," McGinnis said. "We need to get healthy at wide receiver. We need to be able to solidify our depth at a lot of positions. How these guys play the next (three weeks) is going to determine a lot, too, about where we're going to start digging into this thing."
That sounds like plans for change. Who could argue with that?
"It's an 11-finger dike type of deal right now. You keep sticking fingers in the holes and water keeps squirting out and hitting you in the eye on the other side. It's still no excuse, because you have to get it done," McGinnis added.
Four players are having productive seasons for the Cardinals.
• Michael Pittman has come off the bench to claim the starting running back job, and was averaging 4.3 yards per carry and was leading all NFL running backs with 61 pass receptions through 12 games.
• Wide receiver David Boston has seen the ball come his way more often with Moore gone from the lineup. Boston, a first-round pick out of Ohio State in 1999, had 54 catches for 842 yards and five touchdowns through 12 games.
• Aeneas Williams remains one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. You might remember that the Jaguars attempted to lure Williams to Jacksonville in free agency four years ago.
• Martay Jenkins was at the top of the NFL in kickoff return average. Jenkins was likely to set an NFL record for kickoff returns in a season. What's that tell you about the Cardinals' defense?
Time for the Cardinals to begin looking at players for the future, right?
"The other guys are already playing. Hell, the younger guys are starting. Is it time to look at other people? Hell, who are we going to look at, unless they're in college right now? And you can't do that. Their eligibility isn't up," McGinnis said.
At least McGinnis has been able to maintain a sense of humor. He may lose that if he becomes the Cardinals' long-term selection following the season.