It all began with Dennis Green. When the calendar turned to 2004, the Cardinals were still regarded as one of the worst-run organizations in professional sports. They were coming off a 4-12 season. They had fired coach Dave McGinnis. Their signing of free agent running back Emmitt Smith was ridiculed throughout the NFL.
It all began with Dennis Green.
When the calendar turned to 2004, the Cardinals were still regarded as one of the worst-run organizations in professional sports. They were coming off a 4-12 season. They had fired coach Dave McGinnis. Their signing of free agent running back Emmitt Smith was ridiculed throughout the NFL.
But in April of that year, Green began the metamorphosis that transformed the Cardinals. His first three draft picks were wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. In the fifth round, he selected defensive end Antonio Smith.
The influx of talent wouldn't change the Cardinals overnight - Green's coaching had a lot to do with that - but it was the beginning, the first baby step in the long walk from 4-12 to Sunday's NFC championship game.
"When you think about where we were five years ago, to not really feel like we had a chance to win, to be at this point, a game away from the Super Bowl, it's unbelievable," defensive end Bertrand Berry said.
Out-of-town media who have ventured to Arizona's practice facility this week all ask the same question: How did this happen? How did the Cardinals turn things around so quickly?
This has been an exhausting, frustrating and sometimes head-scratching journey. It's taken the Cardinals five years, a coaching change, a new stadium and a new attitude.
Other than that, it's been a breeze.
Here are the ABCs of the Cardinals' turnaround:
For years, Arizona had one of the league's worst track records in the draft. It took Wendell Bryant in the first round in 2002 and passed on a chance to take Terrell Suggs in 2003 (trading down to take Bryant Johnson and Calvin Pace instead). Amazingly, not a single player remains on the roster from that '02 class.
But over the past five years - with the notable exception of 2007, when they selected tackle Levi Brown instead of running back Adrian Peterson and took Alan Branch in the second round - the Cardinals have done a much better job of evaluating talent.
Free safety Antrel Rolle in the first round in 2005. Guard Deuce Lutui (second round) and nose tackle Gabe Watson (fourth) in 2006. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (first), defensive end Calais Campbell (second) and running back Tim Hightower (fifth) this past April. And that list doesn't include quarterback Matt Leinart (first round, 2006), who still could develop into a franchise quarterback.
"As an organization over the last three or four years, we've done an excellent job in the draft process and free agency," general manager Rod Graves said.
Other than Edgerrin James, the Cardinals haven't made any huge splashes during free agency. But they've acquired role players - fullback Terrelle Smith, cornerback Ralph Brown, linebacker Clark Haggans, nose tackle Bryan Robinson, etc. - who have contributed and given the club the depth and leadership it lacked in the past.
It's no secret that, under Green, the Cardinals were lazy, undisciplined and, to be brutally honest, a stupid football team.
Ken Whisenhunt changed the culture the minute he walked through the door. He held players accountable. He didn't play favorites. He wasn't afraid to make difficult decisions - benching James, for instance - or play Kurt Warner instead of Leinart, whom the organization was grooming to be the face of the franchise.
Not everyone in the locker room loves Whisenhunt - no coach is universally admired - but the players respect him because all he cares about is winning.
"We felt that if we could assemble a very talented football team and get a coaching staff in place that could work with talent and develop young players quickly, then we had a recipe for success," Graves said. "I can't say enough about the job Ken has done."
C) University of Phoenix Stadium.
Team president Michael Bidwill often refers to the economic advantages Arizona gained by finally moving out of Sun Devil Stadium in 2006. The Cardinals are spending more money than they used to - most notably, Fitzgerald's $40 million contract extension - but more importantly, they're using the money wisely.
They still miss at times in free agency - Al Johnson, Terrence Holt - but the contracts aren't so exorbitant that when the players are released, it's a huge hit on the salary cap. Also, because the team is no longer desperate to sell tickets and increase revenue, it's not pursuing players simply for headline value.
"We tried to approach this by building a core first," Graves said. "Now I think we're very close to having the core in place so there's not a necessity to go out and spend big money on free agents."
There's no telling whether the Cardinals will build on this success or fall backward - "I'm not going to sit here and tell you that we've arrived, by any stretch of the imagination, because that's only something time will tell," Whisenhunt said - but at least there's a plan in place and the right coach at the wheel.
And to think, it was Dennis Green who jump-started the process.
"We knew we had an opportunity to change it around," Dansby said. "We had a lot of potential. Right now, we're just reaping the fruit from all the seeds we planted."