Logo courtesy of SportsLogos.net
By Bill Shannon
The Cardinals of the National Football League spent twenty-eight seasons in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, from 1960 to 1987. The franchise, having relocated from Chicago after the 1959 season, won 48% of their games in that span, a number that is neither horrible nor wonderful. The Cardinals shared a city, a stadium, and a moniker with a more history-rich baseball counterpart, which relegated the football club to stepchild status in Eastern Missouri.
In the two dozen or so years in which both sets of Cardinals occupied St. Louis, the baseball Cardinals won six National League Pennants and three World Series. The football Cardinals reached the postseason twice. [Note: for the sake of simplicity – and perhaps dramatic effect – I’m not counting the strike-shortened 1982 season, in which the football Cardinals snuck into the playoffs at 5-4, entering a one-off tournament more akin to the NBA’s everyone-gets-a-trophy postseason than the NFL’s.
Don Coryell came to St. Louis to coach the Cardinals in 1973, after a very successful stint at San Diego State University, where he went 104-19-2 in thirteen seasons, including three undefeated seasons in the late 1960s. During his tenure at SDSU, he had elevated the Aztecs from Division II to Division I. The Cardinals probably figured he would be the man to turn around the fortunes of a team that hadn’t been to the NFL’s postseason since 1948. That’s right: since 1948, the Truman administration. That had been a long time ago even when it was still the early-’70s.
Coryell inherited a team that in 1972 had been ranked 21st or worst in points, yards, yards allowed, turnover differential and point differential, finishing with a 4-9-1 record. The Cards fired second-year coach Bob Holloway after the season. Coryell – a member of the vast Sid Gillman coaching tree, along with Chuck Noll, Chuck Knox, George Allen and Dick Vemeil – developed a pass-happy offense at San Diego State, in which the long-ball was a key to the team’s unexpected success. He promised to bring this high-flying offensive style to St. Louis.
St. Louis had not been bereft of offensive talent in previous years. Their quarterback, Jim Hart, himself an undrafted player in 1966, had forged a very solid, consistent career in his seven years in St. Louis. The Cards also boasted Mel Gray, one of the fastest and most physically gifted wide receivers in the game, who somehow had never reached his full potential. The team also had wide receiver Ahmad Rashad and former Pro Bowl tight end Jackie Smith.
The team was also blessed with a very talented offensive line, notably future Hall of Fame tackle Dan Dierdorf, and future Pro Bowl guard Conrad Dobler, one of the dirtiest players in the history of the league. Long-time swing lineman Tom Banks and veteran tackle Ernie McMillan also forged part of a strong front-five.
Before the season, the Cardinals picked up two very talented players in the 1973 draft, nose tackle Dave Butz from Purdue, picked fifth overall. And third-round pick Terry Metcalf, a dynamic running back from Long Beach State.
The 1973 season was a stepping-stone year for Coryell’s Redbirds. After winning their first two games against division opponents Philadelphia and Washington, the Cardinals dropped their next four games, and went 2-9-1 to finish the season in fourth place. The passing offense actually acquitted itself: quarterback Jim Hart had a quarterback rating of 80.0, the best of his career to that point; Hart was in the league’s top 10 in most passing categories. The Cardinals were 11th in the league in scoring, and 5th in total passing yards.
The problems were in the run game and defense. St. Louis’s 1,671 team rushing yards were the 5th-fewest in the NFL in 1973. The team’s leading rusher, Donny Anderson, ran for only 679 yards. (No one else except the rookie Metcalf ran for more than 250 yards total.) Furthermore, tight end Jackie Smith was the team’s leading receiver, with only 41 catches and 600 yards, a pedestrian 14.6 yards per catch.
St. Louis’s worst problem in ’73, however, was their defense, which gave up 26.1 points per game, the 6th-most in the NFL. The Cardinals gave up the most passing yards (3,029) and the most total yards (5,149) in the league. This was despite defensive talent such as Butz, cornerback Norm Thompson (who would, incidentally, become the first free agent in NFL history in 1977), and Hall of Fame defensive back Roger Wehrli, a perennial Pro Bowler who is arguably the most important single figure in St. Louis Cardinals history. St. Louis had lost Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson to retirement before the season, which certainly didn’t help matters. Opposing quarterbacks threw for an astronomical 93.1 passer rating against the Cardinals defense in ’73.
Although their roster remained mostly the same on opening day of 1974, the Cardinals had clearly made some adjustments. Instead of relegating Terry Metcalf primarily to kickoff duty – a job he was admittedly good at – Coryell made him an integral cog in the offense, putting his preternatural cutback ability to good use both as the team’s primary tailback and a receiver out of the backfield. Metcalf’s 4.7 yards per carry was the fifth-best in the NFL in 1973; his 50 pass receptions and 1,095 total yards from scrimmage were both top ten in the league. Furthermore, Metcalf got 248 “touches,” the 10th most of any player in the league who wasn’t a quarterback. Metcalf’s 2,058 all-purpose yards were third-best in the league, and his 8.3 yards-per-touch were fifth-best. Metcalf was also the league’s leading kick-returner, with 31.2 yards-per-return.
Nobody threw the ball more than St. Louis in ’74: Jim Hart threw a league-leading 388 pass attempts, with 200 completions and 20 touchdowns, both second in the NFL. Hart’s 2,411 passing yards were 7th in the league; his 172.2 passing yards per game, 79.5 passer rating, and 5.2 touchdown percentage were all eighth in the league. Perhaps most importantly, considering how often St. Loo threw the ball, Hart threw only 8 interceptions, a 2.1% interception percentage, the best in the league. Hart was the UPI’s 1974 NFC Player of the Year.
Receiver Mel Gray also had a strong 1974 season, making 39 catches for 770 yards and 19.7 yards-per-catch, both 4th in the league. St. Louis’s offense basically mirrored the offense from the previous year, scoring exactly one more point than in ’73. The difference was in the team’s defense.
The Cardinals had given up more than 26 points per game the previous year, which made their 15.6 points-per-game allowed – 8th best in the league – that much more of a shock. Although they allowed the 8th-most passing yards, that was a massive improvement from the year before, by more than 47 yards per game. The Cardinals’ +67 point differential was 7th best in football.
St. Louis was the NFL’s surprise team in ’74, winning their first seven games of the year, and nine of their first 11. Their combination of an elite offense and a not-as-bad defense was enough. They went 7-1 within the NFC East, giving them their first playoff berth in more than a quarter-century. Although the Cards were overpowered by the eventual-NFC Champion Vikings in the playoffs, they were finally over the hump, not only playing good football, but doing it in an exciting, pass-heavy style.
As exciting as 1974’s breakthrough season was as a long-awaited gateway to the playoffs, the 1975 season was arguably the most exciting season in franchise history.
Again, the Cardinals’ roster was roughly the same, but played at a much higher level than they had the previous years. Terry Metcalf became a star; his 2,439 all-purpose yards were the most in the NFL by almost a full 200 yards. (This total was the second-most all-purpose yards in the 14-game merger era (1970-77), and remains the 11th most all-time, regardless of number of games.) Metcalf was deadly every time he touched the ball, whether it was his 1,245 total return yards (4th in the NFL), his 27.4 yards per kick return (also 4th) or his 12.4 yards per punt return (3rd). Despite Metcalf’s versatility, his 816 rushing yards (4.9 yards per carry) were second on the team to fullback Jim Otis’s 1,076 rush yards, fourth-best in the league. As a team, the Cards rushed for 2,402 yards, 6th-most in the league. The team’s 4.3 yards per rush and 19 rushing touchdowns were both tops in the NFL.
This rushing dominance was made possible by the right side of the offensive line, with center Tom Banks, right guard Conrad Dobler, and right tackle Dan Dierdorf (moved over from left tackle), all made the Pro Bowl in 1975.
This outstanding offensive line play also helped the passing game, in that they gave up only eight sacks all year, setting an NFL record at the time, and still the second-fewest ever for a single season. Quarterback Jim Hart wasn’t sacked until week 6, and only sacked on 1.71% of drop backs. The Cardinals’ 2,553 passing yards were sixth-best in the NFL. Wide receiver Mel Gray had his second outstanding season, with 926 receiving yards and 66.1 receiving yards per game (3rd) and 19.3 yards per catch (5th). Gray’s 11 touchdown catches were tied with Lynn Swann for most in the NFL.
Although their defense gave up 19.7 points per game, slightly up from the previous year, it was still enough to keep them in games, and give the Cardinals a chance to win games they probably shouldn’t have. In fact, the “Cardiac Cards” made their bones winning games at the last minute.
The Cards won their first two games in the last minute of play, defeating Atlanta in the first game of the season on a last-second Jim Bakken field goal. They then went to Dallas to play the division rival Cowboys in Week Two; the two teams traded five touchdowns in the third quarter alone. St. Louis was down by 11 points, before storming back, tying the game on a touchdown from Hart to Mel Gray with less than a minute left, and sending it into overtime. Though the Cardinals would end up losing 37-31 in overtime, they proved that they were capable of hanging with any team in the league.
The Cardinals beat the lowly Giants in Week Three, before losing to the Redskins by ten in Week Four. At this point, the Cards went on a tear in which they won their next six consecutive games, and nine of their last ten. St. Louis won back-to-back games over division rivals Philadelphia and New York.
Hosting New England in Week Seven, the Cardinals were down 10 points in the third quarter, before storming back to score 17 unanswered, winning by a touchdown. In their rematch at Philadelphia, St. Louis again had to climb out of a big deficit, this time 16 points. As in the previous week, the Cardinals scored 17 unanswered point, including the game winning field goal with under a minute to play.
The most controversial game of the season was St. Louis’s Week Nine home rematch against Washington. Again – yes AGAIN – with under a minute left, the Redskins were up a touchdown, before Hart threw a touchdown strike at the goal line to Mel Gray. (Washington fans will remember this play as the pass that Gray dropped, but got the call because the players complained to the refs at home. At least that’s their story.) Again, St. Louis hung tough and won the game on a 37-yards Bakken field goal in overtime.
The Cardinals rolled into the Queens, New York, to wreck an aging Broadway Joe Namath and the Jets by 31 point in Shea Stadium. The Cardinals’ only hiccup after Columbus Day in 1975 was at home on Thanksgiving against the equally high-flying Buffalo Bills. The Cards came out flat and lost by 18 points. However, they rebounded the next week at home against Dallas, also 8-3. St. Louis stormed out to a comfortable 28-3 halftime lead against the Cowboys; they held off the ‘Pokes 31-17. In Chicago in the season’s penultimate game, the Cards again rampaged to a 34-0 lead at the end of three quarters, ultimately holding off a furious fourth-quarter Chicago rally to win 34-20.
Needing a win in the final game of the season to win the division from Dallas outright, St. Louis handled Detroit 24-13 on the road. Giving the team its second division title in as many years … actually it’s second division title in 27 years. The Cardinals had cemented themselves as one of the most dynamic, exciting teams in the NFL.
Although they lost to the 12-2 Rams in the first round of the NFC Playoffs, the Cardinals got accolades aplenty for their roster talent. Five Cardinals made first- or second-team All-NFL: K Bakken, WR Gray, CB Wehrli, RT Dierdorf, RB/KR/PR Metcalf. Four more made the NFC’s all-conference squad: RG Dobler, C Banks, QB Hart and FB Otis.
The 1975 season would prove to be the flash-in-the-pan year for the Cardinals in St. Louis. Although the Cards won 10 games in 1976, they were only able to finish in 3rd place in a very tough NFC East. After the 1977 season, Metcalf made an ill-advised move from the Cardinals to the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts.
Coryell would also leave after that 1977 season; he would be hired six games into the 1978 season by the San Diego Chargers, where he would lead the elite“Air Coryell” San Diego offenses of Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, Chuck Muncie, John Jefferson, and Charlie Joiner. Though somehow not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Coryell’s influence on coaching is undeniable. He was a mentor for John Madden and Joe Gibbs, both Super Bowl winning coaches. His pass-first philosophies have also influenced offensive coordinators the likes of Al Saunders, Ernie Zampeze, Rod Dowhower, and Jim Hanifan.
The Cardinals would eventually leave Missouri for the dry heat of Tempe, Arizona after the 1987 season, where they would be known as the Phoenix, and then Arizona Cardinals. They would not have consecutive playoff seasons again until 2008-2009, with quarterback Kurt Warner and receiver Larry Fitzgerald at the helm.
The great city of St. Louis would get another team in 1995, the erstwhile Los Angeles Rams, the same franchise that beat the Cardinals in the 1975 playoffs. Although the Rams would struggle for their first few years, in 1999 they would eclipse even those ’74-’75 Cardinals offenses with Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt leading what would come to be known as “The Greatest Show on Turf,” giving the city of St. Louis their first ever football championship.