It was, unlike this week surrounding the NFL’s biggest game, mostly sunny and warm. Even if it hadn’t been, the good feelings that enveloped the Cardinals five years ago couldn’t be tamed.
Those days in Tampa leading up to the Cardinals’ lone Super Bowl appearance were the culmination of the best month the franchise had ever experienced.
Maybe the Cards, who stumbled to a 9-7 finish after an early clinch of the NFC West title, should have knocked off a young Atlanta team at home to start the postseason. But throttling the Panthers in Carolina was a dream performance. Getting a home game in the NFC Championship was a turn of fortunate luck. And Larry Fitzgerald having not only the greatest postseason run not just a receiver but any player has had certainly helped the cause.
So it was a week of hyperbole and excess, like any Super Bowl. It was coach Ken Whisenhunt and safety Adrian Wilson making an NFL Network producer squirm a bit early in the week when, en route to an TV appearance, giving him grief about the on-air talent calling the Cards the worst playoff team ever a few weeks before – and then noting the same again when talking to Rich Eisen on camera. It was media day, when listed-at-325-pounds Alan Branch ballroom-danced, punter Ben Graham got a podium (serving the big Australian media contingent) and Anquan Boldin said over and over he didn’t have a problem with offensive coordinator Todd Haley after their NFC title game blowup.
It was a week of Edgerrin James’ brand-new Lamborghini, which he bought as a gift to himself for making the Super Bowl, being parked out front of the team hotel.
It was a week when the Cardinals gained more and more momentum from those believing they could win. Considered a heavy
Ahh, the game. A gut-punch of the highest order, its touchpoints easy to remember. James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return when it looked like the Cardinals would go into halftime no worse than tied. Fitz’s first touchdown catch, an amazing grab on a fade to get the Cards close. The safety after Pittsburgh held in the end zone. Fitz’s oh-my-gosh-is-this-really-happening 64-yard catch-and-run to score the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Time, however, did not stop when the clock hit 2:37 remaining.
The Cardinals could not, even with the Steelers facing a first-and-20 with 2:24 left at the Pittsburgh 12-yard line, hold the Steelers back. They could not wrestle down the ever elusive Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback they passed over to draft Fitzgerald. Safety Aaron Francisco couldn’t stop from taking a bad angle and then slipping on a short pass-turned-40-yards to Santonio Holmes.
They could not knock down the perfect Roethlisberger pass in the back of the end zone, tucked just over and beyond three Cardinal defenders, to Holmes that ultimately destroyed the dream.
(Except for that of Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, of course.)
The arguments rage on whether Holmes was inbounds, but it isn’t as if the Steelers were done had it been incomplete. It would have been third-and-goal at the 6 anyway, and Pittsburgh was a chip-shot field goal to at least get the game into overtime.
Not that any of that matters five years later.
So much has changed in the organization. The general manager and head coach lauded by thousands that week in Tampa are gone now, replaced with an Arians-Steve Keim duo that produced 10 wins in their first season. The NFC West has turned the path to the Super Bowl into a rough ride, moreso than that 2008 journey when the best two teams in the NFC’s regular-season couldn’t even win a playoff game combined.
Changeover seems inevitable to make another run. Those NFC teams that have lost recent Super Bowls have found that out – like the Seahawks, who needed eight years to return after the Steelers beat them following the 2005 season.
Remnants of that game for the Cardinals are few and far between. The roster has all but turned over, with only Fitzgerald,
“Does it haunt me? Yeah. Because every time the Super Bowl comes around, they show that one play with Santonio Holmes catching the ball in the back of the end zone,” said Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a starting rookie for the Cardinals that season, as he gets ready to play in the Super Bowl a second time. “You see yourself right there. I was that close to getting a ring. It’s always been on my mind.”
The Cardinals had their week in the sun five years ago. They’d like to try it again.