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The No. 1 Thing On The Cardinals' Mind Is Not The Draft

As in 2003, draft order at stake, but winning in finale is only goal

Cardinals wide receiver Nate Poole (89) makes a touchdown catch to beat the Vikings on the final play of the 2003 season. The victory moved the Cardinals from the first pick overall in the 2003 draft to third.
Cardinals wide receiver Nate Poole (89) makes a touchdown catch to beat the Vikings on the final play of the 2003 season. The victory moved the Cardinals from the first pick overall in the 2003 draft to third.

Josh McCown wasn't a rookie that year, not like Josh Rosen. The quarterback was only getting his third start in the NFL, fewer than Rosen has up until this point, and he was playing at home, whereas Rosen and his Cardinals teammates will be traveling to Seattle.

But there is a parallel between McCown's 2003 Cardinals and Rosen's 2018 Cardinals heading into the last game of the season – a loss and the Cardinals end up with the No. 1 overall draft pick.

That 2003 game provided one of the highlights of McCown's career, a 28-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game to Nate Poole to upset the Minnesota Vikings. The loss knocked the Vikings out of the postseason and, less talked about, pushed the Cardinals from the first draft pick to third.

A win Sunday against the Seahawks, and the Cardinals will likely make a similar draft move back.

"All (the Vikings) had to do was beat us and they would make it in, and so I remember having fun and just trying to keep growing as a player," said McCown, who is still playing as a backup quarterback for the New York Jets. "I don't feel like it was talked about, draft picks and everything.

"At the time, those kinds of things weren't talked about. I don't want to disrespect analytics, but I think people had too much respect for the game to (think about what losing meant.) It's a violent game we play, and to go out and waste a down or waste some snaps, that's a tough thing to think about."

It may be a topic for the public, but 15 years or so hasn't changed how players might approach such a game.

"I haven't heard anybody in this locker room talk about the number one pick," current Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea said. "We want to go out on a good note. We want to win. That's what our goal is. We haven't talked about draft picks."

In his final mid-week press conference of the season, Rosen noted a couple of times that the Cardinals wanted to end this season with a victory. Nowhere was it mentioned -- nor asked -- how his future could benefit with a higher draft pick.

If the Cardinals were able to win in Seattle, the draft-order tiebreakers in 2018 are similar to the ones in 2003 – it would likely mean the Cards will not pick first. The 49ers (who play the Rams) and the Jets (who play the Patriots) are the two four-win teams that would leapfrog the Cardinals in the draft order if they lost and the Cards win. All three teams would be 4-12.

Just like 2003, when the Chargers and Raiders jumped in front of the Cards in the final order.

"At that time, we were all, guys had so much respect for coach (Dave) McGinnis and wanted to play hard for him," McCown said. "For me, the awareness of those things (like draft positioning) weren't even in my head. I was just trying to make sure I was able to execute the plays. I don't think (the No. 1 pick) was part of it. It was 'let's go out and play.' "

McGinnis was fired anyway. But the Cardinals avoided the first overall selection – a pick the franchise has had four times, but not since 1958. That year, it was spent on quarterback King Hill, who didn't work out as a passer (eight touchdowns, 20 interceptions during his three initial years with the Cards) but eventually found footing in the NFL elsewhere as a punter. He even returned to the Cardinals the final year of his 12-year career, punting 73 times in 14 games.

Then again, not exactly what a team wants out of the No. 1 overall pick.

The funny thing is McCown-to-Poole may not have changed the direction the Cardinals went in the 2004 draft. McGinnis was replaced by Dennis Green, who believed Larry Fitzgerald was the best player in the draft despite quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger being available.

This year, with a quarterback like Rosen in place, it probably wouldn't make a significant difference to the Cardinals whether they are at 1 or 3. But it still might matter to some.

Even today, Fitzgerald – who grew up in Minnesota and was a ballboy for the Vikings – says he was "devastated" when the Cardinals knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs in favor of the rival Packers. At that point, Green hadn't been hired so Fitzgerald couldn't know he was likely Arizona-bound, but he knew it soon enough.

"To see them get eliminated by the Cardinals, and it eliminated the Cardinals from being the No. 1 pick which I was hoping for too, it was an all-around hurtful weekend," Fitzgerald said.

Once Fitzgerald and McCown became teammates the next year, Fitzgerald would chide McCown for his Poole pass, saying "you cost me some money."

"Now, looking back and seeing the impact Larry has had not only on the organization but the relationship he had with coach Green, I have no doubt he probably would've been the No. 1 pick," McCown said. "But I always used to tell him, 'If I didn't (throw that pass), I probably would've never got a chance to throw you your first touchdown.' I had to do it to help my own job."

McCown has carved out a long career in the NFL, and still hopes to play in 2019. But McCown-to-Poole remains one of his fondest memories. He and Poole have ended up settling down about 10 miles away from each other in Charlotte, N.C., crossing paths once in a while, a connection still alive.

The game wasn't about sidestepping the No. 1 pick but playing for your teammates. Instead it was Hall of Fame teammate Emmitt Smith yelling at McCown, after the third-down sack that proceeded the pass, to get himself back to the line of scrimmage and get a play off in the dwindling seconds.

The current Cardinals wouldn't mind such a scenario. Draft status isn't part of the equation.

"It meant something to Green Bay," McCown said. "It didn't mean anything to us other than the pride you play for and the value you can find as a young player to springboard yourself forward."

Images of past matchups between the Seahawks and Cardinals