Big-deal Cardinals leaving old perceptions behind

by | CBSSports.com
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Michael Bidwill (left) has been working to change the image of the Cardinals. (US Presswire)  
Michael Bidwill (left) has been working to change the image of the Cardinals. (US Presswire)  

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Larry Fitzgerald showed up at his own press conference on Saturday evening carrying a pair of cleats.

"When you sign an eight-year deal -- when you come to the boss' office -- I had to feel like I was doing something," the Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl receiver said while seated next to team president Michael Bidwill. "Maybe he wanted me to go out there and run some routes today. I was ready to, so I brought them just in case."

It's no wonder players are willing to put on their work shoes and get down to business in Arizona these days. Once mocked for their frugality, the Cardinals have been one of the NFL's most aggressive and free-spending teams since the lockout ended, adding or keeping more than a half-dozen key players through free agency, trades or re-signings while shoring up their depth with a slew of other acquisitions.

Arizona traded cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick to Philadelphia for quarterback Kevin Kolb, then awarded him a five-year, $63 million extension. They signed free-agent tight ends Todd Heap (two years, about $6 million) and Jeff King (three years, $6 million), offensive guard Daryn Colledge (5 years, $27.5 million), linebacker Stewart Bradley (five years, $20 million) and cornerback Richard Marshall.

Then they re-signed Fitzgerald, the face of the franchise, to a deal that could be worth as much as $120 million with a little less than $47 million guaranteed, putting the finishing touches on perhaps the most active offseason/preseason in franchise history.

"This was the plan all along," Bidwill said. "I knew the best way I could personally have an involvement in improving this team was by expressing a strong message that we wanted to build the very best team we could by being aggressive.

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"The last thing I was really going to be able to affect in terms of our going-forward strategy for this season was getting Larry's contract wrapped up quickly. We did that. It's done before the third preseason game has even been played. My feeling now is that I have done everything I can control and now we'll just have to see how everything works out." You can question whether the moves the Cards made were wise. Trading a Pro-Bowl caliber cornerback and a second-round pick for an unproven quarterback is a steep price to pay. So is $47 million in guaranteed money for a wide receiver, even if it is Fitzgerald. In the latter case, the Cards' hand was forced because they gave Fitzgerald a previous contract with a no-trade clause and the stipulation that they couldn't use the franchise tag on him.

Even so, there is no questioning the Cardinals' resolve, not when the team made such a financial commitment to get back to its two-year perch (2008-09) atop the NFC West while convincing Fitzgerald to sign that extension before testing the free-agent waters.

"This is Mr. Bidwill's team and he is going to do everything he can to make this organization go," Fitzgerald said. "The activity in free agency this year is something I haven't seen since I have been here and I think that is just an example -- a sign of things to come."

Through most of this franchise's history, nobody would have uttered such words. The Cardinals posted just one winning season and two non-losing seasons in their first 19 in Arizona. Team owner Bill Bidwill was the butt of jokes -- some of them personal and tasteless -- and the team's miserly spending habits were infamous as they struggled to fill Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium.

"Fans didn't recognize the realities of playing in a college stadium," Michael Bidwill said. "This is pro football. Revenue does matter. We wanted to deliver on our promise but it was like going into competition with one hand tied behind your back."

Bidwill said the criticism was a motivating force for him and he has clearly taken it to heart, elevating the franchise to a level not seen before in the modern era while becoming a much more visible and outspoken representative of the organization than his father.

But it was the completion of University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006 that helped shift the fortunes of this downtrodden franchise because it brought added and much-needed revenue streams. Since moving into stadium, the Cardinals have sold out every game.

"We sold out 12 games in 18 years at Sun Devil Stadium," Bidwill said.

The Cardinals thought they had a number of key pieces in place when the new stadium opened, particularly on offense, but then-coach Dennis Green wasn't getting the most out of them so he was replaced with Ken Whisenhunt, who has already enjoyed greater success than any previous coach in Arizona, including a run to the 2009 Super Bowl and back-to-back division championships.

The Cardinals took some heat for spending so little money last season in the wake of Kurt Warner's retirement. They entered this season about $37 million under the salary cap. But Bidwill said there were reasons for that deficit.

"There was the practical reality that we had around $12 to $13 million set aside for the second year of Kurt's contract," Bidwill said. "He decided to retire. We didn't fully expect that and you can't just go out and find a player worthy of that number because Hall of Fame quarterbacks are pretty rare."

Bidwill said the franchise was also focused on extending core players such as Fitzgerald down the road, while being smart about spending when the league was headed into a lockout. He vehemently disputes the notion that it was a return to the franchise's old ways.

"Those old perceptions are in the rearview mirror," he said.

Whisenhunt never experienced those old perceptions, but he believes the current approach of the franchise will have positive long-term ramifications.

"I believe a lot of other teams' (players) look at our team and think it's a good place to play," he said. "Some of the moves we've made this season show that we're serious about competing for our division and trying to be a Super Bowl contender."

There is one caveat. The Cardinals have to win this season in order to maintain those perceptions.

"I've got a tremendous amount of hope, anticipation and good feelings about the 2011 season," Bidwill said. "I expect great things because we made a lot of changes. On paper, they look great, but we still have a lot of work to complete."

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