WEEK 7 CRYSTAL BALL - THURSDAY
Cardinals and Saints Prepare to Mix It Up
My friends, THE GURU is a gourmand, as you know, and that has me starving for some Thursday Night Football as the Arizona Cardinals host the New Orleans Saints at 8:15 pm ET on Amazon Prime. Both teams have 2-4 records.
As with any matchup, there are interesting things to discuss, present, past and future, so let’s get to it. Here we go:
A LEGEND LEAVES US
First things first. Former NFL great Charley Trippi, a career-long Chicago Cardinal, passed away yesterday at the ripe old age of 100. The Cardinals, as you know, were based in Chicago (1922-59) then St. Louis (1960-87) before migrating to the desert as the Phoenix Cardinals prior to the 1988 season. They were renamed the Arizona Cardinals in 1994.
Little known fact: the franchise began as the Racine (Wis.) Cardinals in 1920 and spent its first two seasons there. And Racine is home to the one and only O&H Danish Bakery, producer of the famous Kringle pastries. My man UNCA JOHN ships a few of these to my door each year and they’re always well-received and short-lived.
Back to Trippi, who helped lead the Cardinals to their only NFL title in his rookie season, 1947, as part of the famed “Million Dollar Backfield”.
There are two additional facts that’ll tell you what an impactful player Trippi was: he is one of only four University of Georgia Bulldogs to have their jersey number retired - Mr. Herschel Walker is another - and he remains the lone Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee to record an amazing triple, registering more than 1,000 yards as a passer, receiver and runner. That’ll be hard to beat.
Rest in peace, Mr. Trippi.
REMEMBERING THE END FOR KURT WARNER
The Saints and Cardinals have met 31 times, with New Orleans holding a 16-15 edge, but only one of those matchups was in the playoffs. Surely, that postseason tilt was memorable for both teams.
The date was January 16, 2010, and Kurt Warner, the Arizona passer, threw an interception to Saints defensive end Will Smith with six minutes remaining in the first half and host New Orleans leading the Divisional Playoff Game, 28-14.
As Warner moved into position to make the tackle, he was blindsided by the other end, Bobby McCray, a devastating shot that left the QB in pain on the turf. The Saints scored again minutes later and, though Warner returned to the game in the second half, he wasn’t the same. It was his final NFL game.
The Saints won, 45-14, and advanced to win Super Bowl XLIV that year before the infamous “Bountygate” was uncovered, a program that allegedly began in that 2009 season with coaches paying players for big plays, including injuring their opponents. It was discovered that Warner was targeted during those 2009 playoffs as part of the program though the QB later said that he though McCray’s hit was legal and simply part of the game.
Either way, it’s likely that shots like that one played a role in the NFL eventually outlawing blindsided blocks in 2019.
THE HONEY BADGER RETURNS
Former Cardinal Tyrann Mathieu, a 2022 signing by his hometown Saints, travels to where his NFL career began, with Coach Bruce Arians in Glendale, Ariz. “The Honey Badger” spent five seasons (2013-17) with Arizona and, last year, Arians called him his “favorite draft choice of all time.”
“I just love him, his passion for football,” he said. “But I am so proud of the man he has become. He’s a great football player but he’s a better man.”
Now in his tenth season, Mathieu can still play at a high level, as evidenced by his Pro Football Focus ranking as the fifth-best safety in the NFL, among those who have played at least 50% of their team’s snaps. He’s also been remarkably healthy in recent years, with no games missed due to injury since 2016. Pretty durable for a 5’9”, 190-pound player.
I’d say that, during his career with the Cards, Texans (2018), Chiefs (2019-21) and Saints, Mathieu has exceeded any expectations one would have for a third-round draft choice. Three-time All Pro. Three-time Pro Bowler. All decade team for the 2010s. Super Bowl LIV champion. Not bad.
And, tonight, I’ll bet he’s more than ready to take on Kyler Murray and that Arizona squad. Should be fun to watch.
(For more on Mathieu and his incredible journey to the NFL, read this excellent piece published today by ESPN’s Katherine Terrell and Josh Weinfuss.)
DENNIS ALLEN AND KLIFF KINGSBURY MATCH WITS
Tonight’s head coaches have a couple of things in common, most notably their outstanding college careers in the great state of Texas. Allen was a star safety for R.C. Slocum at Texas A&M, and Kingsbury put up eye-popping numbers as a Texas Tech quarterback under Mike Leach.
Their most relevant similarity: both men lead teams that are trying to find their sea legs and will enter tonight’s game with several key players unavailable.
Allen is dealing with injuries at quarterback (Jameis Winston), wide receiver (Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry), and cornerback (Marshon Lattimore) while the Arizona coach will be missing two men on the o-line (center Rodney Hudson, guard Justin Pugh) with running back James Conner and kicker Matt Prater questionable. Wide receiver Hollywood Brown is out for the next month with a foot injury.
A rookie head coach following in the footsteps of Sean Payton, Allen likely will be given plenty of time, as in years, to right the ship. But, on the other sideline, there is a great sense of urgency in Kingsbury’s fourth year as head coach.
Kingsbury doesn’t get a lot of credit from the media - or anyone else - but the Cards have improved their win total (from 5 to 8 to 11) and standing in the NFC West (4th to 3rd to 2nd) each year. That’s some pretty good coaching.
Part of the reason for Arizona’s rough start can be traced to the six games without star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who returns this evening from a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Here’s hoping he’ll add a little juice - pun intended - as the Cardinals offense hasn’t played at a high level this season.
Per ESPN, Kingsbury’s crew is near the bottom of NFL rankings for points per game (22nd), third-down conversion percentage (28th), and yards per offensive play (31st). Maybe that starts to change tonight.
Given Allen’s two decades coaching NFL defenses, including the past seven years as d-coordinator for the Saints, one would think the coach will have his team well prepared to handle the Arizona offense. But, then again, the Saints rank 29th in points allowed per game (26.3) so he’ll need Mathieu and his teammates to step up and play big.
The wildcard in tonight’s game may be likely New Orleans starting QB Andy Dalton. Nicknamed “The Red Rifle,” a moniker that makes a ginger like THE CHIEF quite jealous, Dalton has bounced from Dallas (2020) to Chicago (2021) to NOLA in the past three seasons after a successful nine-year stint as Cincinnati’s starting QB.
Normally I’d pick against a struggling team, like Arizona, that is missing two o-line starters, but I think the depleted Saints are in a tough spot here, traveling across the country on only three full days of rest. Allen is a creative defensive coach who may make life difficult for Murray but, in the end, I think the Cards will figure out a way to win it.
Just don’t quote me on it.
Last week’s record was a rare winning effort as I finished at 10-4 (.714), moving the season mark to 50-44 (.532). Enjoy the game and I’ll be back this weekend.