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Will curse foil the Arizona Cardinals this time around in the playoffs?

Eventually, something strange is going to happen. Something that will make a Cardinals fan curse.

You can feel it coming. Sometime today, a running back will break loose, and without being touched, he will fumble. A wide receiver will run free, and with no one around, he will stumble. A quarterback will try to run out the clock, and as if gripped by unseen forces, he will bumble.

Call it fate. Call it destiny. Or, if you believe in such things, call it the old Pottsville double whammy.

To the casual observer, the Cardinals' greatest fear in today's NFC Championship Game would seem to be Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Or perhaps running back Brian Westbrook. Maybe even safety Brian Dawkins.

Or, perhaps, the greatest fear is a 94-year-old man named Nick Barbetta. He is the Keeper of the Curse, and he is the reason the Cardinals have spent most of their history tripping over the yard lines.

This must be the reason for all the misery. When you think about how incredibly awful the Cardinals have been, what other explanation makes sense?

It was the curse that made the team draft Steve Pisarkiewicz, Kelly Stouffer and Clyde Duncan. It was the curse that made it hire Buddy Ryan and run off Don Coryell. It was the curse that drove it from Chicago and St. Louis, and the curse that has left it wandering the desert for the better part of two decades.

Ah, those accursed Cardinals. They have lost like a team possessed.

"The curse is really going to be on this week," Barbetta said Friday from his home in Schuylkill Haven, Pa. "We really want to put the whammy on them."

To this day, Barbetta is still ticked over the 1925 NFL championship. In his words, it was the year the Chicago Cardinals stole the title from the Pottsville Maroons.

Actually, it was NFL president Joe Carr who stripped the title from Pottsville, even though the Maroons had beaten the Cardinals in a game both teams had billed as being for the championship. Afterward, the Maroons played an exhibition against Notre Dame, and the Frankford franchise complained that Pottsville had infringed on its territory. Carr agreed, and part of his penalty included awarding Pottsville's championship to Chicago.

Even worse, the Cardinals then beefed up their record with glorified practice games of their own. Against Milwaukee, they played a team that used four high school players.

"One of them was only 15 years old," said Barbetta, the edge still in his voice. "It was robbery. I had a dream the other night. I was at this game, and I was holding up a sign: 'Give the trophy back to Pottsville.' "

There you have it, the reason for every bad draft pick and every underachieving quarterback and every coach in over his head. You have the reason the Cardinals have been the worst franchise of all.

Either that, or it's the Bidwills. After all, the cardinal rule of sports curses is this: The cheaper the owner, the weaker the potion.

Face it. Even before the curse, things were tough for the Cardinals. The team was named for a bunch of used shirts. In 1901, owner Chris O'Brien bought old jerseys from the University of Chicago, and when someone suggested the red was faded, O'Brien argued that particular color was cardinal red.

Since the NFL formed in 1920, no team has suffered longer or harder than the Cardinals. They have lost 674 times, 105 times more than any other team. For the Detroit Lions to catch up to the Cardinals, they would have to win every game for the next 61/2 years and the Cardinals would have to lose every game.

During World War II, the Cardinals and Steelers even combined their teams for a year. The Card-Pitts, they were called. Soon, that was shortened to "carpets." No wonder the team was 0-10.

No franchise has been cheaper. None has been less organized. None has finished more seasons (82 of 89) out of the playoffs. Think the Bucs were bad during their 0-26 run? The Cardinals once lost 29 in a row (including back-to-back 0-10 seasons), and if not for an upset over the Bears in 1945, the streak would have been 37.

Yeah, they have been bad.

Think of all the coaches. Guy Chamberlin, who is in the Hall of Fame, won three games in his one year. Joe Stydahar, who is in the Hall of Fame, won three in two years. Curly Lambeau, who is in the Hall of Fame, won seven games in two years.

Then there is Coryell, the best coach the franchise has had. By 1977 he had led the Cardinals to 10-plus wins for three straight years, but he knew he needed defense. Instead, it drafted Pisarkiewicz in the first round. Coryell blew his top and asked to be fired. A year later, he left "by mutual consent."

Then there was blustering Buddy Ryan, who crowed "you've got a winner in town" as he was hired. Two years later, he watched his final play from the stadium tunnel. He had left the field with one second to go, and he wasn't going back.

Gee. No wonder Ken Whisenhunt looks so smart.

Think of all the quarterbacks. Draft picks were wasted on King Hill, George Izo, Pisarkiewicz, Stouffer, Timm Rosenbach and Jake Plummer.

Then there was the immortal Gary Keithley. In 1973, Keithley started a late-season game against the Falcons, and the Cardinals won despite his quarterback rating of 0.00. The next week, Keithley started again and again posted a quarterback rating of 0.00. No other quarterback has done that.

No wonder Kurt Warner looks so good.

Think of all the botched No. 1 draft picks (Duncan? Steve Little? Larry Stegent?) Think of all the bad moments. (Star running back Ollie Matson is traded for nine players, and none ever starts for the Cardinals?) Slow-footed Steve Bono, with the Chiefs, runs for 76 yards? Legend Emmitt Smith finishes his career on a 2-yard loss?)

Think of the punch lines. Once, a backup fullback named Dennis McKinley was arrested. "He tried to run," said Jay Leno, "but he lost 3 yards."

Think of the pinched pennies. This was the team that didn't sign Joe Namath. This was the team that let Terry Metcalf go. For years, the talk was the Cardinals were the team that charged players for extra shoes and locked the Gatorade cooler after practice.

So what has changed things? A new stadium, for one. A new coach. A new Bidwill (Michael).

Is it enough to overcome an old curse? We'll see.

Said Barbetta: "We aren't letting up."

Fast facts

Cardinals by the numbers

• Over 89 seasons, the Cardinals have had 36 head coaches. Considering that three — Ernie Nevers, Jimmy Conzelman and Phil Handler — each had the job twice (at least), that makes the average stay for a coach less than 21/2 seasons.

• In the past 50 seasons, the Cardinals have spent their No. 1 or 2 draft pick on a quarterback 10 times. Two — Joe Namath and Kelly Stouffer — did not sign. Two — Neil Lomax and Jake Plummer — had decent careers. The other six are Matt Leinart, Timm Rosenbach, George Izo, King Hill, Tony Sacca and Steve Pisarkiewicz.

• The Cardinals drafted a kicker with the 15th pick overall in 1978. Steve Little made only 13 of 27 field goal attempts before he was released.

• The Cardinals spent the 17th pick of the 1984 draft on Tennessee wide receiver Clyde Duncan. He caught four passes in two seasons.

Will curse foil the Arizona Cardinals this time around in the playoffs? 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 9:29pm]

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