Turnaround in the cards?
Optimism takes hold in Arizona
It will be hot, but not hostile.
It will be a long trip, and there will be no shortcuts as the Patriots prepare for the Arizona Cardinals, who under Dennis Green may not win 10 games but may not lose 10, either.
Welcome to the annual trap game.
It's Week 2, and the Cardinals have been led to believe by their encouraging performance in a 17-10 loss at St. Louis that they are capable of playing a good team tough until the end. If you're a Cardinals fan, you might argue that the officials had a hand in this. Early in the fourth quarter, James Darling intercepted a Marc Bulger pass and returned it 95 yards for an apparent score that would have given the Cardinals a 17-9 lead, but the touchdown was nullified by a defensive holding penalty -- which replays showed happened within the permissible 5-yard range.
Green understands that the early part of this journey undoubtedly will meet with frustration. He undertook arguably the biggest challenge in the NFL when he succeeded Dave McGinnis, who failed to make the Cardinals something other than doormats.
Green had a pretty comfortable job at ESPN, but like a lot of coaches who sit outside the game for while, he got the bug. He is like Bill Parcells in that he takes dire situations and turns them around. He did it for Northwestern, Stanford, and the Minnesota Vikings, with whom he won 97 games and had a .610 winning percentage.
Playing the Rams on the road and the Patriots at home "has got to be the toughest start to a season in the NFL," said Green. But if there's optimism among Arizona fans today, it's because before Sunday's game the Cardinals had lost eight consecutive road games by an average margin of 25 points.
At his press conference yesterday, Green said he has a playoff-caliber special teams unit, a defense that has speed and can make plays (it forced three turnovers in the first 12 minutes), and an emerging offense with young Josh McCown at the helm.
Yet he cautions, "We're not going to win a lot of games until our offense and our defense are playing at the caliber of our special teams."
Now the scene shifts to red-hot Sun Devil Stadium. It could be 100 degrees or more on the field when the Patriots play there Sunday, and it's hard for a team in the Northeast to prepare for that, unless Bill Belichick locks his players in the field house this week and turns on the heat full-blast.
It's a big conditioning test for the Patriots, who will likely use a lot of rotations, especially in the trenches. The Patriots already use a rotation with their linebackers and defensive backs, but the most exhausted man on the field might be Tom Brady, who can't come out.
The last time the Patriots played in Arizona was Halloween 1999, a 27-3 win that was Pete Carroll's finest moment, giving him a 6-2 record as the team went into its bye week at midseason. But no issue is bigger than the talent. The Patriots have it; Green doesn't know what he has yet. He knows he has an immensely talented wide receiver in Larry Fitzgerald, who made great catches in his debut. He knows he has the NFL's all-time leading rusher in Emmitt Smith, who in gaining 87 yards on 16 carries against the Rams showed he still might have some bounce in his game. He knows he has a solid coaching staff.
"It will be crucial against the Patriots to be able to make adjustments," Green said. "Right now Bill Belichick is the No. 1 coach in the NFL. And along with that is his defense. He's going to come out and present a lot of problems at the beginning of the game. He'll adjust and add additional problems in the second quarter, he'll put more adjustments in there in the third quarter, and in the fourth quarter you're going to see some things you never saw before like you saw against Indianapolis Thursday night, that will help pull a game out."
Green is not fooled by the Colts' rushing total of 202 yards against the Patriots. "They're going to shore that up," Green said. "They did a lot better at the end of the game. If you were to attack the Patriots, a team like Indianapolis, which throws the ball so well, is thinking if we can pound the ball with the run, counter with runs, it'll give you some openings for the passing game. That's what was taking place in that game."
Until his team can create balance on offense, said Green, it won't be able to do what the Colts did to the Patriots.
Green said there were too many negative plays against St. Louis, and though he wouldn't blame the right side of his offensive line, that's where the breakdowns seemed to occur. His defense allowed the Rams 448 yards of offense, though only 17 points.
That's not good enough for Green. He's been around long enough to know that every young team has its defining moment when it proves it's ready to win. Nothing would get the Cardinals closer to that moment than upsetting the world champions.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.