With all the NFL 100th Season lists, I’ve been thinking about the histories of various Steeler rivalries. So every week for the rest of the year, I’ll post a retrospective preview, considering the two teams and setting up for the upcoming game.
This week: Arizona Cardinals
Pittsburgh 7-5 (2nd AFC North)
Cardinals 3-8-1 (4th NFC West)
2019 Off/Def Comparisons:
....................................... Overall........... Pass ........... Rush........... Score
Pittsburgh Offense........291 (28th).......201 (29th)........91 (26th).......19.7 (24th)
Cardinals Defense........426 (32nd).......308 (32nd).....119 (24th).......29.3 (31st)
Cardinals Offense.........332 (23rd).........218 (22nd)...114 (14th).......21.3 (20th)
Pittsburgh Defense........317 (5th)........214 (7th)....104 (12th).......18.8 (6th)
Coaches in Common:
Ken Whisenhunt (Steelers Tight Ends coach 2001-03, Offensive Coordinator 2004-06; Cardinals Head Coach 2007-12)
Bruce Ariens (Steelers Wide Receivers coach 2004-06, Offensive Coordinator 2007-11; Cardinals Head Coach 2013-17)
Whisenhunt and Ariens each collected a Super Bowl ring as O.C. in Pittsburgh, before upgrading to H.C. in Tempe. They are two of the most successful Cardinal head coaches in team history (even though Whiz finished below .500). Whisenhunt coached more Cardinal games overall than any coach in team history (96), and guided Arizona to its only Super Bowl appearance in his second year there (where they, of course, lost to the Steelers). Ariens is the winningest coach in franchise history (with 49 wins five years) and recorded the best winning percentage for a full-time coach (.619) since Norman Berry went 16-8-2 (.667) from 1925-26. Note: the Cardinals franchise is largely where great coaches go to die, so Ariens’ and Whisenhunt’s successes are significant. Cardinal coaches who failed to match their achievements include Dennis Green, Buddy Ryan, Don Coryell, Curley Lambeau, and Ernie Nevers.
(Bonus coach: Whisenhunt also brought with him Russ Grimm, the Steelers great offensive line coach who was a finalist for the head coaching job in Pittsburgh that eventually went to Mike Tomlin.)
Player in Common (a.k.a. Pittsburgh West):
There aren’t a lot of Cardinals that made their way east to the Steel City, but the pipeline was open and active in the other direction for years. Among them:
Larry Foote (Steelers 2002-08, 2010-13 / signed with Arizona 2014)
Joey Porter (Steelers 1999-2006 / signed with Arizona 2010-13)
Bryant McFadden (Steelers 2005-08, 2010-11 / signed with Arizona 2009)
William Gay (Steelers 2007-11, 2013-17 / signed with Arizona 2012)
Team in Common:
Card-Pitt (1944). With manpower limited at the height of WWII, the Chicago Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers merged for one season, to become “Card-Pitt.” The franken-team amassed a record of 0-10 that season. (Though, in fairness to the hapless Steelers, the Cardinals combined record in the adjacent years, 1943 and 1945, was a gaudy 1-19, while the Steelers were 7-12-1 in those years.)
Steelers : 664-583-22 (.532)
Cardinals : 560-762-40 (.426)
Steelers have the 4th most wins in NFL history; 11th best all time winning percentage. Cardinals are 31st in all-time winning percentage, ahead of only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their 762 losses are the most in the league by a huge margin (the 2nd place Detroit Lions have lost 671).
Steelers : 502-315-3 (.614)
Cardinals : 318-419-7 (.432)
Steelers are the winningest team in NFL since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger.
Cardinals are 25th in total wins since the merger, though of the seven teams below them, only the Lions have existed for the entire stretch. Arizona is 28th in winning percentage.
Steelers : 212-115-2 (.648)
Cardinals : 137-175-1 (.438)
The Steelers are the #2 team in the NFL this millennium, behind the New England Patriots. Arizona sits at #24 in wins and #25 in winning percentage.
Best Early Superstar & Player/Coach
Steelers : Johnny “Blood” McNally (player: 1934, 1937-38 / coach: 1937-39)
Cardinals : Ernie Nevers (player: 1929-31 / coach: 1930-31, 1939)
What were the starting QBs this time last year?:
Steelers: Devlin Hodges : 2018 Walter Payton Award Winner, given to top offensive football player at FCS level
Cardinals : Kyler Murray : 2018 Heisman Trophy Winner, given to top overall player at FBS level
Nearly a Second Title Match:
In 1947, the Steelers had the best season in their 14 year history, tying the Philadelphia Eagles for the Eastern Division crown, and forcing a rare playoff to determine who would go to the NFL Title Game. It was the only post-season appearance in team history before Chuck Noll arrived, though it probably deserves an asterisk because the game was not a regularly scheduled playoff. In any case, the Eagles won 21-0 and went on to play none other than the Chicago Cardinals for the NFL Title. The Cardinals won 28-21, their most recent NFL Championship. They would return to the title game in 1948, losing the rematch with those same Eagles 7-0. It would then be 60 years before they returned, in Super Bowl XLIII. Oddly, they had to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game for a chance to play the Steelers that year.
Best Quarterback Retread:
Steelers: Bobby Layne (1958-61). A huge personality, a Hall of Famer, and a two-time NFL champion with the Detroit Lions, Layne was the most successful Steelers quarterback of all time until Terry Bradshaw came to town. He went 22-12 in three seasons in Pittsburgh, and more than once noted that his biggest regret as a player was not being able to bring home a title for Art Rooney.
Cardinals : Kurt Warner (2006-11). Hall of Famer, Super Bowl champion, MVP, and NFL MVP with the St. Louis Rams, Warner is the most successful quarterback in Cardinals history. Despite the presence of Jim Hart and Neil Lomax in Cardinal red, Warner holds nearly every team passing record, and came 34 seconds from bringing a Lombardi home to Phoenix.
HEAD TO HEAD:
Pittsburgh 34 – 23 – 3
Pittsburgh 1 – 0 (Super Bowl XLIII)
Pittsburgh – 7 games (1950-53)
Cardinals – 5 games (1963-65)
September 27, 1933
Pittsburgh Pirates – 14
Chicago Cardinals – 13
The second game in franchise history, this was the Pirates/Steelers first ever win. It also featured the first two touchdowns in team history (they’d lost their opener to the Giants 23-2). Pittsburgh finished the year 3-6-2, dead last in the Eastern Division, while the Cardinals finished 1-9-1, dead last in the Western Division. The Pirates trailed 13-0 in the second quarter, before Marty Kottler returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown. (I’m not sure who threw the INT because the Cardinals had—and I’m not kidding—TEN players throw passes that season, and eight of them threw interceptions. On the year, the Cardinal passers threw three touchdowns and thirty picks, for a spectacular 8.8 QB rating as a team.) Anyway, Bill Tanguay would throw an 11 yard TD to Paul Moss in the fourth quarter for the game winner, making the first offensive touchdown in franchise history also the completion of their first fourth quarter comeback. It was Tanguay’s only career touchdown pass.
Most Recent game:
October 18, 2015
Pittsburgh – 25
Cardinals – 13
Landry Jones vs Carson Palmer. Michael Vick actually started the game, but went down early after completing three passes in eight attempts, for six yards (giving him one yard of net passing, after a sack). Jones, never a big arm, wound up throwing two touchdowns to Martavis Bryant, including an 88 yarder in the fourth quarter to put the game away. Palmer passed for 421 yards, but committed three turnovers, and the Steelers won their second straight without Ben Roethlisberger.
Fun side note: all three quarterbacks who took a snap that day, plus the player of the game (Bryant) are currently out of the NFL, just four years later. Yikes.
Biggest Game in the Series:
February 1, 2009 (Super Bowl 43)
Pittsburgh – 27
Cardinals – 23
You can have your “helmet catch” or the “Philly Special,” but I maintain this was the best Super Bowl in history. Both offenses played inspired; both defenses rose up when it mattered. The coaching on both sides was brilliant, and the drama (on-field and off) was worthy of John Facenda. Given the stakes, this was the best overall football game I think I’ve ever seen.
Reasonable people can disagree with the above claim, but let’s admit right away, this was a terrific contest, with two fourth quarter comebacks and at least three plays that were all-time highlights (Santonio Holmes game winning touchdown catch; Larry Fitzgerald’s go-ahead 64 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, and of course James Harrison’s 100 yard interception return before halftime—perhaps the greatest play in championship history). The teams were thrillingly mismatched, with the 9-7 Cardinals in their first title appearance in 61 years, while the 12-4 Steelers were in their second Super Bowl in four years, and were shooting for their record sixth Lombardi. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl, squared up against the two men who almost got his job, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. Both quarterbacks played the best versions of their Hall of Fame careers (Kurt Warner’s surgical deep balls; Ben Roethlisberger’s precision sandlot game). Both defenses created thrilling chaos as well, with the Cardinals recording an interception, a safety, and a goal line stand and the Steelers led by James Harrison’s historic pick-6 and Lamarr Woodley’s game-sealing sacks. This contest could have had five different players win MVP (Holmes, Harrison, Roethlisberger, Warner, or Fitzgerald). How often has that ever been true?
I think the reason this game feels so perfect is that neither team “lost” this game. There was no Jackie Smith or Scott Norwood or Neil O’Donnell in this one — it was won by spectacular play. Harrison’s interception, for example, was simply brilliant, first intellectually, then physically. Meanwhile, there’s also no shame in getting burned by Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner, especially during the the greatest playoff run for a wide receiver in NFL history. And of course, the touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Holmes was borderline indefensible. As the Cardinals astonished color man put it, “I can’t even believe Roethlisberger threw that ball.” It was greatness against greatness. I don’t know how you beat that.
Pittsburgh – 14
Cardinals – 21
Mike Tomlin loses his first ever game, and it comes against Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm’s Cardinals. It wasn’t a particularly meaningful game in any other way, but that’s a pretty big angle already. Tomlin, always clever and full of big-picture perspective, opened his post-game press conference saying, “I hate to tell you guys, but I’m probably gonna lose a few more before this thing is said and done.”
November 30, 1969
Pittsburgh – 10
Cardinals – 47
The last game before Steelers jump to AFC, and the final loss in Chuck Noll’s inaugural 1-13 season. The 1969 St. Louis Cardinals were not world-beaters, but this was a bad Steelers team.
November 10, 1968
Pittsburgh – 28
St. Louis – 28
November 12, 1967
Pittsburgh – 14
St. Louis – 14
Despite being a year apart, these were consecutive games. I’ve never heard of division rivals who tied twice in a row (both games were in St. Louis – the Cardinals won the games in Pittsburgh both years). These were lousy Steelers teams—their collective record over 1967-68 was 6-20-2—but the Cardinals were not terrible (their record for the same stretch was 15-11-2). There’s something to be said for knowing the opponent, I guess. But this is bizarre stuff.
December 22, 1957
Pittsburgh – 27
Chicago – 2
I pulled out this game just because 27-2 is such a strange score. (FYI, the Cardinals safety was recorded when a punt snap sailed over the punter’s head in the 3rd quarter.) But this Steeler team is a mystery.
Two years removed from discarding Johnny Unitas, the Steelers quarterback room included 2nd year Pro Bowler Earl Morrall (the best backup QB in league history) and rookies Jack Kemp (who later starred with the AFL Bills, before serving as a U.S. Senator and Vice Presidential nominee) and Len Dawson (who would go on to the Hall of Fame as a Kansas City Chief). The next year, they would jettison Kemp and Morrall to bring in Hall of Famer Bobby Layne, who would guide the team to winning records for the next two years (the only time the Steelers were at .500 or above for three consecutive years in team history until 1972). That defense also featured Hall of Famers Jack Butler and Ernie Stautner, and was coached by two-time NFL champion, Buddy Parker, who’d taken Layne and the Lions to titles in 1952 and 1953, and was the only Steelers coach to retire over .500 before Chuck Noll.
I don’t get it. Why weren’t these guys better?
September 24, 1939
Pittsburgh – 0
Chicago – 10
Hall of Famer and all-time great, Ernie Nevers (who’d once scored still-record 40 points in a single game as Cardinals tailback and kicker), had been coaching college football since 1932. He returned to the NFL to coach the Cardinals for one year, finishing 1-10 before quitting to settle in San Francisco. Guess what his only win was. Meanwhile, the then-Pittsburgh Pirates had lost their best player from the previous year when Byron “Whizzer” White quit football to accept a Rhodes scholarship on his way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The team responded by going 1-9-1 in 1939. Two teams with a combined record of 2-19-1, battling to a 10-0 final score? This game must have been a barn-burner. Good god.