St. Louis Cardinals (NFL, 1960–1987)
The professional American football team now known as the Arizona Cardinals previously played in St. Louis, Missouri from 1960 to 1987. This article chronicles the team's history during their time as the St. Louis Cardinals.
Chicago Cardinals owner Violet Bidwill had married St. Louis businessman Walter Wolfner in 1949, two years after inheriting the team from her late first husband, Charles Bidwill. When it became obvious that the Cardinals could no longer hope to compete with the Chicago Bears, a move to St. Louis seemed to make sense.
The NFL conducted a survey of St. Louis and concluded that it was capable of supporting a team. The league's 12 owners unanimously approved the move, ending their 62-year stay in Chicago. During the Cardinals' stay in St. Louis, two major Cardinal teams (football and baseball) called the city home. Sports fans and local news broadcasters called them "the football Cardinals" or "the baseball Cardinals" to distinguish the two. To avoid confusion, the NFL contemplated changing the Cardinals' name, but then dropped the idea (though in the early years of the NFL, numerous teams were intentionally named after local baseball teams, directly or indirectly). They shared Sportsman's Park with the baseball team. However, St. Louis hadn't had a pro football team since the early days of the NFL, and tickets were difficult to sell. The Cardinals initially held practices in the city park. Their first home game was a loss to the Giants on October 2, 1960, and they finished the year at 6-5-1. In 1961, they broke even at 7-7 (the NFL had expanded to a 14-game season to compete with the upstart AFL) and fell to 4-9-1 in 1962. Improving to 9-5 in 1963, the Cardinals almost reached the playoffs, but a loss to the Giants prevented that.
During the Cardinals' 28-year stay in St. Louis, they advanced to the playoffs just three times (1974, 1975 & 1982), never hosting or winning in any appearance. In spite of what was considered lackluster performance in St. Louis, their overall record there, of 187 wins, 202 losses, and 13 ties (.481 winning percentage) is easily the highest winning percentage for any of the three locations that the Cardinals have been associated with.
The new St. Louis football Cardinals were competitive for much of the 1960s. New stars emerged in Larry Wilson, Charley Johnson, Jim Bakken, Sonny Randle, and Jim Hart. Violet Bidwill Wolfner died in 1962, and her sons, Bill and Charles, Jr. took control. Although the Cardinals were competitive again in the '60s, they failed to achieve a playoff appearance during the decade. Only four teams qualified during this period.
In 1964, the Bidwills, unsatisfied with St. Louis, considered moving the team to Atlanta. They wanted a new stadium, and that city was planning the construction of one. However, St. Louis persuaded them to stay with the promise of a stadium—what would become Busch Memorial Stadium (a new expansion team, the Falcons, was eventually created for Atlanta). The Cardinals got off to a good start, and tied the Cleveland Browns 33-33 on the road. They finished 9-4-1 and second in the Eastern Conference, but a victory by the Browns over the New York Giants denied them a playoff berth. The team finished the year with a meaningless win over the Packers.
A 4-1 start to the 1965 season evaporated into a 5-9 finish. In 1966, the Cardinals were in first place in the Eastern Conference with an 8-2-1 record, but a loss to the Dallas Cowboys, who went on to win the conference title, started a three-game losing streak to end the season, leaving St. Louis at 8-5-1. Another middling season followed in 1967, with six wins, seven losses, and one tie.
In 1968, the Cardinals swept the Cleveland Browns and ended the year with a 9-4-1 mark, but a loss to a sub-par San Francisco 49ers club and a tie against the woeful Pittsburgh Steelers kept the Cardinals out of the playoffs.
St. Louis fell back to 4-9-1 in 1969, but that season saw the debut of Roger Wehrli, a star safety at the University of Missouri who played 14 seasons for the Cardinals and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
In 1970, the Cardinals were placed in the new NFC East division following the merger with the AFL. They posted three consecutive shutouts in November, blanking the Houston Oilers, Boston Patriots, and the Cowboys, the last of those victories coming 38-0 on Monday Night Football in the Cotton Bowl. But St. Louis collapsed down the stretch, losing December games to the New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins to finish 8-5-1 and out of the playoffs. The Cardinals then regressed to three consecutive 4-9-1 seasons from 1971-73. Bill Bidwill became sole owner in 1972 and still owns the team today. Only the New York Giants and Chicago Bears have been in the hands of one family longer than the Cardinals.
Larry Wilson retired following the 1972 season, and in 1973, Don Coryell, who built a powerhouse program at San Diego State, became head coach. The Cardinals registered a 7-0 record to open the 1974 season and won the NFC East championship—their first division or conference title since their unsuccessful title defense of 1948—on the strength of a season sweep of the Redskins. However, due to the NFL's unusual system in which the division champions rotated between home-field advantage, the Cardinals lost a chance to host a first-round playoff game since it was the NFC East champion's turn to go on the road.
In the franchise's first playoff game since 1948, St. Louis took an early 7-0 lead against the Minnesota Vikings in Bloomington, Minnesota, but a missed field goal just before halftime sapped the Cardinals' momentum. The Vikings scored 16 points in the first seven minutes of the second half and cruised to a 30-14 victory.
The Cardinals won the NFC East again in 1975, but were again locked out of playing at home in the first round because they were the lowest-seeded division champion. The playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams was a disaster: Lawrence McCutcheon set an NFL playoff record by rushing for 202 yards, and Jack Youngblood and Bill Simpson returned interceptions for touchdowns, staking the Rams to a 28-9 halftime lead en route to a 35-23 victory at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
This period for the franchise was characterized by exciting close games, come-from-behind nailbiters, and several frustrating near-misses. The press and league fans began to call the team the "Cardiac Cardinals". Team stars from the 1970s included Wehrli, wide receiver Mel Gray, and running backs Terry Metcalf and Jim Otis.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1976, the Cardinals suffered a controversial loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Cardinal tight end J. V. Cain, running an apparent game-winning route, was shoved out of the end zone by Dallas defensive backs Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters in what appeared to be obvious interference, but a penalty was not called. With this loss, the Cardinals were dethroned from the divisional lead and became the first NFC team to reach 10 wins without qualifying for the playoffs. Ultimately, the Redskins' sweep of the season series kept them out of the playoffs.
In 1977, the Cardinals started slowly but won 6 consecutive games before losing the Thanksgiving Day game to the Miami Dolphins, 55-14. Bob Griese's record-setting day turned out to be the first of 12 straight losses for the Cardinals (extending into 1978), a streak which included being only the second team ever to lose to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the first to lose in Tampa Stadium. Coryell and several key players, including Dobler and Metcalf, departed the team at the end of the 1977 season.
For the 1978 season, Bidwill hired Bud Wilkinson, famous for building a football dynasty in 17 seasons at the University of Oklahoma. But Wilkinson, who had been out of coaching since retiring from the Sooners following the 1963 season, could not turn the Cardinals around. St. Louis started 1978 with eight straight losses and finished at 6-10, and Wilkinson was fired in 1979 with the Cardinals at 3-10 and last in the NFC East. Wilkinson was canned by Bidwill for refusing to bench quarterback Jim Hart in favor of rookie Steve Pisarkiewicz. Larry Wilson, the Pro Football Hall of Fame safety who starred for the Cardinals for 13 seasons, coached the final three games of the 1979 season, finishing with a 5-11 record.
The Cardinals experienced several years of notoriously poor drafts and unfortunate personnel moves in the late 1970s, typified by the first-round selection of kicker Steve Little, who was paralyzed in a 1980 automobile accident, and hiring Wilkinson in 1978. The team also suffered a tragic loss during 1979 training camp when Cain died of a heart attack.
However, the Cardinals had some success in the early 1980s, posting three consecutive winning seasons from 1982 to 1984. The heart of this squad was the prolific trio of quarterback Neil Lomax, wide receiver Roy Green, and running back Ottis Anderson. Stellar performances by Anderson couldn't salvage the Cardinals' 1980 and 1981 campaigns, which ended at 5-11 and 7-9, respectively.
The Cardinals entered the final weekend of 1984 with a chance to win the NFC East by defeating the Redskins, but Neil O'Donoghue missed a game-winning field goal at the gun, giving Washington a 29-27 victory and the division championship.
St. Louis started 1985 3-1, but finished 5-11, leading to the termination of coach Jim Hanifan after six seasons. Hanifan would return triumphantly to St. Louis, serving as offensive line coach during the St. Louis Rams' Super Bowl championship season.
Gene Stallings, formerly the head coach at Texas A&M and a long-time assistant to Tom Landry with the Cowboys, replaced Hanifan. The Cardinals finished 4-11-1 in 1986, but improved to 7-8 in 1987, falling just one win shy of the playoffs, losing 21-16 on the final Sunday of the season to the Cowboys.
The 1987 season is remembered for a stunning comeback, rallying from a 28-3 deficit against the Buccaneers by scoring 28 points in the fourth quarter for a 31-28 victory. It remains the largest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL history.
The overall mediocrity of the Cardinals, combined with an old stadium, caused game attendance to dwindle, and once again the Bidwills decided to move the team, this time to either Baltimore, Phoenix, or Jacksonville. Nonetheless, Cardinals fans were unhappy at losing their team, and Bill Bidwill, fearing for his safety, stayed away from several of the 1987 home games. Their last home game was on December 13, 1987 (a 27-24 victory over the New York Giants in front of 29,623 fans on a late Sunday afternoon).