Cardinals a fluke? Not quite

The success of Adrian Wilson convinced Arizona to take more chances in the draft. Donald Miralle/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Arizona Cardinals are in Super Bowl XLIII not just because of what happened in the NFC Championship Game, but because of what happened 11 years ago in the North Carolina State weight room.

They're here because an area scout kept raving about a Richmond running back who wasn't even invited to the NFL scouting combine.

They're here because they got on a plane to talk to a Division II guard at Clarion University in 2003. Because someone in the organization charted the record of a supposedly washed-up quarterback when he played in domes and warmth versus, say, in East Rutherford, N.J.

They're here because they didn't overthink their No. 3 selection in the 2004 draft. Because they took a flyer on a punter who had already been with two other teams this season. Because they were convinced the punt returner they drafted in the fifth round of the 2007 draft could become a 1,000-yard receiver.

The difference between reaching the postseason and a losing record is as thin as a football lace. The Cardinals, who are making their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, know this better than anyone. The franchise is 88 years old, yet has made it to the playoffs only seven times, and only three times in the past 32 years. It is an organization familiar with abject failure and with turnover (a conga line of seven different head coaches since 1989).

The transformation slowly began shortly after Rod Graves was promoted to vice president of football operations in 2002. For so long the Cardinals were a franchise without a philosophical identity. All anyone knew for sure is that their owner, Bill Bidwill, wore a bow tie, and that the team lost lots and lots of games.

Graves, who was later named general manager in 2007, issued a mandate: The Cardinals would rebuild themselves through the draft and always select the best player available. No more draft-day reaches because of need. Instead, they would target free agents for need-based roster openings.

Phase 2 of the plan was to identify young, core Cardinals players on the verge of stardom and then try to lock up those players with new deals before their original contracts expired. It was a calculated gamble. If the players bombed, Graves was stuck. But if they performed as expected, or exceeded expectations, then the Cardinals would have those players during the primes of their careers -- and likely at a discount compared to what they could get on the free-agent market.

"Rod was really ahead of the curve on that," said Steve Keim, the Cardinals' director of player personnel.

"I don't think Rod gets enough credit in this league."

Offensive guard Reggie Wells is one of those players who re-upped before his original deal ended. Same goes for linebacker Gerald Hayes, strong safety Adrian Wilson, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. However, Boldin has since demanded a new contract or a trade.

The point is, this Super Bowl team didn't happen by accident. OK, maybe a little of it was by accident, like the time Keim was first introduced to a smiling, square-jawed, 185-pound freshman safety at North Carolina State.

"You walked away thinking, 'This guy has a chance to be special,'" said Keim, who played at NC State in the mid-1990s.

The guy was Wilson, who declared for the NFL draft after his junior year. By then he was 6-foot-3, 225 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.39 seconds. Keim knows; he's the one who worked him out as a junior.

But Wilson had glaring inconsistencies in his game, which is why he was still available in the third round of the 2001 draft.

"When he got to the 64th pick, I was going crazy," said Keim, who was in the Cardinals' war room that day. "My head -- I shave it -- looked like Rudolph's nose. I was lit up like a Christmas tree."

Keim desperately wanted the Cardinals to take Wilson. They didn't need a safety; they already had Kwamie Lassiter and Pat Tillman. "But he was sticking out like a sore thumb on our draft board," said Keim.

Then-head coach Dave McGinnis saw Keim's red face and started laughing. But with the 64th selection, the Cardinals chose Wilson. That was eight seasons and two Pro Bowls ago. No wonder Wilson, the longest-tenured Cardinal on the roster, could be seen giving a bear hug to Keim after Arizona beat Philadelphia in the NFC Championship.

"He's seen a lot of gloomy days," said Keim. "He had his chances to go other places. But Adrian has set the tone. He helped us change our [draft] philosophy."

So did Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Cardinals had the 16th pick of the 2008 draft and were considering several running backs. But after watching Rodgers-Cromartie at the Senior Bowl (he had a boffo week) and then working him out on their own, the Cardinals moved the cornerback from Division I-AA Tennessee State higher and higher up their draft board.

"Then it was having the guts to pull the trigger on him on draft day," said Keim.

They took Rodgers-Cromartie, figuring they could still find a running back later in the draft. The Cardinals of old might not have been so patient.

Thanks to one of their longtime area scouts, Jerry Hardaway, they found a steal in the fifth round. His name: Tim Hightower.

Seven months earlier, Hardaway had called Keim and gushed about Hightower. Then Keim got Hardaway's report.

"Jerry threw a huge grade on him," said Keim. "I'm thinking, 'That's high for a Richmond running back. Are you sure?'"

The Cardinals sent running backs coach Maurice Carthon to work Hightower out. Carthon's verdict: "This guy can play."

No kidding. The 149th pick started seven games this season, rushed for 10 regular-season touchdowns and is the reason starter Edgerrin James is playing with fresher legs.

This is a Cardinals roster full of success stories. One day in 2003, almost as a courtesy, nothing else, Keim decided to watch a tape of a Division II guard from Clarion (Pa.) University named Reggie Wells. When he was done, Keim said to himself, "You know what, I need to fly to Pittsburgh."

The Cardinals chose Wells in the sixth round of the '03 draft. He has made 74 regular season starts at tackle and guard since then.

Warner signed a one-year deal as a free agent in 2005. At the very least he would give the Cardinals a veteran quarterback who could make a run for a starting position. At the very most, he would give them this: a season for the ages.

"After his experience in New York [with the Giants], maybe a lot of people wrote him off," Keim said. "I don't think we knew. We thought he'd challenge for a job because of his pedigree. Plus, playing in warm weather, he's always been extremely effective. And you look at his record in the dome in St. Louis. It's an ideal fit."

Warner was one of those free-agent signings made out of need. So was James, who helped give the Cardinals credibility and a veteran running back. So was veteran defensive end Bertrand Berry, a pro's pro who signed with the Cardinals in 2004.

Journeyman cornerback Ralph Brown gave the Cardinals depth and surprising production. Fullback Terrelle Smith, who also bounced around the league, has found a home and a starting job with the Cardinals. Same goes for punter Ben Graham, who is on his third team this season. He'll become the first Australian ever to play in a Super Bowl.

Fitzgerald's arrival in 2004 was not made out of need. He was the No. 1-rated player on the Cardinals' draft board, but made his way to Arizona after Eli Manning was selected first overall by San Diego and Oakland chose offensive tackle Robert Gallery with the second pick.

That 2004 draft helped define this team. The Cardinals took linebacker Karlos Dansby in the second round, Dockett in the third round and defensive end Antonio Smith in the fifth round. The team had Fitzgerald, Dansby and Dockett all listed with first-round grades.

"A no-brainer," said Keim of Fitzgerald. "Absolutely a no-brainer. Here we had Anquan Boldin already. Now teams were going to have to figure out how to defend those guys."

Nobody has quite figured it out yet. And then the Cardinals added wide receiver Steve Breaston in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. Drafted as primarily a kickoff and punt returner, Breaston has gone from eight catches for 92 yards as a rookie, to 77 receptions and 1,006 yards this season.

"You stick with your system," said Keim. "You stick with your beliefs."

The shocker is that the Cardinals finally realized they needed a system. And then, thanks to people such as Graves, they stayed true to those football beliefs.
So here they are in the Super Bowl. Not by accident, but, at long last, by design.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.