Undated (AP) _ Joe Rhein, the executive vice president of the Phoenix Cardinals, had a feeling it was coming.
″I’m scared to death of this game. This isn’t the place you want to be your third week on the road,″ he said last Sunday, an hour before the 2-0 Cards got run out of RFK Stadium 34-0 by the Washington Redskins.
″I called it, didn’t I?″
Unlike coach Joe Bugel, who remained upbeat about being 2-1 in three road games, Rhein couldn’t afford that attitude about the thrashing. He worries about selling tickets, and in Phoenix the Cardinals have become a hard sell.
In 1988, when the Cards moved from St. Louis, they had people squabbling over season tickets for 72,000-seat Sun Devil Stadium, finally awarding rights to ticket holders from the Arizona team in the USFL.
A losing team plus a series of public relations problems capped by the NFL’s decision to lift next season’s Super Bowl because Arizona has no Martin Luther King holiday has reduced season ticket sales to under 27,000.
Even after the Cardinals upset the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles on the road, there was optimism, but no rush to the ticket offices, as if fans were waiting to see if the Cards were real or a mirage.
″It’s the first week I can remember where people were saying positive things about us on talk shows,″ says public relations director Paul Jensen.
Still, there were skeptics.
After all, twice in the last decade the team had started 2-0 and finished 5-11, most recently in 1989, when they won two before being thrashed 35-7 by the New York Giants in the Meadowlands.
This was the same situation - a road game against an NFC East power, a legitimate test in one of the toughest road sites in the NFL.
The Cards flunked.
Rhein still figures the Cards will draw more than 50,000 for the Dallas Cowboys, in part because there are still a lot of Dallas fans in that part of the world; in part because Bugel has gone out of his way to be popular in Phoenix.
The following week, New England comes in. Like Dallas, it’s a possible win, but the Patriots are hardly a draw, particularly when Arizona’s retirees are mostly from the midwest and west. Two years ago, for example, the Cardinals drew 71,233 fans for the Chicago game, many of them rooting for the Bears.
Why so many problems in Phoenix?
They started on the day in March 1988 that the NFL gave permission for the Cardinals’ move from St. Louis. Owner Bill Bidwill announced the team would be named ″Phoenix″ rather than ″Arizona.″ Many Arizonans say that was a mis- read of the state’s mentality, where, as in many other areas, the big city is viewed with mistrust.
It went downhill from there, with $38 tickets, at that time almost double the league average. And it was compounded by a losing team - 7-9, 5-11, 5-11 in the first three seasons in Arizona.
″If there was a primer on the worst 10 things you could do when you come into a new community, they did them all,″ says a general manager of another NFL team.
Some of that has been rectified by hiring Bugel from the Redskins; Rhein from the league office, where he was director of administration, and Jensen.
They have also upgraded by giving Bugel and general manager Larry Wilson more say in the draft after a series of disastrous picks by personnel director George Boone, who had sole control of the choices.. They’ve made some good picks - Anthony Thompson (2), Ricky Proehl (3) and Johnny Johnson (7) last season, and Aeneas Williams in the third round this season.
But they’ve also had the misfortune to lose quarterback Timm Rosenbach to a knee injury, and Tom Tupa won’t make them a contender in the NFC East.
″I think we’re an improving team,″ Rhein says. ″But we’re not ready for the Super Bowl yet.″