Cardinals transition: Kurt Warner to Beanie Wells?

Cardinals fans found small cheer in their team’s extremely fortunate 24-23 victory two days ago over the Oakland Raiders.  Some were so angered and delirious as to say it was “a loss” after Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski missed what should have been a gimme 32-yard field goal attempt as time ran out.  This crticism despite the reality of a 2-1 record and a 1-0 division mark. 

But in all the ugliness that preceded the shanked kick lay a golden nugget.  Call it a strong hint of where Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt envisions the team’s future.  It was the running game and the re-emergence of Beanie Wells, who missed the first two games due to surgery on his right knee. 

For the masses who wrongly thought over 25 possessions that an 80-yard touchdown run in Atlanta and one strong series in the season opener at St. Louis constituted a “decent” running game, their eyes perhaps were opened in the Raiders game.   With Wells back in high gear, running hard, hurdling defenders and playing like his life depended on every carry, the Cardinals put together their most dedicated and impressive run attack in Whisenhunt’s four seasons as coach.  

The transition from Kurt Warner, a prolific passer, to a more conservative running game with Wells is fraught with promise and dangers.

On Sunday, the once-pass happy Cardinals ran the ball as much as they passed, 26 and 26.  Excluding, of course, the two sacks of beleaguered quarterback Derek Anderson.  This is heresy to those who want a continuance of Warner-era statistics when the team threw 70 percent of the time, and even more on occasion. 

Once Wells entered the Raiders game the stale air in University of Phoenix Stadium began to vanish.  On his first carry, Wells dashed around left end for 24 yards.  “Go, Beanie, go,” many fans chanted.   As the afternoon all but ended with a pall and the certainty Janikowski would nail his chip shot, Wells’s stats were almost lost.  Fourteen carries, 75 yards and a 5.4 yard average.  At his rate, Wells can yet attain his first 1,000 yard season since arriving homesick in the desert in 2009.

For a No. 1 draft choice, Wells has been quite the under-achiever, much unlike his college career at Ohio State.  Having now appeared in 17 NFL games, he is yet to start a single one.  Strange, considering the Cardinals lavished a nice contract on him and the usual fast-track path of gifted rookie running backs ala Adrian Peterson.   For undisclosed reasons, Whisenhunt has stuck with hard-working Tim Hightower, who can be a fierce runner but prone to fumble, a step or two slow, indecisive at times and impatient.  Now, more than ever, the moment seems to belong to Beanie.

If true that Beanie is about to break out at last, it couldn’t come at a better time.

The offense has stuttered to put it mildly.  The blame has been heaped almost totally on the strong-armed Anderson’s shoulder pads. This, though, it is obvious he seldom gets pass protection from the line, is throwing to a depleted corps of receivers and until last week had no running game to take away blitzes.    But it is also true he must improve his accuracy and cut back on the bad decisions he made against the Raiders.

Many fans and some of the media have started clamoring for Whisenhunt to make a change at quarterback, possibly to Max Hall, an undrafted free agent from BYU.  Hall, scouts say, carries a lot of heavy baggage.  He has, they say, a relatively weak arm and “and can’t make all the throws.”  He is small, at 6-1, and has a propensity to get nervous in the pocket and ends up using too soon his considerable scrambling talents.  Such a jarring change might not be necessary if Wells continues to run with authority.  Anderson is not the kind of quarterback that can carry a team as Warner did.

But with Beanie, nothing is certain.   Some have begun to question his durability.  He sprained an ankle in preseason a year ago and was slow getting off the mark.  In this year’s final preseason game, he suffered a torn meniscus to his right leg and had arthroscopic surgery that went unreported until a few days before the Raiders came to town.

Also, it is wondered, how long the family that owns the team, the Bidwills, will withstand the criticism that goes with a transition season, missing a highly successful quarterback in Warner, who retired last winter.   If they bring pressure on Whisenhunt down through the front office, the coach’s dream of building a Pittsburgh Steelers West could be crippled.  That dream would include a strong running game and outstanding defense.  So far only the running game with Wells has shown much promise.  But the offensive line is big and built for run blocking, and Whisenhunt has in the 6-6 Anderson a tough presence at quarterback ala Big Ben Roethlisberger.  And of course there is Wells.

If left alone with his redesign of the Cardinals, Whisenhunt may lose or even jettison his All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald who needs the precision passes that Anderson seems unable to throw.   Fitzgerald’s disgust with Anderson’s passes is annoying.  In two games so far, he has tried to show up Anderson by lingering on the ground after a dive for the ball, his face expressing the thought, “See, world, what I have to put up with?  That’s why my numbers are down.”  Such childishness would not come from the departed Anquan Boldin, now doing great things again, only in Baltimore. 

A tougher Cardinals team seems miles away yet a reasonable goal.  With Warner, a true freak of nature, the vagaries of winning rested solely on him.  Under the more stable “Pittsburgh Plan,” the team would depend not so much on one player and thus be less susceptible to such vast changes as the Cardinals are undergoing in 2010. 

With a healthy Wells, the first step could be cemented in place.

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Barbers and the communications gap

I’m convinced of one thing about barbers.  The thing that separates them from hair butchers isn’t the deft touch with the scissors.  It’s communication with the patron.  I’ve found over the years that barbers to a man, and sometimes to a woman, are unable to translate what kind of  haircut I would like.

The butchers, it seems, learned their craft at the hands of the very “barbers”  that scalped me in Army boot camp.  The less hair, the better, that’s the rule.  

Take the other day here in Phoenix. 

I visited a three-chair barber shop up on Northern.  I had been there before with the same unhappy results. 

My ideal cut is to salvage the few long hairs I have left  with just the wild ends nipped.  Squared-off at the neck and not tapered.  And my ears visible or partly so.  I often wait months and look like a shaggy dog before braving the barber chair again.  But it always ends up the same.  Not quite a buzz down to skin.  But close.

This time I was armed to the teeth.  I was confident.  I had better language.  I learned it on a recent visit to London where I got my hair cut by a “stylist,”  and a young Polish woman at that.  It was the best haircut I’ve had in a decade or more.  And it was worth the $28 US in another way.  I discovered how to talk to an American barber.

“Two centimeters?” she had asked, showing me a space between a thumb and index finger that I took to be 3/4 of an inch.  Voila!  Back in America what could be simpler than to tell your barber the exact amount of hair you wanted snipped?

“I’m trying to let it grow out,” I said to the barber on Northern.  “I just want this much cut off,” and I indicated with thumb and index finger just how much that should be.  Three-quarters of an inch. 

 “Good,” said the barber, a woman of about 50 with a thick accent I thought Eastern European.  On my last visit to this woman I had used what proved to be imprecise language.  “Just a light trim,”  I’d instructed, thinking wrongly everyone knew what a light trim was.

And so she began.  She snipped for a while and showed me the mirror.  It looked pretty good.  A little shorter than I wanted but, for a Phoenix barber, it was OK.  Then she asked if I wanted the hair cut off my ears.  I said, sure.

The next thing I knew one-inch pieces of my grizzled hair were falling like snowflakes to the floor.  It was too late to tell her to stop.  I am a congruous person.  I did not want to go out in public with a lop-sided look.  One side of my hair long and the other side almost white-walled.  So I sat there appalled, another failure at communicating what I expected in a haircut.  I paid the $18 and left, humiliated again that I, a writer, can not communicate with these aliens. 

I am through now with barbers.  I will bite the bullet next time and pay the extra $20 or so to get my language translated properly.  By a stylist.

Autumn’s equinox, 2010

Looking east at the moment of the autumn equinox. The small bright spot beneath the Moon is the planet Jupiter.

These are the weather and sky conditions at my central Phoenix, Arizona, home at the precise moment of the autumnal equinox, at 8:09 p.m., Arizona standard time, on September 22:

Temperature is 86 degrees F.,  dark and clear sky except for a few lonely clouds of cumulus drifting north along the eastern horizon, very light westerly breeze, a waxing gibbous Moon about 35 degrees up in the east with Jupiter only 8 degrees below it and south.  The Moon will hit full at 2:17 a.m., or in only 6 hours and 8 minutes.   For those who may wonder, Phoenix and most of Arizona does not observe daylight savings time.

It was cloudy earlier in the day with a threat of rain.  A few drops fell at the house in early afternoon.  As evening came on, the clouds vanished to the southeast.   Today’s high temperature was 95 F. and down from recent record heat that hit 111 earlier in the week.  The forecast has 100-plus temperatures returning in the next few days.

The death of not just any ol’ cat

Jezzie on backporch in November 2009.

I awoke this morning to the sobbing and screaming of Nebra.  She had found the body of our favorite cat, Jezebel, strung out on a neighbor’s front lawn.  Killed by dogs no doubt.  Jezzie’s fur was matted in places like dried saliva, her collar torn loose and laying nearby.  But she was unmarked otherwise.   I assumed a dog had taken her in its mouth and shook her violently until her neck had broken.

This occurs all too often in our central Phoenix neighborhood.  Dogs running wild at night, cats found dead and mutilated.  I do not blame the dogs.  They are what they are.  Neither am I going to blame myself for leaving her outside some nights.  That is what she wanted.  I wanted her to be safe, yes.  But I wanted her to be happy and free as well.  And she has spent many a night out over the years without incident.

Jezzie’s death puts a big dent in our lives.  Nebra loved her to pieces, and I loved her almost as much.  She was my companion during the long days when Nebra was at work, often stretching out by my feet and dozing with a paw over her eyes as I wrote.  I often talked to her as if she were human.  So much so she may have thought she was not a feline after all. 

The neighbors all knew Jezzie by name.  She was small and tiger-striped gray and black.  But everyone knew her for a stout tail that was sharply bent.   Our vet believed the deformity genetic.  But maybe it was injury-caused.   The tail endeared her even more to me.  I often referred to  her as “my crooked-tail cat.”   And she possessed strange soulful eyes and an aggressive temperament.  We called her “Jealous Jezz”  because she would wangle her way between us and our other indoor cat, Obie.  Around humans she was an angel, though, and often climbed into our laps and fell asleep. 

I remember the year she came to us.  It was 1998, in winter.  She was probably six months old.  A neighbor girl brought her over.  Dogs were chasing the cat, the girl said.  The girl’s mother would not allow her to keep it.  We took care of the cat for a while,  feeding her in the garage, saying her stay was only temporary.  At decision time, it was strangely Nebra who wanted to put the cat back out on the street.  I talked her out of it.  The cat stayed and was invited inside.  And she soon had a name.   

We christened her Jezebel for Jay Bell, the shortstop for the Diamondbacks who were about to start their inaugural baseball season.  

She is buried now, only a few hours after discovery, in the backyard along the west wall.  We put a marker of red bricks around the grave in the shape of what I called a “cat church” and filled in around it with gravel.  I am very glad Jezebel came into our lives.  She was with us 12 1/2 years.  Because we were able to love her so much, I think, has made us somehow better human beings.

`War Dance:’ The magic of music in a ravaged land

Uganda is a long way from the shores of America.  And farther yet to the mind’s eye is northern Uganda, a dreadful place in the central African bush.  In fact, as we learn in the beautifully-made and inspiring documentary, “War Dance,” it is even a long way from Uganda proper.  The North is a violent and strange country within a country. 

The film, a 2007 Oscar nominee (“Taxi to the Dark Side” won), homes in on three children of the Acholi tribe.  Dominic and Nancy, both 14, and Rose, 13.  They are all victims in one way or another of the horrendous 20-year war fought in the North between the Ugandan government forces and rebels known by the horribly-distorted name,  the Lord’s Resistance Army.  This rebel army sustains itself by abducting children as young as 5  from the region’s villages.  The boys become murderous soldiers and the girls are used as sexual slaves.  To escape brings risk of death.

In one riveting scene, the clean-cut Dominic describes his kidnapping by rebels and how he was forced to take part in the murder of some innocent farmers.  He was one of the lucky.  He escaped and survived. 

And yet another poignant scene shows the skinny, plain-faced Rose, led by her mother to the grave of her father.  He was hacked into a bloody stew by rebels, his wife forced to bury the remains.  A Christian cross of rock marks the lonely spot in the bush, and it is there that Rose collapses, lamenting her loss and that her younger siblings will never know their father as she did.

But these scenes are only a backdrop to the bigger picture, a picture of rejuvenation through the magic of music and dance. 

The three children live in the relative safety of a guarded refugee camp.  Imagine, 60,000 people herded together with no electricity and no running water. 

Dominic, Nancy and Rose attend the camp school, Patongo, where bullet holes dot the walls.  Where two years before, 29 children were abducted from the school by the rebels.   But amid the squalor and horror some brightness exists.  All three attend a school where dedicated teachers display zeal and determination in making a better life for their charges.  

The focus here is on an upcoming event, the National Music Competition, in Kampala, the capital.  To the surprise of all, Patongo has captured the regional prize and has qualified for the nationals.  Dominic is a budding talent with a crude, home-made xylophone assembled with wood strips and twine.  Rose and Nancy sing in the choir and dance. 

The childrens’ stories are interspersed with shots of camp life and music and dance rehearsals leading up to the finale:  The two-day, 200-mile trip to Kampala in the back of an army truck, a rifled soldier in uniform standing guard among them.  In Kampala a new world opens up.  Many of the students have never set foot outside of camp, and they are photographed agog, watching the preparations of their competitors, all from the wealthier south.  How Patongo performed and the students journey back into camp carry the dramatic last scenes.

It is hard to imagine better cinematography anywhere than the gorgeous, intimate and telling shots rendered by Sean Fine.  It is Sean and his wife, Andrea, who  directed the film. 

As good as it gets, the film is sometimes short on credibility.  Some, if not all of the interviews with the film’s clearest voice, that of Dominic, seem scripted. No war-zone child would likely make the sweeping, succinct and pointed statements that Dominic does.  Also one has to wonder how much the presence of the camera might have skewed the results of the national competition.  Did Uganda politicos weigh in?  What savvy government would waste the opportunity for some good PR in America?   Small points, perhaps.

I write three years after the film’s release and doubt many Americans have seen it.  A pity.  This is a film done by Americans, the Fines, but Uganda is more pig-Latin than geographical name to many in the U.S., a country that has turned increasingly inward in recent years.  Certainly with a blind eye to anything African.

Still, curious minds will find a gem here.  Only those with the hard hearts of a gravestone will not feel a deep connection to these resilient children of war by time the film ends.

Dog Alley No. 4: Not in America

It was late afternoon yesterday.  The sweltering heat was back after a few days in  hiding, and in Dog Alley a man was preparing his bed of dirt and rock.

He slipped down into the semi-shade of the ground by a trash barrel as I passed unnoticed.  Out of sight from the safe, middle-class houses on the south, deliberately invisible to drivers pulling into the parking lot of a nearby restaurant.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Everybody in America likes this arrangement.

Sun showered through the lattice fence on a body that had seen better days.  Malcom, I will call him, looked to be in his 40s but living on the street can age you fast.  He was bare-chested now, skin white as paper, having taken off a dirty shirt and layed it neatly on one side along with his shoes.  I could not see through the arm that covered his face.  By the time I headed home 15 minutes later he appeared sound asleep, his feet in white socks dangerously near where the wheels of a vehicle might cross.

I have seen this before. Elsewhere, but it is all the same.  Hopelessness, grinding poverty, misery, waiting out the day only so you can somehow survive the next one.   Immune system shot to hell for one reason or another.

I thought of trying to wake“Malcom”  and speak to him but decided against it.

My moment there in Dog Alley got me to think again about poverty, homelessness and dreams.  What, I wondered, happened to “Malcom,” that led him to this sorry point.  What was he like as a child?  What were his dreams?  But I knew this much.  No way “Malcom” should find as perhaps his happiest moment of the day a bed of dirt and rock on the dark ground of Dog Alley.  Not in America.  

I thought of the disparity in a wealthy country like this.  A land where CEOs get millions of dollars in bonuses even when their companies lose money or fail.   How their friends in Washington, the Republicans, continue to fight for tax breaks to these rich princes of industry, unwilling to see the craziness and wreck of Reagan “trickle-down” economics, while many see America oozing down into the marsh of  Third Worldness. 

A recent government statistic showed a jump of 14.3 percent in impoverished Americans in 2009.  That comes to 43.6 million of us under the income poverty line of $21,954.   And how far below that poverty line is “Malcom.”  For Malcom the poverty line is probably a fortune.

 There is this false idea in America:  Any person can pull himself up by his bootstraps.  Ha.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  We are not all created equal.  We grow up in different environments.  Some are abused by the most “respectable” of parents, verbally or physically.  Some are abused by men of the cloth, emotionally crippled for life. 

No man is an island, John Donne wrote.  We are all part of the main, part of the pain.  As this country grows colder in common decency and civility and the differences between rich and poor continue to mount, I can see there in that disturbing picture the seeds of a great and violent revolution in America.  Not everyone is going to lay down in dirt and rock for long and let the rich man’s rot prevail.

Honeymoon nearing an end for the Whiz?

Could the three-year honeymoon of Cardinals fans and their so far adored coach, Ken Whisenhunt, be coming to an end?   Not everyone is completely sold on the Whiz.  This will be his first season as a head coach without the other whiz, the now retired quarterback Kurt Warner.

No Cardinals coach has endeared himself out here in the arid lands of Arizona as Whisenhunt has.  True, former coaches Joe Bugel and Dave McGinnis were loved for their upbeat spirits as they toiled and failed under long odds to produce a winner.  But it was Whisenhunt who brought meaning at last to the laughable boast of another former coach, Buddy Ryan, who said at his first press conference in 1995, “You’ve got a winner in town.”   A winner he wasn’t, and Ryan didn’t stay long.  Two years and a 12-20 record sent him back to Kentucky to breed his race horses.

Whisenhunt, unlike the unpopular Ryan, was the real deal.  Or so it seemed.   No Cardinals coach in the franchise’s long history had ever posted .500 records or better in their first three seasons.  The Whiz went 8-8, 9-7 and 10-6 for a 27-21 regular-season record.  Better yet, the Cardinals reached the playoffs the last two seasons and came within an eyelash of winning the 2009 Super Bowl, no thanks to a meltdown by the defense. 

Impressed fans refer to Whisenhunt as the Wiz and the Whiz.  Some have rallied around the motto, “In Whiz We Trust.”  Many say he changed the old “Cardinals culture” for the good.  But in 2010 reality sets in and the question arises:  Was it Whisenhunt that led the Cardinals out of their 19-year doldrums in the desert?  Or was it the rejuvenated Warner whose  career was all but decked after a miserable season here in 2006? 

It was Whisenhunt who was not immediately sold on Warner’s considerable  talents that lay dormant waiting for his last hurrah.  Whisenhunt went into the third preseason game of 2008 with Matt Leinart as his No. 1 quarterback, and it was probably Leinart’s complete flop in the third game of August that changed his mind rather than any great insight of his own. 

For Whisenhunt, this season is his time to shine.  No more Warner shadows to take the heat off.  This for the first time is really the Whiz’s team.  Not the savvy Warner’s.  And the Whiz has already stamped himself as a bold coach, shocking the Cardinals Nation by choosing as his quarterback the newcomer Derek Anderson and rejecting the assumed new leader on offense, Leinart.  That and Leinart’s release less than a week ago led to the first big chinks in the coach’s armor.  Some fans railed against Leinart’s unfair treatment and Whiz’s messy handling of the situation and began for the first time to seriously question the coach’s decision-making.

Those who closely watch the team have concerns about the Whiz’s program, though those concerns have been held in check for the most part, the critics willing to give a winning coach the benefit of any doubt.

First, Whisenhunt has created what seems a bewildering hierarchy of three coaches on offense.  While Whisenhunt has indicated he will continue to call the plays, there is no offensive coordinator per se.  Mike Miller is the passing game coordinator and Russ Grimm is the assistant head coach, run game coordinator and line coach.   Same as last year when it seemed to deter Warner not at all.  This was the year, it seemed, with Warner gone, to hire a coordinator.  But no.

Second, Whisenhunt and staff seem to be slow in developing their No. 1 picks on offense.  Tackle Levi Brown still is far from what the Cardinals apparently thought he would be.  But most noticeable has been the regression of running back Beanie Wells.  That now, after an entire season and a second preseason, Wells is still playing second cello to Tim Hightower, seems strange.  Just as the regression of Leinart seemed strange.

The defense has made changes and had to do so considering the unit’s inconsistency the last two seasons.  It was the defense that let the Cardinals down, not only in the Super Bowl.  In an unbelievable finish last year in Tennessee, the defense allowed Vince Young and the Titans to go 99-yards in the last moments for the winning TD. 

But the stars are aligned for another successful season.  The Cardinals play in still the worst NFL division, the West, and should roll in with a 5-1 record there, losing only one meeting in two with the 49ers, a team some “experts” believe will actually win the West.  Then there are three games with weak sisters Kansas City, Oakland and Tampa Bay.  Just following form and not counting other very winnable games, that is an 8-8 record.

If the Cardinals stumble on their way to what appears another playoff season,  the honeymoon between fan and coach will begin to unravel.  You can take that to the bank.    Warner or Whisenhunt, or both  together, take your pick, have created a monster of high expectations for a team that once was the butt of almost every joke.