Peyton’s visit to the Cardinals: Still a mystery

You would think Sports Illustrated would shed light on Peyton Manning’s brief visit to the Arizona Cardinals earlier this month.  But not only were the Cardinals barely mentioned in the recent article, “Peyton Manning’s Long Game,” the magazine muddied the waters.

Manning, in case you’ve forgotten, came to town on the weekend of March 11-12 for a meeting with coach Ken Whisenhunt, selected players and owners and officials.  The national media seemed to consider the Cardinals and Manning’s passing and play-calling abilities “a perfect fit.”  As far as anyone knows, Manning did not throw a single pass for the Cardinals or undergo a physical to check out his neck injury.

So what happened?  Manning signed with the Denver Broncos, and the Cardinals were not, in reality, even a finalist for the All-Pro quarterback’s services.

The SI writer, Peter King, first mentions the Cardinals in an off-handed way.  He writes that Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks coach, showed up in Colorado unannounced and offered to talk with Manning on his flight to Phoenix.  Manning  apparently said, no, and Carroll flew back home.

Manning’s Arizona adventure, likewise, is wrapped up in a paragraph and describes anything but a meeting.  It was while in Phoenix, King infers, that Manning discovered the media knew too much about his whereabouts and came up with a plan to outwit them.  He would fly to, of all places, Indianapolis, where he was released by the Colts.  There, the day after the Cardinals visit, he would meet with the Miami Dolphins.

Since the theme of the article is that Manning’s decision was based on “familiarity” with the teams, their coaches and opponents, King said the Cardinals Whisenhunt is “a golfing buddy” and once coached Manning in Pro Bowl.  So much for shedding light.

The confusion is this.  While King writes the Cardinals were “finalists” along with Denver and the Tennessee Titans, it does not work out that way on a timeline.  Manning told the Cardinals four days after his visit to “move on.”  And they did, paying Kevin Kolb his $7 million roster bonus and ending the Manning speculation.

Three days later, on a Sunday, March 18, Manning knew he was going to Denver.  On Monday, he made calls to the two other true “finalists,” the Titans and the San Francisco 49ers.

So, bottom line.  No one knows if Manning or the Cardinals were really serious about making a deal.  Or was it all a show, as I suspect.

Dog Alley No. 8: . . . and the band played on.

Dog Alley was hopping tonight.  At least one side of it was.

To the north of this asphalt alley that I regularly travel, the expanding E. B. Lane company was celebrating its 50th anniversary with a fancy party and live music on a patio above the black surface traversed by garbage trucks once a week.  Invited guests were dressed to the 9s, all members of the same Beautiful People Club.  Men in suits and ties.  Some women wore white gloves that extended almost to the elbow.  The nearby historic neighborhood, F. Q. Story, vibrated with the drum beat, the vocalists and the schmoozing, its nearby streets glutted with parked cars of recent vintage.

Lane is no small-deal advertising and public relations company.  It has expanded, thanks largely to its most important client, the Arizona Lottery.  The Lottery is said to be the biggest ad account in Arizona.  Other Lane clients include the Arizona Cardinals pro football team, Harkins Theatres and the Arizona Biltmore Spa and Resort.  And times are so upbeat that the company recently branched out to Denver.

“Still Madmen After All These Years,” a sign read not far from the festivities, playing on the popular TV series, Mad Men.  The glamour of Madison Avenue execs filled the air.  Passing by along Dog Alley, you had the feeling Don and Roger were out there mingling, clinking wine glasses.

You quickly notice that the newest, smoothest asphalt in Dog Alley ends where the company’s parking lot ends.  The rest of the alley, all the way down to 7th Avenue, is pitted and uneven.  An after-thought.

On the south side of Dog Alley, not far from all these wanna-be one-percenters, a middle-aged man lay “sleeping it off” on a bed of hard dirt and bits of refuse from nearby garbage containers.  He looked to be of middle age, heavy-set, maybe American Indian or Hispanic, graying hair.  He and his brethern are known in America as the homeless.  Hopeless street people.  No money.  Just hanging in there until it’s all over.

This was to my mind probably the highlight of the prone man’s day.  Sleeping now, the ugliness and desperation of this day, another mind-numbing struggle like all the rest, was  temporarily suppressed only to begin all over tomorrow.  In this sense Dog Alley was not merely an asphalt path 15-feet wide, separating north from south.  It was a vast gulf light years from one side to the other.

I thought of waking the sleeper and asking what he thought of the party-goers nearby.  But of course I didn’t.

Just the Saints?

It’s hard to believe the New Orleans Saints are the only NFL team that handed out bounties for injuring stars of opposing teams.  The only difference between the Saints and the league’s other 31 teams is this.  The Saints got caught and punished.

Plenty of evidence exists over the years to suggest that head-hunting is as much a part of football — at all levels — as passing, punting and tackling.   The best way to win a football game is to knock the opposing team’s star quarterback out of the game.

Once you admit head-hunting is part of the game, paying bounties to the successful head hunter is only a small step away.

I’ve experienced headhunting as a high school quarterback in the Fifties, seen it taught at Tulsa University in 1969 and witnessed it on the field in games involving the Arizona Cardinals.

At Tulsa I watched a defensive line coach instruct a player how to wreck the passing arm of Steve Ramsey, the North Texas State quarterback.  Ramsey, who held every NCAA passing record at the time, eluded defenders and led the pass-happy Mean Green to a 42-16 victory in Denton.

Woody Hayes, Ohio State’s legendary coach accused the University of Oklahoma of “headhunting” his quarterback Rod Gerald in a 1977 game at Columbus.

Two of the most obvious headhunting incidents I witnessed involved Cardinals players, strong safety Adrian Wilson, and quarterback Kurt Warner.  Wilson drove the head of Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards so hard into the ground during a 2008 game that Edwards suffered a concussion and was taken from the game.

Warner, the Cardinals star quarterback, was on the receiving end in a playoff game with the Saints during a playoff game in New Orleans in 2009.  After throwing an interception and becoming a defensive player, he was blind-sided by a Saints player and suffered a concussion.  Though Warner returned in the second half, many regard that hit as leading to his decision to quit football after that season.

Many pro players receive incentives as part of their contracts.  Catch x-number of passes and a bonus comes your way.  Lead the team in tackles, a bonus follows.  But since “headhunting” can’t be legally put into a contract, NFL teams have found a way around it.  Secret bounties, ala the Saints is only one way.

An early vernal equinox for 2012

The weather here in Phoenix at the moment of the vernal equinox at 10:14 p.m. is clear, calm, 49 F.  It is the earliest vernal equinox in 116 years, and only the fourth time since 1896 it has occurred on the 19th of March in this time zone.  Usually the spring equinox takes place on March 20.  It does so this year but in only two U.S. time zones, the Eastern and Central.

Not a single equinox happened on the 19th during the 20th Century until 2000.  That’s when it struck at 11:35 p.m., an hour and 21 minutes later than this year, kicking off a flurry of March 19 equinoxes, every four years on 2004, 2008 and now 2012.  The next one is 2016, followed by 2020, 2024, 2028 and 2032.  The latter year is followed by another March 19 equinox in 2033.

On 1896, the equinox occurred at 6:23 p.m., almost four hours earlier than this year.

Arizona is just emerging from a late winter storm that dumped 6/10 of an inch of rain at our house in central Phoenix.  With it has come unusually cool temps.  Today’s high was only 60.  The day before the daytime high was 55.  The normal is 78 for this time of year.

True life without Peyton Manning

Not only did the Arizona Cardinals predictably fail to reach the finals in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, they face the possibility the late-great and perhaps-still-great quarterback will helmet-slap them again.  It was revealed today the Cardinals’ chief rival in the NFC-West, the San Francisco 49ers, gave Manning a “secret” workout earlier this week and may sign him to a big contract.

My take on the Cardinals-Manning affair is this.  Manning visited the Cardinals only out of curiosity because so many media talkers said Arizona was “a perfect fit” for him.  These so-called experts must have no idea in what low esteem the Cardinals organization is held by many NFL players, a franchise that rids top talent as soon as it matures and seeks big bucks.  Not to mention, as a low-budget team, over-paying selected players like wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, to the detriment of an adequate supporting cast.

Another pipe-dream of the “experts” is that the coach, Ken Whisenhunt, is an offensive genius and Manning would thrive under his guidance.  That false assessment of Whisenhunt has been floating around for years.

Whisenhunt has struggled with the quarterback position since arriving six years ago in Arizona.  He threw Kurt Warner on the scrap heap, until the late-not-so-great Matt Leinart proved a dud.  Whisenhunt mishandled the release of Leinart, wasting a season with erratic Derek Anderson.  And the Whiz’s assessment of the current quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, have likewise left much to be desired.  He was too high on Kolb, and too despairing of Skelton.

No, Manning made a wise choice in turning his back on the Cardinals without so much as a workout or a physical.  The Cardinals can only hope now the 49ers don’t latch on to him.  The Niners were a quarterback away last season from making the Super Bowl.   With a healthy Manning, playing for a team that actually has a great defense, well, look out!

The arrival of the late great Peyton Manning I

Surely it is a sign of a small-market sports city that generates such a bold, inch and a quarter headline that says in all caps: “MANNING IN TOWN.”

The headline appeared this morning in the Arizona Republic, heralding the arrival of another past-his-prime football player visiting the NFL Arizona Cardinals.  Manning, a cinch Hall of Fame quarterback after many wonderful seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, is a free agent seeking a contract with a new team.  The Colts released him last week.

The Cardinals have a history of signing fading superstars like running backs Emmett Smith and Edgerrin James.  Neither did much for the team and moved on or retired.  And then there was Kurt Warner,  the former St. Louis Rams great, who did do something very nice here.  He led the team to the Super Bowl several years ago before retiring.

Phoenix has gone ga-ga over Manning’s brief fly-in.  It was big on the 10 o’clock news tonight.  Some fans even hung out at the Cardinals training facility in Tempe to see if they could catch even a fleeting glimpse of the former star.  This town is more hungry for celebrity and autographs than it is football talent.

Manning didn’t play last season because of a neck injury.  No one seems to know for sure if he has made a recovery.  And there is talk his throwing arm is weak.  Any contract he would sign in Arizona or elsewhere would no doubt be laden with incentives.  If he can not measure up, perhaps the team Manning signs with will owe him very little money.

Where or who Manning will visit after he leaves Arizona, that too is unknown.  He has already spent time in Denver with the Broncos who seem ready to grab him as a replacement for Tim Tebow.  That’s the same Tebow who led them to the playoffs last year and created a national celebration of “Tebow mania.”   The Miami Dolphins are also said to be in the running.

Last week, a few days after Manning was released by the Colts, someone at ESPN did a handicap of the five teams most likely to sign the late, great star.  The best fit was the Cardinals, the show’s expert said.  The Washington Redskins were seen as the worst.  Denver, the Dolphins and the New York Jets were somewhere in between.

My personal opinion is this.  Manning will not sign with the Cardinals.

Yes, they have a great receiver in Larry Fitzgerald and a defense that played well the last half of 2011.  But I harken back to Kurt Warner.  The Cardinals did not know what a gem they had in Warner until their “quarterback for the future,” Matt Leinart, became injured.  Surely, if Manning has done his homework he remembers the Warner situation, and how badly that reflects not only on the coach, Ken Whisenhunt, but the entire organization which was oversold on the weak-armed and limited Leinart.

I would question too, if I were Manning, how seriously the Cardinals are in building a strong supporting cast around the quarterback.  The organization has a long history of refusing to pay big bucks to keep talent.  In a short time the Cardinals let key players like wide receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle slip away.  The exodus was an obvious effort to cut spending and hold the budget to the liking of the Bidwills, the family who owns the Cardinals.

If I’m Manning I’m looking to Denver.  That the Broncos see Tebow for what he is, an over-achiever who may never be more than an average passer in the pass-happy NFL, is a plus in their favor.  No matter that the Mile HIgh City adores Tebow.  And the Broncos will, you better believe it, do everything possible to build up a top group of supporting players for Manning.  They seem to have the money and the will to do that.

So I say, “Manning’s in town,” all right.  But he ain’t staying.

The charred memorial above Siphon Draw

A blackened "memorial" of the plane crash that took six lives.

I didn’t see it at first.  It wasn’t until I had struggled up the treacherously steep rock of the now-dry waterfall and reached the lower saddle did I look far above to see the blackened rock.  It stuck out now like a bruised thumb atop a popular trail in the Superstition Mountains called Siphon Draw.

It was a beautiful Arizona Saturday afternoon in March and warm if you could find a sunny spot in the deep canyon.  Dozens of hikers flowed up and down the Siphon Draw Trail almost like water where in wet times the waterfall comes pounding down from a thousand feet.  The thundering noise of a helicopter suddenly caught everyone’s attention.

Initially I thought it was a rescue team searching for a missing party.  The noisy chopper had come around that spectacular cliff called the Flatiron, then up the canyon from the west venturing close to the rock walls.  When it finally stopped near the mountain top and hovered there for a few minutes, I began to realize the people in the chopper were looking at something I couldn’t see at the time. They were looking at the crash site.

On the evening of November 23, the day before last Thanksgiving, a father, Shawn Perry, picked up his three children at a Mesa airport to take them to his home in Safford, Arizona, a small city more than 100 miles to the southeast.  He was flying with two other Safford men.  About 6:30, in the autumn darkness, the plane collided with the mountain in a fiery explosion.  Flames lit up the land around Apache Junction.  All six died, their bodies so mutilated and burned that caskets were more symbolic than serving any real purpose.  Cause of the crash remains under investigation.

All of this was running through my mind as I reached the narrow, rocky saddle.  That and the fact the mother of the dead children, Karen Perry, had traversed with a group of friends this very difficult trail just eight days earlier to reach the crash site, according to a story in the Arizona Republic.  It was her second visit, the article said.

Her hike was to commemorate what would’ve been the 10th birthday of Ms. Perry’s oldest child, Morgan.

“To me,” Ms. Perry was quoted as saying, “that is their burial ground.  That is where they died. I’ll go up there many more times.  It’s a special place for me now.”

To go beyond the saddle where I stood, you have to be emotionally driven by something.  The going is over rock and boulders.  You have to crawl and climb, I’ve read.  The trail, if you can call it that, connects with the high Ridgeline Trail that crosses the mountains from a trailhead on the southeast, all of it in the Superstition Wilderness.

There is a sign along the Siphon Draw Trail telling hikers to stay away from the crash site.  It is a plea that often goes unheeded.  Ms. Perry, the article said, found at the site “tactful memorials left by people she doesn’t know, including small toys, a snowman and some plastic flowers.”  Also six wooden crosses for each victim.  Perry herself left “a small temporary plaque” despite being told by the U.S. Forest Service that it violates its policy.

The battle for a permanent memorial is not over.  Ms. Perry will have public sentiment behind her, particularly in this era when government is viewed with so much disdain.

Anyway, the saddle is as close as I got that March day.  It was late afternoon.  I had hiked 2 1/2 miles to get that far.  Another mile of difficult trail lay ahead.  As did darkness.  Maybe I’ll try to get up there another day.

For now, the only permanent memorial is charred rock above Siphon Draw.