The term “what if” is a classic sports phrase. It is used far too often when discussing games, seasons, careers. etc. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn’t.
In all of my years covering sports here in Arizona, there were two legitimate “what ifs” — two that haunted sports fans the moment they happened and will likely haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Now there are three.
The 2014 Arizona Cardinals are the latest “what if.” Arizona was 7-1 when they hosted the St. Louis Rams in Week 10. They would go on to win that game convincingly 31-14 and improve to 8-1. It was their best record since they opened the season 8-1 in 1948 when they were the Chicago Cardinals.
But tragedy happened on the field in the second half. Carson Palmer, who was having a career year, was sacked by Mark Barron on a 3rd-and-7 play in the fourth quarter. On the play, Barron reached from behind for Palmer and got just enough of him to where the Cardinals quarterback, who had just signed a three-year, $50 million extension just days before, had his left knee buckle. And just like that, the signal caller, who had 11 touchdown passes to just three interceptions, saw his season come to an end. A torn ACL would sideline Palmer for the rest of the season and leave the quarterback duties to Drew Stanton.
The Cardinals would win their next game at home against Detroit with Stanton under center to improve to 9-1. They were in complete control of the NFC West with Seattle a distant three games back at 6-4. Arizona would lose their next two games to fall to 9-3 but rebounded nicely to defeat Kansas City and St. Louis and move to 11-3. But once again tragedy struck in a game against the Rams as Stanton injured his left knee on a sack by Aaron Donald and he would miss the remainder of the season.
Losing players was nothing new to Arizona this season. They had to overcome the season-ending losses to Darnell Dockett, John Abraham and Andre Ellington. But now they were trusting their entire offense to Ryan Lindley — a player they cut in training camp and plucked off the San Diego practice squad when Palmer got hurt — and rookie Logan Thomas.
It would be too much to ask. Arizona’s three-game lead over Seattle dwindled to one and on a Sunday night in Glendale, when a win over the Seahawks would have clinched homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and at least had given the Cardinals a puncher’s chance, they laid a goose egg. Lindley proved incapable of leading the offense in his first start of the season.
Without Palmer, the Cardinals are now 3-3 with one game remaining. They will likely be on the road for the playoffs and their dreams of playing the Super Bowl in their hometown are now just a pipe dream.
Arizona will lose in the playoffs on the road. Maybe not against the Carolina/Atlanta winner, but they will lose.
And when that happens, Cardinals fans will have a legitimate reason to ask, “what if?” What if Palmer hadn’t torn his ACL? Would the Cardinals have held off Seattle for the division and had the homefield advantage in the playoffs. Would Palmer have won his first ever playoff game? Would he have guided the Redbirds to the Super Bowl and then, with the home crowd behind him, led them to victory? Would there have been a parade?
They were on such a roll with Palmer. But now, we will never know. We will just say “what if?”
The other two “what ifs” in Phoenix sports history are:
1) Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals — Suns vs. Spurs. Robert Horry checks Steve Nash into the scorer’s table late in the game, which Phoenix would win to even the series at 2-2. Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw come a few feet off the bench in support of Nash, but don’t throw any punches or get in any altercations, but they both get suspended for a game by NBA commissioner David Stern.
The shorthanded Suns battle hard in Game 5 without two of their key players and lose to the Spurs 88-85. In Game 6, the Spurs close it out and after defeating the Jazz in five games in the Western Conference Finals, they sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
What If Amare and Boris didn’t come off the bench? Would Phoenix have won Game 5 and Game 7 and then went on win the NBA Finals?
2) Rose Bowl 1997. Jake Plummer scores on an 11-yard touchdown run with 1:40 left to give ASU a 17-14 lead over Ohio State. They are just 100 seconds away from a national championship. But head coach Bruce Snyder went conservative on defense and Ohio State goes 65 yards in 12 plays, culminating in a 5-yard touchdown pass from Joe Germaine to David Boston with 19 seconds left that gave the Buckeyes the 20-17 victory. What if Arizona State had stopped just one of the third-and-longs that the Buckeyes converted on the drive? What if they didn’t get called for two pass interference penalties on that decisive drive? Would ASU have been the champions of college football?