The 5: Most anticipated seasons in Arizona sports history
As the song goes, waiting is the hardest part.
No doubt, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had it right, though they were talking about love and not, you know, sports.
But the logic can apply in the sports world, especially when you are waiting for a season with high expectations to begin.
Could this be the season in which a championship arrives? If so, what kind of memories will be made along the way?
While overachieving teams are a joy to watch, there is something to be said for a team that you know is good going into the year, with every game offering a chance to not only validate that claim, but get the squad one step closer to a championship.
The 2016 Arizona Cardinals are in the latter group of teams.
Heading into training camp, expectations have never been higher. Not only are they seen as a good team, but rather most of the football world views them as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Some even list them among the favorites, and why shouldn’t they be? After winning 13 games and reaching the NFC Championship Game last season, the team seemed to shore up its weaknesses in the offseason.
If only Super Bowls were won on paper in the summer.
Anyway, as the Cardinals get set for what could be a championship season, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some anticipated seasons in Arizona sports history in this week’s edition of “The 5.”
1992-93 Phoenix Suns
The Suns won 53 regular season games the season before, which, while not a bad total, was actually their fewest victories in a season in four seasons. Point is, they were a good team. But good was not enough, especially as they were moving into a new arena and debuting new uniforms. So, the Suns went out and traded leading scoreer Jeff Hornacek, along with Tim Perry and Andrew Lang, to the Philadelphia 76ers for star Charles Barkley, signed free agent guard Danny Ainge and loaded up for what promised to be a banner 1992-93. The Suns won an NBA-best 62 games and reached the NBA Finals, where they fell to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in six. The season was so memorable, though, that the city held a parade for the league runner up.
2015 Sun Devils
Todd Graham’s team had won 10 games in each of 2013 and 2014, and heading into 2015 was seen as a dark horse contender to reach the College Football Playoff, with senior QB Mike Bercovici leading the way. A Week 1 matchup with the SEC’s Texas A&M provided an excellent starting point for what was supposed to be a special season. Unfortunately, the Devils got off to a slow start and never really got on track, losing two of their first four games. A road win over No. 7 UCLA was followed by a comfortable home win over Colorado, and at 4-2, ASU had some hope. However, three straight losses (at Utah, vs. Oregon, at Washington St.) torpedoed any hopes of winning the Pac-12 or making an elite bowl game, and ultimately Arizona State finished with a disappointing 6-7 mark.
It’s safe to say the 2008 Cardinals were one of those overachieving teams talked about in the beginning of this piece. They won just nine regular season games yet managed to host a pair of playoff games on their way to Super Bowl XLIII. Sure, they lost that game, but essentially the same team returned the following season and there was every reason to believe there would be improvement. There was, as the Cardinals won 10 regular season games, and heading into the playoffs the team was not the favorite, but after the previous season, no one would have been surprised if they made a run. A thrilling 51-45 OT win over the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card Round gave Arizona the feeling of a team of destiny, and Tim Hightower’s 70-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage in the Divisional Round over the New Orleans Saints reaffirmed that idea. The rest of the game happened, though, and the Cardinals could not keep up with the eventual Super Bowl champs, falling by a score of 45-14.
1994-95 Phoenix Suns
The 1992-93 Suns fell short in the NBA Finals, and the 1993-94 Suns coughed up a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets in a semifinals loss. The Suns, with Barkley, Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson, A.C. Green, Ainge, Cedric Ceballos and Co. were one of the most loaded teams in the league, and had they done nothing to alter the roster would have entered 1994-95 one of the favorites. Doing nothing was not an option, though, as the team went out and signed All-Star Danny Manning and scorer Wayman Tisdale, bolstering an already excellent team. The results were paying off as the Suns raced out to one of the best records in the NBA, but Manning was lost for the season with a torn ACL after 46 games and after winning 59 regular season games and then sweeping the Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, the Suns once again saw a 3-1 series lead vanish to the Rockets in Round 2.
1999 Arizona Diamondbacks
Expansion teams are not supposed to be all that good, so that the D-backs won just won just 65 games in 1998 wasn’t a surprise or really all that disappointing to most. Owner Jerry Colangelo felt differently, however, and over the offseason he opened up the checkbook and upgraded the roster through free agency. The big fish was Randy Johnson, who agreed to a four-year, $52.4 million contract with the team. Plenty of ridicule followed, with some thinking the D-backs overpaid and others questioning why Johnson, one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, would choose to play for a losing team. Ha, losing team. Led by Johnson, who won the first of his four straight NL Cy Young Awards, as well as fellow newcomers Steve Finley, Tony Womack and Luis Gonzalez, the D-backs won 100 games and reached the playoffs in only their second season. Arizona fell to the New York Mets in the Division Series, but that season set the table for what was to come a couple years later.
Honorable mention: 2002 D-backs, 2006-07 Suns, 1997-98 Arizona Wildcats basketball, 2014-15 Wildcats basketball, 1996-97 Phoenix Coyotes