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1:46 AM Mon, Oct. 15th

NFL's oldest franchise is reborn ­ maybe

Cardinals, who set standard for futility, eye fresh start in new domed stadium

GLENDALE (AP) ­ The new silver palace shimmers like some desert mirage in the western suburbs of Phoenix.

Yes, the Arizona Cardinals ­ a franchise that long set the standard for futility in professional sports ­ finally have a home.

This is a team that seems reborn.

In addition to their $455 million stadium, the Cardinals signed Edgerrin James, one of the top running backs in the game, as a free agent, and drafted a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Matt Leinart. They have the best tandem of young receivers in the NFL and, believe it or not, are sold out at home for the season.

Could the tentacles of pro football parity reach all the way to owner Bill Bidwill's long-vilified operation?

"People are starting to understand that we aren't fooling around," said Bidwill's son, Michael, Cardinals vice president and general counsel. "We want to build a championship team."

Until the fancy trappings and big names translate to victories, though, the term "same old Cardinals" will be hard to erase.

"The only way you can change people's perception of your team is by winning," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "We've got all the pieces. No more excuses."

This is the oldest of football franchises, tracing its roots to the late 1890s, when a neighborhood group played in south Chicago under the name Morgan Athletic Club.

In 1920, the franchise was a charter member of what would become the National Football League. Charles Bidwill bought the team for $50,000 in 1932 and his widow, Violet, moved it from Chicago to St. Louis 28 years later.

Sons Charles and Bill shared ownership from 1962 until 1972, when Bill Bidwill took over sole ownership. He moved the Cardinals to Arizona in 1988 with nothing more than a handshake promise for a stadium.

Meanwhile, the team lost, lost and lost some more.

In their years in the desert, the Cardinals have had one winning season, going 9-7 in 1998 and upsetting Dallas in the playoffs for the franchise's first postseason victory since beating Philadelphia for the NFL title in 1947.

The success proved fleeting, and crowds dwindled.

Few wanted to sit in the metal bleachers of Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium under the scorching sun to watch bad football. The players, meanwhile, sweated and suffered.

"The heat index was just off the charts," said Ron Wolfley, Cardinals radio analyst who played for the team from 1985-91. "If you were a farmer, you'd tell your cattle to stay inside."

In 1996, Bidwill brought son Michael, a former federal prosecutor, into the organization with the charge to get a stadium. With the team's lack of popularity, it was a struggle.

But in 2000, after an ingenious campaign that downplayed the Cardinals while focusing on improving baseball spring training facilities and building youth sports fields, voters approved a hotel tax and car rental surcharge to help build the facility.

The Cardinals put in $155 million and the result was the silver monolith in Glendale, which features a retractable roof and a natural grass field that slides out of the stadium into the desert sun when not in use.

The stadium, Michael Bidwill said, has changed everything about how what had been a notoriously penny-pinching organization does business.

"We started a couple of years ago, when we knew that we had the stadium secured, that it would open in 2006, where we could start changing our business operations plan and our football cap management plan and start doing things that other NFL teams are able to do," the younger Bidwill said.

The result, he said, was "having the cash to go out and spend money to sign players like Bertrand Berry, Kurt Warner and Edgerrin James, and being able to extend the contracts of our core group of players like Adrian Wilson and Anquan Boldin."

James was the big prize. The four-time Pro Bowl back, who topped 1,500 yards each of the last two seasons for the Indianapolis Colts, surprised the NFL by signing a four-year, $30 million contract with Arizona.

"If you want to be winners, you've got to do what the winners do, and from Day 1 when I got here, they've done what the winners have done," James said. "I can't speak on the past. I don't know nothing about the past and I don't really worry about the past. I just know that since the day that I got here, they're doing everything that winning teams do."

The signing of James and the drafting of quarterback Matt Leinart spurred ticket sales. And a team that hadn't sold out a home game in six years will find itself playing to a full house of 63,400 every home game.

Yet skepticism abounds.

In coach Dennis Green's first two seasons, the team went 6-10 and 5-11. The offensive line is suspect, and without a ground game, the spectacular plays of young receivers Fitzgerald and Boldin won't be enough.

Warner, the former Super Bowl and NFL MVP who at 35 is the quarterback designated to lead the team to success while Leinart learns, said the team is trying to build "a culture of winning."

A state-of-the-art stadium does not guarantee success.

"Houston got a new stadium," James said, "and they haven't done nothing."

But standing in the cavernous home locker room after the team's preseason victory over Pittsburgh, Bill Bidwill expressed "relief and satisfaction" that the building was finished.

A quiet man who prefers Michael to be the franchise's public face, he said he thinks people no longer doubt his commitment to winning.

Wolfley, a four-time Pro Bowl special teams player, captured the sentiment of those who had long suffered the ridicule that comes with being a Cardinal.

"I'm happy for the players. I'm happy for the fans," he said. "I'm happy for anyone who ever bled Cardinal red."