The Arizona Cardinals exist today as a franchise in flux. It wasn't long ago they were the envy of the league.
Flashback to June 10, 2016. On that day, the Cardinals gathered in downtown Los Angeles for the premiere of Amazon's newest documentary series, "All or Nothing." NFL Films followed the Cardinals for the duration of the 2015 season, a campaign that included 13 regular-season wins, a division title and classic playoff victory over the Packers before eventual defeat at the hands of the Panthers in the NFC title game.
Amazon and NFL Films were hosting a fancy episode screening, and my bosses asked me to tag along with the team for the festivities. This assignment meant access to a private green room where Cardinals players, coaches and front office officials mingled and took advantage of a well-stocked open bar.
Carson Palmer set up shop in the corner of the room, taking periodic pulls on his Budweiser as various individuals floated into his orbit. (Like Hollywood celebrities, star quarterbacks possess this kind of gravitational force -- the party always comes to them.) A content Bruce Arians was belly up at the bar, wearing a custom Kangol-style cap with his own likeness sewn into the fabric. Larry Fitzgerald had an almost Obama-like vibe, his up-and-coming receiver cadre of John Brown and Michael Floyd flanking him like secret service agents. Calais Campbell was the biggest entity in the place -- biggest body, biggest smile, biggest personality, biggest everything. And then there was Tyrann Mathieu, the rock star of the room, dressed like a man from the future and exuding the type of easy cool that few possess and the rest envy.
Eventually the team was led to a theater where the episode was played on the big screen. The players laughed, cheered and applauded at various points. This was a tight group. It felt like the best was yet to come.
"We just probably finished up the best 13 practices I've ever been around in the NFL," Arians told me before the screening. "This is my 22nd year, and our last two days, it scared me how hard we were competing against each other. I thought somebody was going to get hurt, so I cancelled the third day. The practices were that good."
Everybody is gone ... everybody except for Fitzgerald. You think Larry is having second thoughts about his decision to come back?
As it turned out, that NFC Championship Game loss to Carolina was the closest that Cardinals group would ever get to the promised land. Arizona went 15-16-1 over the next two seasons, missing the playoffs each year. Today, they exist as a prominent cautionary tale on the fickle nature of The Window.
The Window. It's the unknowable period of time when a contender can win a Super Bowl. It usually doesn't stay open for long, and you won't find out that it closed until it's too late. When the Cardinals got beat by the Panthers, they thought they'd get another bite at the apple. The football gods had other plans.
You have to hand it to the Patriots. They've done a lot over the years, but their greatest accomplishment as an organization might be their unprecedented ability to keep The Window propped open for nearly two decades now. There's no secret KFC recipe, either: just simultaneously employ the greatest quarterback ever and the best head coach/modern team builder ever. Not complicated at all, actually.
The rest of the NFL's general managers are left to stare into the infinite abyss, just a bunch of sad Zach Braff types earnestly wondering what the unpredictable and unforgiving universe has in store for them. This is no way to live.
Who appears to have access to The Window right now? We already went over the Pats, who should remain locked in as the AFC favorites despite Tom Brady's advancing age (41 in August!) and a slew of defections in free agency. The Eagles just won the Super Bowl, and their roster appears built for an extended run. Then again, INFINITE ABYSS! INFINITE ABYSS! INFINITE ABYSS! The Steelers, while not at the Patriots' level, have done a nice job keeping themselves in the mix throughout much of the Big Ben era. The Saints and Ramsappear well set up. The Jaguars are a tricky one -- are they just beginning a run or did The Window slam shut when they coughed up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the AFC title game?
The most fascinating case, however, might be the Minnesota Vikings. They seemed to be a team of destiny after the Minneapolis Miracle. Then they got trashed by the Eagles the following week, which was pretty much the most Vikings-y thing possible for one of the league's most star-crossed franchises. Undaunted, the Vikings took out their checkbook to bring in Kirk Cousins as The Final Piece.
We'll see about that. The Raiders believed they had The Final Piece when they imported Marshawn Lynch last spring. A year later, they're giving Jon Gruden $100 million and a crowbar to pry The Window back open. Logic points to the Vikings making another deep playoff run, one that perhaps ends with Minnesota finally claiming a Lombardi Trophy.