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Remembering Football’s Forgotten Stars: Arizona Cardinals

Posted on August 14, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Every team in the NFL has its own collection of heroes. Players who played key roles in helping that franchise reach their greatest heights. Some of these players have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and are forever immortalized. However, many players who endeared themselves to the home fans, but were not quite Hall of Fame worthy, have been forgotten as time passes and new players take their place.

Over the next few months, we will be going team-by-team and featuring some of the “Forgotten Stars” whose greatness was valuable to their team, but who have been largely forgotten over time. We are not simply highlighting the best players from a franchise who are not in the Hall of Fame, but instead featuring some of the players who were important contributors and helped define the team during their era.

Some of these players probably should be in the Hall of Fame and were well known stars, while others were simply solid players and are remembered primarily only by true fans.

With only a few exceptions, we will be focusing primarily on players whose careers ended prior to 2000 to shine the spotlight on players from past generations.

We start with the Arizona Cardinals, a franchise that has been around since the beginning of the NFL, but has bounced between three different locations.

Chicago/St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals

One of the original NFL teams, the Cardinals have enjoyed only intermittent success over the last 90+ years. They are also a franchise that has struggled to maintain a strong fan base as they originally played in Chicago before spending 28 years in St. Louis and now more than two decades in Arizona.

During that time, the Cardinals have won only two championships, the last in 1947 and appeared in one Super Bowl. However, there have been many great players who have worn the cardinal red, including 16 Hall of Fame players, 10 of which played a significant portion of their career with the Cardinals.

In addition to those Hall of Famers, many other great players have become fan favorites in Chicago, St. Louis or Arizona. Below are features on six players who all were valuable players during their time with the Cardinals.

Mel Gray – During a time when every team needed a fleet wide receiver to stretch the field and provide an instant big play threat, the Cardinals had one of the best in speedy receiver Mel Gray.

Mel Gray was a deep threat for the Cardinals.

Originally a sixth round pick from Missouri, Gray displayed big play capability as a rookie in 1971 when he caught 18 passes for 534 yards (29.7 yards per catch). He also was one of the top kick returners with an average of 24.7 yards per return. His 1,330 all-purpose yards ranked seventh in the NFL.

He was limited to seven games and three catches the following season, but beginning in 1973, Gray provided the Cardinals with a consistent deep threat and quickly became a Pro Bowl quality performer.

After earning his first Pro Bowl selection in 1974, Gray was named a first team All-Pro in 1975 when he registered career-highs with 48 receptions, 926 yards (19.3 ypc) and a league-high 11 touchdowns.

He was selected to four Pro Bowls during his career and continued to serve as the deep receiving threat for the Cardinals until retiring in 1982.

During his 12 seasons, Gray caught 351 yards for 6,644 yards (18.9 ypc) and 45 touchdowns. He still ranks 20th in NFL history in yards per catch.

Though Gray is a long-shot to ever receive a bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his numbers are significantly better than those of Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann (336 catches, 5,462 yards, 16.3 ypc, 51 touchdowns).

Jim Hart – No player was more synonymous with the Cardinals during their 28 years in St. Louis than Jim Hart. After being undrafted out of Southern Illinois and signing as a free agent in 1966, Hart spent 18 seasons with the Cardinals and was under center for most of that time.

Jim Hart spent 18 seasons playing quarterback for the Cardinals.

Hart became the starting quarterback for the Cardinals in just his second season and passed for more than 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. The next season, he led the Cardinals to a 9-4-1 record.

The most successful seasons for the Cardinals during Hart’s tenure as the starting quarterback corresponded with the tenure of Don Coryell as head coach.

Before turning Dan Fouts into a Hall of Famer, Coryell helped Hart increase his completion percentage and reduce his interceptions. This led to four straight Pro Bowl appearances for Hart between 1974 and 1977.

In 1974, Hart was named the UPI NFC Player of the Year as the Cardinals went 10-4 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1948. They improved to 11-3 the following season and had a third straight double-digit win season in 1976 though they failed to make the playoffs.

Hart remained the starting quarterback until the 1981 season when he started nine games before being replaced by Neil Lomax. After seeing minimal action the next two seasons, Hart finished his career with the Washington Redskins in 1984.

Because of his long tenure, Hart still ranks among the NFL career leaders in many passing categories. He currently ranks 20th all-time in passing yards (34,665), 26th in touchdown passes (209) and 29th in completions (2,593).

E.J. Junior – A member of the star-studded 1981 NFL Draft, E.J. Junior was the fifth player selected as he followed an impressive collection of George Rogers, Lawrence Taylor, Freeman McNeil and Kenny Easley. The Cardinals chose Junior over a number of future NFL defensive stars including Ronnie Lott, Hugh Green and Mike Singletary.

E.J. Junior was a standout defender for the Cardinals during the 1980s.

Providing the Cardinals with an explosive play-making linebacker, the former Alabama star moved immediately into the starting lineup and by his fourth season in 1984 was a first team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

During his eight seasons with the Cardinals, Junior was a two-time Pro Bowl selection and registered 24.5 sacks and 12 interceptions.

He played for the Cardinals during their first season in Phoenix in 1988 before spending three seasons with the Miami Dolphins and then finishing his career with stints in Tampa Bay and Seattle.

Though Junior never reached Hall of Fame status, he was the leader of the St. Louis defense in the mid-1980s and helped them reach the playoffs in 1982 and register three straight winning seasons from 1982-84.

Terry Metcalf – Teaming with Hart, Gray, fullback Jim Otis, receiver Ike Harris and Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith to give the Cardinals one of the top skill position units in the NFL in the mid-1970s was explosive running back Terry Metcalf.

Though only 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Metcalf was one of the most exciting players in the NFL during his five years with the Cardinals.

Terry Metcalf was an explosive runner during his five seasons in St. Louis.

Selected in the third round of the 1973 NFL draft out of Long Beach State, Metcalf immediately became a threat as a runner, receiver and kick returner.

As a rookie, Metcalf rushed for 628 yards and caught 37 passes for 316 additional yards, but was rarely used as a kick returner. However, the next season head coach Don Coryell unleashed Metcalf in all phases of the game and he proved to be unstoppable.

In 1974 he led the NFL with an average of 31.2 yards per kick return and also averaged 13.1 yards per punt return. In addition, he rushed for 718 yard and caught 50 passes for 377 yards. His 2,058 all-purpose yards ranked third in the NFL.

The next season he led the NFL with a total of 2,439 all-purpose yards that still ranks as the 11th highest single season total in NFL history. He rushed for a career-high 816 yards while earning his second Pro Bowl trip and helping the Cardinals to an 11-3 record and NFC East title.

After being limited to only 1,438 all-purpose yards in 1976, Metcalf rebounded with his third Pro Bowl season in 1977 as he rushed for 739 yards and topped the 2,000 all-purpose yard mark for the third time.

However, that proved to be the end of his spectacular tenure in St. Louis as Metcalf left the Cardinals to play in the Canadian Football League.

During three seasons with the Toronto Argonauts, Metcalf rushed for 1,900 yards and was also a key receiving threat. He was selected as a division All-Star in 1979.

He returned to the NFL in 1981 with the Washington Redskins and was used primarily as a receiver as he caught 48 passes for 595 yards while rushing the ball only 18 times for 60 yards.

Though his time in the NFL was relatively short, Metcalf still holds the NFL record for most games (7) with 250 or more all-purpose yards. In 2007 Joshua Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns joined Metcalf as the only players in NFL history to average more than 30 yards per kick return and 10 yards per punt return in the same season.

His son, Eric Metcalf, went on to show similar multi-purpose ability during his 13 year NFL career as a running back, receiver and returner.

Lamar McHan – Chosen by the Chicago Cardinals as the second pick in the 1954 NFL Draft out of Arkansas, Lamar McHan spent five seasons as the quarterback of the Cardinals during their final years before moving to St. Louis.

Lamar McHan was the second pick in the 1954 NFL Draft.

McHan moved immediately into the starting lineup for the Cardinals in 1954 and took his lumps as the team struggled to a 2-10 record. He did, however, secure their first victory of the season with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Ollie Matson during a 17-14 win over the Steelers.

Just two seasons later, McHan led the Cardinals to their only winning season of the decade as he passed for 1,159 yards and 10 touchdowns with just eight interceptions as the Cardinals went 7-5.

In 1957 McHan passed for a career-high 1,568 yards with 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The following season he tossed a career-high 12 touchdowns while passing for 1,291 yards.

McHan left the Cardinals following the 1958 season and spent the next two seasons as a member of the Green Bay Packers at the dawning of the Vince Lombardi era.

He started seven games for Green Bay in 1959 and then the following season was 4-0 as a start, but eventually took a seat in favor of Bart Starr as the Packers reached the NFL Championship Game.

The next two seasons were spent backing up Johnny Unitas in Baltimore before he finished his career with a brief stay with the San Francisco 49ers.

Though McHan never achieved superstar status, he did actually have a far more productive NFL career than many of the other top picks from the 1954 draft. Top selection Bobby Garrett of the Cleveland Browns never played in Cleveland and was gone from the NFL after throwing 30 passes for the Packers in 1954. Offensive lineman Art Hunter, picked fifth by the Packers, was the only first round pick to spend more years in the NFL than McHan.

Sonny Randle – One of the first stars for the Cardinals after their move from Chicago to St. Louis, Sonny Randle was a four-time Pro Bowl selection as a receiver during the 1960s.

Sonny Randle caught 65 touchdown passes during the 1960s.

Drafted in the 19th round of the NFL Draft out of the University of Virginia in 1959, Randle moved with the Cardinals to St. Louis the following year and during that season earned All-Pro honors while leading the NFL with 15 touchdown receptions.

He posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 1962 and 1963. In 1962 he had career-highs with 63 receptions and 1,158 yards. The following season he gained 1,014 yards on 15 catches (19.9 ypc) with 12 touchdowns.

During the 1962 season he had one of the best single-game performances ever by a wide receiver as he scorched the New York Giants for 16 receptions, 256 yards and a touchdown.

During eight seasons with the Cardinals, Randle caught 328 passes for 5,438 yards and 60 touchdowns. He finished his career with brief stints in San Francisco and Dallas.

After his career, Randle served as a college football coach at East Carolina, the University of Virginia and Marshall. He later became a popular color commentator for college football games.

Other Forgotten Cardinals:
In addition to the players highlighted above, there have been many other great Cardinals whose exploits have been largely forgotten by time. Included among these players are:

Ottis Anderson, the Cardinals career rushing leader and a player with Hall of Fame caliber credentials.

Tom Banks, was a four-time Pro Bowler during 10 seasons as the starting center for the Cardinals.

Paul Christman, quarterbacked the Cardinals to the NFL Championship in 1947 and passed for 6,749 yards and 51 touchdowns during five seasons with the team.

Roy Green, made a name for himself originally as a two-way player, but eventually became an All-Pro receiver and is still the team leader in receiving yards.

Neil Lomax, passed for 22,771 yards and twice earned Pro Bowl honors during eight seasons with the Cardinals.

Johnny Roland, rushed for 3,608 yards and twice earned Pro Bowl selection during seven seasons in St. Louis.

Larry Stallings, a linebacker for the Cardinals for 14 seasons and one-time Pro Bowl selection.

Norm Thompson, a cornerback who had 22 interceptions during six seasons with the Cardinals.

Pat Tilley, caught 468 passes for 7,005 yards during 11 seasons with the Cardinals.

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