Back when Karlos Dansby first arrived in Phoenix, the Arizona Cardinals were so bad they made the Cincinnati Bengals look like a model franchise.
A paper sack was acceptable fan headgear, the team played in aptly named Sun Devil Stadium, and the Cardinals barely drew better than the baseball club across town — the one that lost 111 games.
Football fever? More like a desert freeze.
Yet within five years of his 2004 arrival, the Cardinals were packing their new half billion-dollar stadium and, if not for a miraculous catch by Santonio Holmes, would have been world champions.
It’s homecoming week for Dansby, now in his third year with the Dolphins. He returns to the city where, in his six years with the team, he helped transform the Cardinals from a national punch line into a heavyweight contender.
“It’s definitely something I’ve been looking forward to,” Dansby said. “Guys that are there won’t let me forget about it. They remind me every chance I get.”
Trash talk has gone cross-continental, with Dansby exchanging texts with former teammates Darnell Dockett, Larry Fitzgerald and Beanie Wells. They have reason to chirp; his old squad is a surprising 3-0 and stands atop the suddenly potent NFC West.
But not too long ago, five wins total were all that was expected of the perennially impotent Cardinals. When Arizona drafted Dansby 33rd overall in 2004, the team had made just two playoff appearances in the previous three decades.
But that began to change with the arrival of coach Ken Whisenhunt in 2007. Whisenhunt changed the entire culture, Dansby said. Losing was no longer tolerated. Plus, the retractable roof on their new spaceship of a stadium eliminated the scalding heat as an excuse for fans.
Yet the franchise’s true turning point, Whisenhunt said this week, came midway through that first season. The Cardinals had lost five of their first eight and faced a 6-2 Detroit team at home. That’s when Dansby had perhaps the finest game of his career, grabbing two interceptions and forcing a fumble to will the Cardinals to victory.
“We were talking as a team about taking baby steps,” Whisenhunt said. “I’ll never forget the big plays he made in that game and his remarks after the game: ‘We’re building this team, inch by inch.’ ”
The next year, the Cardinals traveled light years forward. They reached their first Super Bowl and played Pittsburgh to the wire before Holmes’ tip-toe catch in the end zone. Arizona was back in the playoffs the following year and beat Joe Philbin’s Packers in overtime, courtesy of Dansby’s 17-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
That nose for the football was a big reason why the Dolphins signed him to what was then the most lucrative contract for an inside linebacker in NFL history in early 2010.
He’s now midway through that five-year deal, but the big plays seem to have stayed in Arizona. Dansby, 30, hasn’t recovered a fumble as a Dolphin and has just one interception in his past 39 games, including the playoffs.
Still, a deeper dive indicates he has played quite well this season. Through three weeks, Dansby has been the league’s second-best inside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus, which grades every play.
Although not great in coverage (he has allowed 15 catches for 202 yards, including 102 yards after the catch), Dansby has been spectacular against the run.
He leads the NFL’s third-ranked run defense with 25 tackles and 15 “stops” or solo tackles that constitute an offensive failure. Teams have averaged just 2.5 yards per carry against the Dolphins.
“He can go from sideline to sideline and make plays in the pass game and come downhill and stop the run in the backfield,” said Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell, who played with Dansby in 2008 and ’09.
“He’s an all-around player, and that’s what you need in a middle linebacker,” added Campbell, who played his college ball at the University of Miami. “He’s one of those guys I looked up to and learned a lot from.”
Perhaps more than anything, guys like Dansby and quarterback Kurt Warner taught the Cardinals how to win. Once one of the league’s dregs, they’re laughingstocks no longer.
“I think Karlos had a significant part in that transition, no question about it,” Whisenhunt said. “There were a lot of guys when nobody believed they could do it, they hung together. To be perfectly honest with you, Karlos was a big part of it.”