TAMPA, Fla. — The pilot stuck a team flag out the cockpit window as the Arizona Cardinals landed in a place few ever could have imagined.
A team whose fans haven’t touched ground during a stunning playoff run arrived in the Super Bowl city Monday. With many players videotaping the proceedings — the walk across the tarmac, the bus ride to the team hotel, the first onslaught of media — it was clear that just being here meant something to a franchise long considered an NFL doormat.
“It’s a great moment,” said safety Adrian Wilson, the longest-tenured Cardinal. “To be here, to go through all the teams, to go through all the players, it’s big for the whole organization. It’s big for the players who are here right now.
“You never know the type of team you have and you never know the circumstances. This team and this group of guys who you have right now, I think we are special.”
Not that the Pittsburgh Steelers, seeking their unprecedented sixth Super Bowl title, don’t have a special feeling about their surroundings. Even though many of them have been this route before, the cameras were out, the smiles were wide, and the warm sun was welcoming.
“Are you kidding?” said wide receiver Hines Ward, the Most Valuable Player of the Steelers’ 2006 Super Bowl win over Seattle. “It’s very nice to be in Tampa; it was snowing on our way here. They had to defrost the plane there was so much snow on the ground.”
Ward and his teammates fully expect Tampa to resemble the Steel City by the weekend. No, not weather-wise; if that happens, rest assured the NFL won’t be bringing its extravaganza back here. But in color, as in black and gold.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger envisions a tsunami of Terrible Towels.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Every time we go to an away city, in a way it feels like a home game because there are so many fans. We expect them to be out there and having fun.”
For now, with no practice sessions until Wednesday, the players actually can have some fun, too. Not too much, of course.
Neither coach is about to clamp down on his players this early in the week. They promise to keep things reasonable and as normal as possible, so don’t look for any early curfews like the ones Dick Vermeil imposed on his 1980 Eagles. Philadelphia’s players got tighter as the week wore on, even as the Oakland Raiders were partying across New Orleans.
By game time, the Eagles could barely breathe, let alone play football, and they were routed by the loose Raiders.
“He hasn’t put any handcuffs on us,” James Harrison, the defensive player of the year, said, referring to coach Mike Tomlin. “We have the same freedoms as if we were staying in Pittsburgh for a week, as opposed to here.”
Same for the Cardinals, whose coach, Ken Whisenhunt, was Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator for that fifth Super Bowl win. Whisenhunt understands the importance of sticking to the norms, even if this is more than uncharted territory for the Cardinals.
He also believes the week the Cardinals spent in the East in September, with back-to-back games at Washington and the Meadowlands, will be beneficial now. Even if Arizona lost both games.
“This is a week of distractions,” he said, “and this is one distraction that is not new to us. It helps us minimize that distraction.”