Jim Hart: The Coryell Years

This is the third in a five-part series of stories remembering Jim Hart, the Cardinals’ all-time passing leader.

Jim Hart was scared. He thought his football career was over.

On Dec. 2, 1973, in the third-to-last game of the season, Detroit Lions second-year defensive lineman Herb Orvis broke through the Cardinals’ pass protection and hit Hart’s right arm just as the quarterback released a pass. Hart’s arm bent backward and hyperextended. He then heard a “whoomph” as the arm snapped back into place. 

Jim Hart’s career took off under Don Coryell in 1973

Hart suffered an elbow injury that caused him to miss the final two games of Don Coryell’s first season as coach of the Big Red. Even though the Cardinals finished with a 4-9-1 record for the third consecutive year, Hart and his teammates were encouraged. Coryell had brought with him from San Diego State University a state-of-the-art, pass-oriented offense that was both easy and exciting to execute. And he chose Hart, who had been forced to share the starting quarterback job with multiple players in the previous two seasons under coach Bob Hollway, as his engineer.

Now, it was several months later and there was no change in Hart’s right elbow. The more he worked on it, following the rehab program recommended by the Cardinals’ athletic trainers, the more it hurt. At home, he couldn’t pick up Brad and Suzie, his 5-year-old twins, or roughhouse with his German Shepherds without feeling pain. 

“As the days went by and the weeks went by, nothing changed,” Hart recalled. “I should have seen some progress, but I didn’t. It hurt so badly.” The Big Red’s April minicamp was on the horizon, and Hart wondered how—if—he would be able to throw a football.

[Hart’s uncertain status likely was a factor in the Cardinals making one of the worst transactions in franchise history—trading young, talented wide receiver Ahmad Rashad to the Buffalo Bills for quarterback Dennis Shaw. Coryell was familiar with Shaw, having coached him at San Diego State. Shaw, who had gone from starter to backup in Buffalo, made a minimal contribution in his two seasons with the Cardinals, completing 4 of 8 passes for 61 yards with one interception. Meanwhile, Rashad played eight more seasons in the NFL and became a four-time Pro Bowl player with the Minnesota Vikings.]

Then, in March, Hart’s elbow started to feel better. Remarkably, miraculously, in a matter of a week to 10 days, the pain was gone. By the time Hart came to minicamp, his elbow was back to 100 percent, and he moved right back in as the quarterback of the Coryell offense.

“The system he had was such an easy offense,” Hart said. “It was a numbering system as far as the passing game. There was not a lot of verbiage. All the guys had to remember was the passing tree (where routes were numbered 1-9). And it was easy (for the coaches) to signal plays in (from the sideline). I can’t remember us having a delay of game penalty because of our signaling system.”

Hart thrived in the Coryell system. In ’74, he completed 200 of a league-high 388 passes for 2,411 yards and 20 touchdowns, with only eight interceptions. He was named the NFC Player of the Year and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. The Cardinals went 10-4, finished first in the NFC East Division, and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 26 years—since the then-Chicago Cardinals lost to the Eagles in the 1948 NFL Championship Game. But their postseason ended quickly with a 30-14 loss to the Vikings in a divisional round game in Minnesota.

The Big Red repeated as NFC East champions in 1975 with an 11-3 record, but lost again in a divisional playoff game—35-23 to the Rams in Los Angeles. The team followed up with a 10-4 record in ’76, but finished in third place behind the Cowboys and Redskins. A 7-3 start in 1977 seemed like the harbinger for another winning season, but the Cardinals lost their final four games and finished 7-7.

The four-year span from 1974 to 1977 was the apogee of Hart’s career. During that stretch, he was selected to the Pro Bowl every year and finished in the top five among NFL quarterbacks in several passing categories:

1974: 1st in attempts and tied for 2nd in touchdowns.

1975: 4th in yards and 5th in touchdowns.

1976: 2nd in completions, 3rd in attempts, 3rd in yards, and 4th in touchdowns.

1977: 4th in attempts, completions and yards.

The Cardinals went 38-18 from ’74 to ’77. In addition to Hart, several other players received Pro Bowl honors: wide receiver Mel Gray, offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf and cornerback Roger Wehrli, four times; running back Terry Metcalf, center Tom Banks, and guard Conrad Dobler, three; kicker Jim Bakken, two; and fullback Jim Otis, one. 

It was the era of the “Cardiac Cardinals,” so named because of the team’s many late comeback victories that raised the blood pressure of fans and players alike.

“It was Don Coryell’s leadership that did it for us,” Hart said. “He was always so positive on the sideline, never getting down on any of us. We’d get behind and he would go up and down, talking to players, saying, ‘Who’s going to intercept a pass? Who’s going to knock one down? Who’s going to score a touchdown?’ He was talking to anybody and everybody. We got it in our minds that we were going to do it—and we did. It was incredible how things evolved that way. It was electric.”

Jim Hart connects on a long pass to his favorite receiver Mel Gray in a 1977 game at Busch Stadium.

But Coryell’s exhortations lost their magic and the Big Red lost their mojo in 1977. Carrying that 7-3 record into a Thanksgiving Day home game against Miami, the Cardinals were shellacked, 55-14, as Dolphins  quarterback Bob Griese threw six touchdown passes. Although that was stunning, it was a 26-20 loss to the hated Washington Redskins two weeks later that precipitated the unraveling of the Cardiac Cards.

It was a miserably cold day in December. Snow was piled up around the field at Busch Stadium and the temperature for the mid-afternoon kickoff was 6 degrees with a wind chill of minus 10. It was so cold that Hart’s right thumb froze during the pregame warmup.

Trying to get an edge on the Redskins, Coryell decided to switch benches. Instead of lining up as usual on the south sideline, the Cardinals moved across to the benches on the north sideline. Coryell’s thinking was that the Big Red would get the benefit of the sun as it was setting while the Redskins would freeze in the shade. However, because of the 2:30 p.m. start and the direction of the early winter sunset, Coryell’s plan was flawed.

“We outsmarted ourselves,” Hart said. “It was just as cold on (our) sideline as it was on the other one.”

The loss to Washington eliminated the Big Red from the playoff picture. During the game, Coryell’s wife and daughter verbally jousted with fans in the stands around them who booed the players and Coryell. Later that night, an irate Coryell phoned Globe-Democrat sports columnist Rich Koster and spewed vitriol. Among his chief complaints were team owner Bill Bidwill denying him input on the team’s draft picks and Bidwill refusing to negotiate a better contract for Metcalf, who was going to be a free agent after the season.

“I remember Don telling me, ‘If they can’t give me our best offensive weapon, then screw ‘em. I’m going to leave,’ ” Hart said. “Don was counting on (Metcalf), as all of us were, and management just wouldn’t pay him what he thought he was worth. There wasn’t anyone who was as good as Terry at that point. It was probably mental as much as anything. My gosh, they don’t even care enough about us to keep our best offensive player. It was just so depressing.”

Early in the offseason, Coryell and Bidwill reached a “mutual agreement” to part ways. Metcalf became a free agent and signed with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Dobler and wide receiver Ike Harris were traded to New Orleans. There were other changes, not the least of which was Bidwill’s surprise selection as the new head coach. 

The Cardiac Cards Era, successful and exciting while it lasted, was over. It was Dobler who had succinctly characterized the team’s rapid descent in the Big Red locker room following a season-ending loss to the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“From the penthouse to the outhouse,” he said. 

NEXT: PART 4 – THE FINAL YEARS

3 thoughts on “Jim Hart: The Coryell Years

  1. Pingback: Jim Hart: The Early Years | THE BIG RED ZONE

  2. The success that Don Coryell went on to have with the San Diego Chargers could have been enjoyed here in St. Louis. Too bad Mr. Bidwell wasn’t willing to compromise.

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  3. Pingback: Jim Hart: Where is he Now? | THE BIG RED ZONE

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