As exciting as the Cardinals’ offense was during Don Coryell’s tenure as head coach (1973-77), the defense was a poor stepchild. And for good reasons.
During the Coryell years, the Big Red defense ranked 26th (last in the NFL) in total defense in 1973, 17th in ’74, 18th in ’76, 12th in ’76 and 24th in ’77. The only defensive player who was selected to the Pro Bowl during that span was cornerback Roger Wehrli.
A frustrated Coryell once said that the Cardinals had only two defensive players who could start for the New York Giants. The joke was that all of the defensive starters went up to Wehrli and said, “You and me, right Rog?”
But older Big Red fans might remember that the Cardinals had several good defensive players in their first 10 seasons in St. Louis (1960-69), when Chuck Drulis was the defensive coordinator.
Drulis joined the Cardinals in 1956, when the team was still in Chicago, and coached 16 seasons (through 1971), serving five different head coaches. Tragically, Drulis died at the age of 54 on August 23, 1972 when he suffered a massive heart attack on the team’s charter flight from St. Louis to Houston for an exhibition game.
But Drulis’ fingertips were all over the Cardinals defense in the ‘60s—“He was a defensive genius,” linebacker Jamie Rivers told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—when a total of 13 different defensive players earned a combined 29 Pro Bowl selections.
The ring leader was safety Larry Wilson. Nicknamed “Wildcat,” Wilson was picked to the Pro Bowl seven times in the ‘60s (1962-63, 1965-69). He also was selected in 1970. Wilson, who had 52 interceptions during his 13 seasons—a franchise record that still stands—retired after the 1972 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.
Other Cardinals defensive players who were selected to multiple Pro Bowls in the ‘60s were defensive back Jimmy Hill (’60-62), linebacker Dale Meinert (’63, ’65, ’67), defensive back Jerry Stovall (’66-67, ’69), cornerback Pat Fischer (’64-65), linebacker Bill Koman (’62, ’64) and safety Jerry Norton (’60-61).
Norton, who also was picked to the ’59 Pro Bowl when he played for the Chicago Cardinals, was probably more recognized for his skills as a punter. In 1961, for example, he led the NFL in punts (85), punting yards (3,802) and longest punt (78 yards).
Six other Big Red defensive players were selected to one Pro Bowl each in the ‘60s: end Leo Sugar (’60), back Billy Stacy (’61), tackle Sam Silas (’65), end Joe Robb (’66), tackle Chuck Walker (’66) and end Don Brumm (’68).
From 1970 through 1987 (the Cardinals’ final season in St. Louis before moving to Arizona), the team had few elite defensive players other than cornerback Roger Wehrli, another Hall of Famer, who was honored with seven Pro Bowl selections overall (1970-71, ’74-77, and ’79). In addition to Wilson, linebacker Larry Stallings made the Pro Bowl in ’70. The only Big Red defensive Pro Bowler in the ‘80s was linebacker E.J. Junior (’84-85).