Why Did the Arizona Cardinals Stay In the NFC East for Nearly 15 Years after Leaving St. Louis?

The Arizona Cardinals, like many other long-existing professional sports franchises, have undergone numerous fashion upgrades over the years. Remember, this is a franchise that began playing games in 1920 as the Racine Street Cardinals.

Even younger fans might know that the Cardinals spent nearly 30 years in St. Louis. Yet, the team’s arrival in Arizona in 1988 didn’t bring about a move to the NFC West until Tom Brady was already a starting quarterback in the NFL. How can that be possible? The answer is far more intriguing than you might think.

The Arizona Cardinals moved to the NFC West in 2002, nearly 15 years after moving from St. Louis

The Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams face off in 2002.
Marcel Shipp and the Arizona Cardinals began playing NFC West teams, like the then-St. Louis Rams, twice a year beginning in 2002 | Elsa/Getty Images

When the NFL and AFL officially merged in 1970, each league had three divisions: the East, Central, and West. It wasn’t until 2002, when the Houston Texans joined the league, that the North and South replaced the Central.

You’re likely familiar with some of the divisional changes brought upon by realignment. The Indianapolis Colts left the AFC East and joined the new AFC South. After spending 25 seasons in the AFC West, the Seattle Seahawks moved to the NFC West.

Perhaps the most interesting change, in hindsight, involved the Cardinals, who followed the Seahawks to the NFC West. Despite playing in Arizona for well over a decade at that point, the franchise had remained in the NFC East, the division they’d called home since 1970.

It at least made a degree of sense that the St. Louis Cardinals would play in an Eastern division. The other St. Louis Cardinals, better known as the team with 11 World Series titles through the end of the 2021 season, played in the National League East from 1969-93. But a team based in Arizona?

Despite the added travel expenses of flying cross-country so often, the Cardinals weren’t exactly excited about switching divisions, and it only had so much to do with the competition.

The franchise stubbornly wanted to avoid moving divisions because of the Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals face off in 2001.
The Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals’ yearly NFC East matchups ended in 2001 | Ronald Martinez/Allsport via Getty Images

The bottom line speaks loudest, especially for perennial losers like the Cardinals. 

According to the Hartford Courant, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill didn’t want to leave the NFC East because of his home-and-home rivalries with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Washington Football Team. Despite having a young Donovan McNabb at quarterback, the Philadelphia Eagles were chopped liver to the other team’s steak.

Fans clearly felt the same way. According to the Arizona Daily Sun, 10 of the Cardinals’ 14 largest crowds at Sun Devil Stadium involved the Cowboys. A total of 48,883 fans filled the stadium on Dec. 23, 2001, and watched the franchise’s final NFC East showdown with the Cowboys.

A change in divisions didn’t deter either side’s supporters. Nearly 60,000 fans — 59,702, to be exact — filled Sun Devil Stadium on Oct. 20, 2002 to watch Arizona’s 9-6 overtime win against Dallas.

So, in short, we had a team in Arizona wanting to preserve an NFC East rivalry with a team in Texas. Geography teachers around the world are clutching their heads in pain right now.

Life hasn’t been bad in Arizona since the Cardinals switched divisions

In 32 seasons as a member of the NFC East, the Cardinals only made the postseason four times. The franchise reached that total by the 2015 season and is well on pace to reach the playoffs in 2021.

The Cardinals have had no shortage of elite players suit up in the red and white since joining the NFC West. Kurt Warner teamed up with receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald to form one of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses in the late 2000s. Arizona narrowly lost Super Bowl 43, 27-23, to Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Warner entered the Hall of Fame in 2017, and Fitzgerald should join him later this decade. Boldin is eligible for the first time in 2022 and will have an interesting case to present.

After a rough stretch to close out the 2010s, young quarterback Kyler Murray appears to have the 2008 NFC champions in a strong position to reach another Super Bowl. All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins has thrived since arriving in a 2020 trade, and Isaiah Simmons, a versatile young linebacker and the eighth overall pick in 2020, leads a frightening defense.

With how both teams began the 2021 season, a postseason matchup and NFC East reunion featuring the Cardinals and Cowboys is certainly in the, shall we say, cards. Yes, we went there.

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