If the Arizona Cardinals always drafted as well as they did in 2004, they wouldn't be the Arizona Cardinals.

The 2004 draft is a big reason the NFL's longtime losers are in their first Super Bowl.

The Cardinals picked Pitt receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the first round, Auburn linebacker Karlos Dansby in the second, Florida State defensive tackle Darnell Dockett in the third and Oklahoma State defensive end Antonio Smith in the fifth.

"We definitely think that is the best class the Arizona Cardinals have ever had," Dockett said. "We are going to stick to that. If anybody wants to prove me wrong, I'm going to sit down and have a discussion with them."

As draft classes go, it's not as loaded as Pittsburgh's fabled 1974 draft, when the Steelers selected four future Hall of Famers in the first five rounds — Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

But everything's relative, and given the Cardinals' spotty draft history, it's hard to overestimate the importance of the 2004 draft.

"That was an unbelievable class for us," said defensive end Bertrand Berry, signed as a free agent the same year. "Those guys have all paid huge dividends for us."

Because they were so bad for so long, the Cardinals have had many high draft picks. The list of disappointments could stretch the length of a football field.

In 1998, the Cardinals drafted Florida State defensive end Andre Wadsworth third overall. He lasted three years, recording eight sacks, before knee injuries shortened his career.

In 2002, they chose Wisconsin defensive tackle Wendell Bryant with the 12th overall pick. Bryant started nine games in his career and had 1 1/2 sacks.

Their luck turned in 2004, thanks in part to Dennis Green, who had just been hired as coach and was also involved in personnel matters.

Green introduced the concept of the "120 board." The Cardinals ranked the top 120 prospects in the order they would select them if each one was available.

On draft day, club officials crossed players off as soon as they were drafted. When it came time for the Cardinals to choose, they picked the top remaining name on their board, regardless of their roster needs.

"We had given long discussion on that group, and we had committed ourselves to that order, and so it really took all discussions on draft day out of it," general manager Rod Graves said.

After San Diego picked quarterback Eli Manning first overall and the Oakland Raiders took Iowa's Robert Gallery, the Cardinals snapped up Fitzgerald.

Other options were Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Roy Williams, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and defensive back Sean Taylor.

"There was no doubt that we all felt like he was the best player in the country at the time," Graves said.

"We felt that Larry gave us an opportunity for the greatest margin of improvement."

It turned out to be a brilliant pick.