It's all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for Cardinals fans in May, and rightly so. New front office, new coaches, bright-eyed rookies and a legitimate NFL quarterback -- the headlines this time of year read like chicken soup for the chagrined fan's soul.
The depth chart is smeared in pencil lead, the roster nearly settled. With little to look forward to until on-field activities resume this weekend, now is a good opportunity to review Steve Keim's work in progress as the new General Manager of the Arizona Cardinals.
Bidwill made it clear Keim and the head coach will "have a collaborative relationship." With a strong GM and a strong coach, "what they tend to do is they improve each other."
Everything that's wonderful is what I feel when we're together, but will it last? Luring the NFL's Coach of the Year to Arizona was a triumph, and Arians' name already rests among many of the greats by his inclusion on that list, but it's easy to be high-spirited and confident before your new team has played their first game.
The Cardinals have a nice mix of youth and experience on their coaching staff, but no one is quite sure what to expect from the coordinators, Harold Goodwin or Todd Bowles. Under Ken Whisenhunt, the defense floundered for four seasons before Ray Horton stabilized the unit. They may have called us "Pittsburgh West" but instead of the Steel Curtain, we got the Steel Sieve. It's possible we'll see a similar arc with this new staff, but it wouldn't be fair to predict that.
Arians' open attitude and attention to detail is a welcome change. By expanding the coaching staff he is putting players in the best position to succeed and with a handful of stars already in place on each side of the ball, the Cardinals roster isn't as much of a mess as was the Indianapolis team that Arians helped turn from a 2-14 fiasco to an 11-5 playoff squad, going 9-3 as an interim head coach. The offense should be improved and if the defense can hold together, I'll be surprised if the Cards can't eke out a couple more wins this season.
"You don’t want to force picks in the draft and you don’t want to force players in free agency," Keim said. "If you feel confident in your evaluations, you don’t want to be in a situation where you are just signing guys and later are disappointed from a cap standpoint or salary standpoint."
Keim no doubt learned a lot about disappointment after personally cutting every big-name free agent signing from the last two years. William Gay, Adam Snyder and Stewart Bradley are no longer with the team despite receiving large contracts. Repercussions from those deals will hurt the team's salary cap all the way through 2014. Keim avoided splash signings, instead going for inexpensive or short-term role players. Good teams build through the draft, and a thrifty off-season paired with a few extra draft picks acquired through trades have the team moving in that direction.
"Anytime you get attached to certain players it’s not only a tough decision from a business standpoint, but it's a tough decision from a personal standpoint," Keim said. "But you have to put personal feelings aside, and you have to do what’s best for the organization."
The business side of football can't be avoided. Some cuts were less regrettable than others, but it was sad to see Adrian Wilson go. Between Wilson, Paris Lenon and Kerry Rhodes, the team lost a lot of veteran leadership and created some holes on the roster.
"We felt like there were some good players that not only fit what we did schematically but guys who could improve our locker room from a leadership standpoint."
This quote stood out after finding out that all nine of their draft picks this year were voted team captains in college. Does Keim put a high value on football character, is he trying to replace veteran leadership with young, motivated players, or maybe he thinks, with the rift between Dockett and Rhodes last season as one example, that the locker room lacks leadership? Half of the team's captains from 2012 are no longer on the roster, so it may be interesting to see who steps into the vacuum.
"The part that we’re excited about is we felt like we had a plan, a calculated plan," Keim said. "I felt like we were patient, which I think is the key to free agency."
Sad or not, Keim deserves high praise for making tough decisions this off-season in the name of the cap, and for taking a restrained approach to free agency. It's hard to say how well some of these signings are going to work out, but none of their contracts should inflict the kind of long-term damage on the team that the previous regime developed a reputation for committing to.
It makes sense to sign one-year deals when you're dealing with a player who has something to prove like Rashad Mendenhall or Antoine Cason, or a player that you don't think is going to stick that long like Yeremiah Bell. As a general rule of thumb, it's a better idea to let a player walk in free agency than to cut him. The player won't be on the books for additional guaranteed money, and if he signs with another team he may merit a compensatory draft pick.
To say the Cardinals previous regime neglected the process by which compensatory picks are awarded is an understatement. Anyone remember losing out on a pick in 2011 because the team signed Darren Mougey?
Compensatory draft picks are given to clubs who are determined to have lost more or better compensatory free agents than it acquired during the previous year. The formula takes into account factors such as playing time, salary and postseason accolades. The formula does not cover every free agent lost or acquired.
The current total of Cardinals unrestricted free agents who have signed with another team stands at four. Arizona signed twice as many as that in April alone. Don't expect any compensatory picks in 2014. That's normal for a team reloading with a new coaching staff, though. Future seasons will better test Keim's savvy in this area.
When it came to the draft, Keim was the one absorbing all the input from the scouts and coaches to give a player a final grade. But the decisions on who to pick was a group effort. Bidwill said that will stay the same.
Keim holds the tiebreaker in the Cardinals war room, but the ultimate decision doesn't rest solely with him. Bruce Arians and several others likely all have their voices heard on draft weekend. The picks and trades look good on paper but we won't be able to really judge the class for a couple years. The team will be relying on young players in big roles this season, and it will be important for the rookies to step in and fill the holes they were drafted to plug.
"There was a point in the draft, I think it was after the fifth round, when Bruce and I looked at each other and went down every name and we truly feel like every guy has a chance to come in and make an immediate impact in some way or the other."
The team actually has a bit of a precedent for this. All the rookies from the 2011 and 2012 classes made the team out of the pre-season, even if some of them didn't last much longer than that. Let's not put more pressure on the new guys than they're already under, though. Most of them haven't even been allowed in the team facilities yet.
"... he certainly understands the weight is 100 percent on his shoulders as general manager. It’s a different position when you have all the responsibility."
The Bidwills want to win football games, and they want to sell tickets. Judging by the enthusiasm here on Revenge of the Birds, Steve Keim's moves so far this off-season have accomplished at least one of those goals.
There are questions. How will all the new faces gel? Can the rookies assimilate quickly enough to pick up where the veterans left off? Can the new-look Cardinals compete with one of the toughest schedules in the NFL coming off of a five-win season? Time will tell. Until then, you know how the refrain goes.