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Opinion: Steve Wilks has his first win but little else to show so far in 2018

The final score was in the Arizona Cardinals’ favor, but they’re showing very little in terms of improvement on both sides of the ball

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a famous scene from the classic film “The Princess Bride” in which Billy Crystal’s character names the hero, Westley, as being pronounced “only MOSTLY dead.”

The other character responds asking “What about all dead?” to which the answer is to pull out his pockets and look for loose change.

Because it’s gonna be REALLY costly to fix.

This is exactly how fans seem to feel about the 2018 Arizona Cardinals after defeating the San Francisco 49ers 28-18 yesterday, in a game where they had only half the yards as their opponent offensively, completed only 16% of third downs to their opponent’s 58% and held the ball for only 19 minutes and still have not scored a point in the 3rd quarter all year long.

However, they did force 5 turnovers, and committed none. And we saw some aggressiveness early in the game on offense as Josh Rosen

And that’s going to have to be the key to winning games for Steve Wilks and his staff, as many of the same problems plagued the team the entire season long.

  • Lack of committing to a run game (20 carries for 56 yards)
  • Crucial drops in the passing game and a lack of receiving threats
  • Their defense getting gashed in the run game in obvious running situations
  • Predictable play-calling (the 3rd and 7 screen where Christian Kirk was going nowhere stands out)
  • Allowing opposing offenses to mount a second half comeback by giving up big plays due to mental errors
  • Having tendencies on defense be guessed and countered with creative offensive calls that surprise the defense

All in all, the biggest fault that the 2018 Cardinals have is a mistaken identity.

Steve Wilks, when hired, wanted to “run the ball” and be dominant on both sides of the trenches.

Currently, his offensive coordinator in Mike McCoy has struggled to keep that identity as Arizona is ranked as 32nd in the league in rushing, gaining only 65 yards per game while surrendering an average of 142, good enough for 31st in the league.

This nearly identical unit last year on the defensive side of the ball (even moreso given Robert Nkemdiche didn’t play yesterday) only gave up 89 yards a game on the ground in 2017, which was good enough for 6th overall.

Sure, a new scheme needs time to learn, but after 5 weeks you’d expect some progress.

There is none.

The offensive line was called the “strength” of the team and Steve Wilks praised them coming into Week 1.

Last year the Cardinals were 30th in the league in rushing, averaging 86 yards a game with a patchwork line that saw multiple linemen on Injured Reserve, in addition to the leading offensive weapon in the NFL from the previous year in David Johnson.

Now, with only one serious injury to their starting line, a returning David Johnson and in signing a big money free agent in Justin Pugh and a healthy Mike Iupati, they’ve somehow managed to LOSE 30 yards running the football per game.

At some point, Steve Wilks has to realize that the recipe that he believes will win games isn’t possible with this current team and iteration.

He has to adapt.

Just like Bruce Arians did when Carson Palmer broke his wrist and he had to turn to the likes of Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert.

Just like Amos Jones did last year when Phil Dawson called him out on national television as Jay Feely announced that “he didn’t feel comfortable” with the lineup for his kicks that allowed rushers to get too close to him.

And just like James Bettcher did when the Cardinals defense let Tom Savage throw for over 300 yards against their defense and Bruce Arians lost a game with a risky, bold decision to go for it on 4th down.

They had to make changes and adjust. And they did, earning Arians an 8-8 record in his final season and the all-time winningest record in Arizona Cardinals coaching history.

If Steve Wilks wants to have a crack at that record, he’s going to have to learn how to adapt and win in the NFL.

The problem?

Sunday’s win, outside of a few minor areas, was anything but.

Wilks’ defense kept blitzing and struggled to keep the back end buttoned up all the same in both the first half and the second half. His aggressiveness didn’t change whether it was letting George Kittle run free for a large play or when blitzing C.J. Beatherd into a strip-sack for a fumble with Haason Reddick.

And it didn’t change in a conservative second half effort that saw multiple runs to David Johnson and not a single time where he was thrown the ball in a 5 wide formation as a wide receiver.

It’s who he is. And it’s who Mike McCoy is as well.

Steve Keim went on radio this week and said in an interview that “he would have liked to see them throw the ball to [David Johnson] more.”

Johnson, the Pro Football Focus #1 receiver in 2016, had 3 targets, 2 catches for 16 yards. And multiple beat writers noted how San Francisco’s defense seemed so predicated on what plays they were going to run it was like they were calling them out.

The 5 turnovers was less Arizona taking the game and more a worse Niners team handing it to them. The below tweet summed it up best:

The core issue the Cardinals are facing, the huge problem as it were, is not that they are chasing an identity that isn’t who they really are.

It’s that their identity is exactly what Steve Wilks and his offensive coordinator Mike McCoy have wanted it to be.

And when it’s readily apparent that it is not working, they are refusing to adapt and change who they are, or perhaps they are incapable of making such a change with this current team.

Perhaps in 2019 with a roster that’s more rebuilt in their image, they could become that sort of team....but given how McCoy’s struggles have manifested offensively wherever he’s gone that hasn’t featured Philip Rivers or Peyton Manning, at least the offense seems clearly broken.

The defense? The jury’s out.

But with the likes of Rodgers, Rivers, Goff, Mahomes and more ahead, and a showdown with an explosive Vikings passing attack next week, a loss and sinking to 1-5 with the same issues and problems will cause fans to abandon any good will that was gained from today.

So what is Wilks to do?

Going back to that classic film of The Princess Bride, it’ll likely take a miracle. It’ll be painful and hard to swallow, but it beats the alternative.

That miracle will need to involve Wilks shifting and adjusting his defensive philosophy to embrace the best way to tackle these shifty, high-powered offenses that make use of space and athletes by countering with athleticism of their own.

Which will mean more snaps for Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick in packages they are familiar with from the defense James Bettcher ran.

It will mean deeper study on opposing offenses and recognizing that they’ve gotten familiar with some of your defensive playcalls and some self-scouting and opening up the defensive playbook to way back in the day to call a few tricks and traps like he did to close the game out against C.J. Beathard.

And it might ultimately mean that if his own offensive coordinator refuses to adjust his own offense and play calling to help David Johnson and Josh Rosen...that he acknowledges the mistake and moves on. And even makes changes around his own offensive identity.

Rather than running the football, why not shift at times to the hurry-up or a no-huddle offense? Why not let Rosen gain experience through throwing the ball quickly in an up-tempo attack that spreads a defense out rather than try to overwhelm them through the smallest point in the middle of the field?

If your offense is already bad in time of possession, why not just capitalize on that facet by designing the opportunity for more explosive plays similar to the 75 yard touchdown to Christian Kirk?

All of this is within Wilks’ range.

But so far through five games, the only adaptation he’s seemed to admit was that Sam Bradford was a mistake. And that was after he already left Bradford in the game long enough that it cost them their first win in front of the home crowd against the Bears.

So Wilks had better examine deep within himself to decide if he can change who he is to win in the NFL, or if he is going to keep pushing to try to win the only way how and still see the same pitiful performances.

If it’s the latter, the Arizona Cardinals might quickly slide as a team from “mostly dead” to “all dead” if these same issues continue to plague this team with no improvement in November and December.

And that won’t bode well for his or his coordinator’s jobs if there’s to be any sort of “happily ever after” to be found for the Cardinals going into the 2019 season.