Almost 10 days into December and in their penultimate home game the Cardinals treated their remaining fans to stockings filled with black coal.
Nothing seemed right about this game from the get-go. The Cardinals elected to dress in black and not in December red. They rolled in a yet another slippery field—-will the Cardinals ever get this right? There was the bleak sight of thousands of empty seats. The happiest and most celebrated fan in attendance? Lions’ head coach Matt Patricia’s true-to-life doppelgänger.
The good friend I watched the game with said, the doppelgänger was the main highlight of the first half.
On the first defensive series, I was zeroing in on ILB Gerald Hodges and quickly wondered what in the world he was doing or thinking—-routinely running away from the flow, that is when he wasn’t slipping to the turf on blocks.
I kept wondering why a more physical baller like Zeke Turner wasn’t in there by now.
In contrast, I was impressed to see Haason Reddick stepping up and making tackles—-this may have been his best all-around game. It was a relief to see Budda Baker strip the ball to end what was an early pounding of the rock down the Cardinals’ black throats.
I felt immediately leery of Wilks’ decision to start Joe Barksdale at right tackle after last week’s makeshift line played so well. Wilks lauded Will Holden’s play RT but said they decided to go with Barksdale—-who has just joined the team Wednesday. At least Will Holden knew the offense and he and RG Oday Aboushi had worked fairly well in unison together for one game already. For the sake of continuity and familiarity—-which are paramount to an o-line’s success, wouldn’t it have been best to stick with the same line and then sub Barksdale in if necessary?
This is just another example of times this year when a younger Cardinals’ player has done well and yet is immediately replaced anyway.
It was great to see Byron Leftwich call a bootleg for Josh Rosen on the first play! The problem was, rather the make it an easy out pass to the TE that Rosen would click on immediately, it was a late developing play which caused Rosen to hold on to the ball longer than normal—-and then Rosen threw an errant pass slightly back against the grain, which fortunately was not picked off.
But, for a second there I wondered if we would be seeing a more innovative game plan from Lefttwich.
From that point on—-the play calling seemed like a blatant “screw you” to the fans (who tried very hard to make their boos heard) and to RB David Johnson. Surely, Johnson would have loved a revenge game against the team that knocked him out for the season in game one last year.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s coaches did not scout the Lions well enough to know that their interior linemen are big and physical and difficult to move. Unfortunately too, his coaches rarely adjusted to the fact that Matt Patricia focused his entire front 7 on putting a bull’s-eye on Johnson’s jersey—-not only in pounding him on the Cardinals’ nauseating attempts to run up the middle, but on every single short screen pass or check down.
Finally, Leftwich moved Johnson to the slot, which resulted in an easy 10 yard catch and run. Then, later on, Leftwich put Johnson on the run on a swing pass that was a positive gain—-one that helped Johnson get out of the red on receptions for the day (8 catches for 12 yards, 1.5 average).
Alas, there never came another slot or swing pass to Johnson in the game, and nary a wheel route or double move pattern.
Johnson took a beating, along with the Cardinals’ fans who were super amped to witness Larry Legend Fitzgerald become the all-time NFL leader in receptions for a single team, surpassing Jerry Rice’s storied mark with the 49ers.
Except—-to every fan’s dismay and utter frustration—-Fitz was not targeted once in the first half—-a disturbing weekly pattern with regard to Leftwich’s game planning—-and it wasn’t until the 3rd quarter where the fans could rise up and hail their icon.
The Cardinals even had 30 seconds and three timeouts before the half to get Fitz the ball—-with the Lions being in a bit of a prevent defense. Except that—-Leftwich called another dive up the middle where Johnson was chopped down in his tracks and hammered to the turf—-then came a timeout—-so now we thought, OK, let’s get Larry his little piece of history—-except no—-another run up the middle, this time for a decent gain finally—-and yet with 20 seconds left—-the coaches let the clock run out.
The offensive coaching philosophy on this team is absurdly conservative and anachronistic. The coaches try to justify it as trying to “lessen the load” on their rookie QB—-when the irony is, it only increases the pressure on him, by forcing him to face a preponderance of 3rd and longs amidst full bore pressure and the nervousness of knowing an errant pass will result in yet another 3-and-out and yet another two minute break for the defense.
The whole purpose of trying to run the ball between the tackles is to try to set up 3rd and shorts. But, every Cardinals’ opponent knows by now to load up versus the run in 1st and 2nd down—-
Third and longs are difficult for any QB, let alone a rookie.
This is one the major reasons why the more innovative and modern offensive coordinators around the NFL and the nation are actually scheming to avoid third downs as much as possible. The popular thinking is—-we can get well more than 10 yards in 2 plays, not three.
Huge difference in philosophy—-isn’t it?
When the Cardinals finally showed a spark in the 3rd quarter, bouncing back from Rosen’s poorly timed 67 yard pick-six by Darius Slay—-now down 10-0—-on a 4th and 1—-with nothing in the world to lose—-Steve Wilks elected once again—-as he consistently has all year—-to punt.
When the Cardinals finally made it inside the Lions’ 10 yard line, thanks to some crisp passes from a heating up Rosen to rookie Trent Sherfield (5 catches for 77 yards and a 15.4 average)—-again—-with nothing in the world to lose—-on 4th and goal—-Wilks elected to go for the FG.
Zane Gonzalez, who was struggling to make short field goals in warmups, and who had doinked his one previous FG attempt off the felt upright from 54 yards, converted this one and pulled the Cardinals within one score, at 10-3.
Matt Patricia answered with a “Jumbo” package and basically ,with 3rd string RB Zack Zenner (12 carries for 54 yards) in the backfield, the Lions proceeded to pound the ball left and right down the field and into the end zone, thereby ending any chance for a Cardinals’ come from behind rally.
Clearly, big, bold, sweeping changes from Michael Bidwill need to happen.
The Cardinals’ performances at home this season have been unthinkably poor.
I hope for Steve Wilks’ case that Bidwill has already informed him that they will be letting him and most (if not all) of his staff go, particularly in the event that Wilks has interest in applying for the head coaching job at Appalachia St., Wilks’ alma mater. That kind of a happy football odyssey might be exactly what Wilks and his family need at this point.
I maintain that Steve Keim tied the albatross squarely around Wilks’ neck from the get-go—-pairing him with a vanilla, old-school offensive coordinator, a brittle, highly overpaid QB and the lack of some key personnel fits on defense that could have been added in free agency, but were not.
Wilks has been making some recent progress on defense—-while trying to make his brand of defense work, basically without the trio of linebackers he needs to make it work.
Wilks has tried to stay true to his three pillars: TAC (Trust, Accountability, Commitment). But, for someone who was hired to have a positive influence on the Cardinals under-achieving draft picks with “different personalities” (other fine feathers of Keim’s albatross)—-it’s a little surprising that Wilks doesn’t seem to understand today’s youth.
Today’s youth have been so inundated and oversaturated by teachers’ and coaches’ mantras, pillars and platitudes—-that they just tune that stuff out.
If you try to talk Trust to an NFL player today—-he will laugh and say yeah “I trust that if I rub a coach or GM the wrong way, they are going to cut my ass.”
If you try to talk Accountability to an NFL player today—-he will shrug his shoulders and ”why are there one set of standards for me and yet a set of double standards for star players?”
If you try to talk Commitment to an NFL player today—-he will scoff and query—-”well why then is the average career of an NFL player 3.3 years? What kind of commitment is that? Why is there , unlike in MLB and the NBA, such little guaranteed money in NFL contracts today?”
You want to motivate today’s NFL players—-you have to be real and up front with them and not in a condescending, debasing kind of way—-but in a completely honest and forthright way.
The words and music have to match. if the words are “we don't care where you were drafted or where you are from—-the best players are going to play” and the music doesn’t match—-due to politics or favoritisms or double standards—-then pretty much the most valuable tinctures of trust, accountability and commitment are compromised and/or lost.
But—most of all—-you want instant credibility with today’s players? You do what coaches like Sean McVay and Matt Nagy do—-you make the players feel that the coaches are giving them a competitive advantage over the opposition. That—-more than anything else—-builds the players’ trust and confidence.
You have to bring a certain special knowledge, novel creativity, communication skills and tactical advantage to the table. That’s what gets the players’ attention. That’s what gives them the added excitement of playing the games—-because when they believe they can and will win—-it’s show time baby!