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The Arizona Cardinals have culture problems that extend beyond Steve Wilks

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Wilks will be made a scapegoat for Arizona’s issues, but they have had problems three years in the making to end up in this pit

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Press Conference Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There was one passer on Sunday who had a perfect quarterback rating.

And it wasn’t Josh Rosen.

It was a trick play from the Cardinals’ nearly 36 year old wide receiver to their star running back that signed a big contract this offseason to the sound of a fanbase that hadn’t had something at home to cheer about for what felt like weeks, cheering for a football legend that might be in his last game.

With no one left to replace him as the #1 wide receiver on the roster should he retire.

That’s not on Steve Wilks.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for how the Arizona Cardinals in the post-Arians era fell from a competitive team to one that has now lost multiple games by 22 points or more and looks inept on both sides of the ball, but it ultimately starts with the head coach who’s about to be one-and-done, right?

Not necessarily.

Wilks, for all of the talk of mismanagement of the team in the scheme change, conservative calling, lack of adjustments and micromanaging has gotten the lion’s share of the blame this offseason.

He shouldn’t. Steve Keim and to the extent, Michael Bidwill, should.

Wilks was hired by the Cardinals after a process in which the team evaluated multiple potential head coaching candidates and the vast majority turned them down for one reason or another but mostly due to one big one:

-They had no quarterback on the roster.

-They had a bad offensive line.

This was a sign of both a lack of preparedness and also a sign of how GM Steve Keim went against his own spoken protocol in terms of the Cardinals not learning from past mistakes. Keim said in 2013 when hired that he never wanted to repeat the 58-0 loss to Seattle again.

Well to that point, they haven’t but they’ve come close, with 5 losses of 22 points or more including losses of 40-7, 45-10, 45-10 and now 31-9 to the Los Angeles Rams, their 2nd blowout loss to a divisional opponent.

It all collapsed due to one main reason: the Cardinals after the 2016 meltdown focused on the now, and not the future. And that’s what happens when you don’t have a sustainable culture in place.

Not only have Mahomes and Watson looked like two of the best (if not the best) young QB’s in the game, they’d have gotten the chance to sit under Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton as well as Bruce Arians.

Why didn’t it happen? Because, pure and simple, the team didn’t value a young Quarterback enough to give up current draft picks for this season to be ready for the 2019 season.

And that’s also because Bruce Arians likely wasn’t sold on spending his last year in the desert developing a rookie QB.

When Arians left, did the culture he built up (despite obvious cracks in the ‘16 and ‘17 seasons) stay?

Nope. It left along with him.

And what’s more, Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim RAN AWAY from that culture to pursue a new one. A team that had always found success (TWICE!) with a high-flying offense behind a veteran quarterback throwing the ball suddenly decided to build around running the football. A defense that had built for a 3-4 and light offense turned into a gap scheme with a lot of complex zone coverage.

Even moreso, Keim and Bidwill and even Wilks were all sold that this would lead to an improvement and they felt that what was built up as far as culture under Arians would continue.

Rather, they undercut everything about who they were for a NEW culture under Wilks...without giving the time or the PLAYERS to build it.

If they wanted to run the football, they shouldn’t have hired an offensive coordinator who’d never had success running the ball without having a rushing/running quarterback in Tebow.

And if they wanted to REALLY run the ball, they passed on Lamar Jackson for a non-scrambling pocket passer in Josh Rosen.

The fact alone that the Ravens maintained their dominant defense and are currently 5-1 with Lamar Jackson and a rush attack that’s maintaining and controlling the clock shows that Arizona’s commitment to the new culture Wilks wanted was only half-hearted.

Wilks didn’t adjust to his players, sure. But neither did Keim or Bidwill adjust to HIM. They saddled him with a situation in which is was almost impossible for Wilks to succeed in.

Wilks, to his credit, hasn’t bashed the ownership or his GM for what he’s been given, but he’s also shown that he isn’t who the Cardinals need right now.

Heck, Patrick Peterson is so not-bought-in to Wilks and the culture he’s asked to leave. It’s hard to sell him on something moving forward when you don’t know who you are or who you’ll be.

He’s not the guy to develop Josh Rosen and who knows how long it will take to fix the run defense even if the entire offseason they bring in guys to build around him....the reports that he’s already gone show that they clearly aren’t committed enough to him.

And that’s a problem.

Because if you have no culture and your culture is tied not to your GM and not to your Owner but to your head coach, you’re only as good as that coach gets you.

Teams like the Patriots and Steelers keep the same culture and mentality even despite roster turnover, or coach turnover in the Steelers’ case. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks are the same and as mentioned, the Ravens defense was killing teams long before John Harbaugh got there.

  • Seahawks are good when they run the ball regardless of OL and Russell Wilson can make plays outside the pocket with an attacking pass rush and guys like Wagner making plays.
  • Steelers are good when they run the ball and Ben can make plays to their dynamic wide receivers they seem to find out of the blue each year and have an attacking defense that find stud linebackers each year.
  • Patriots are good when....you get the picture.
  • Even Andy Reid’s identity can be found in how they recognize where it starts: with the offensive line and a dynamic passing game...but Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing.

Does that mean you need to run the ball 50 times to win? No. It means that you need to tie in your identity and what you do into WHY you win.

THAT is why the Arizona Cardinals are struggling. And it’s concerning as it’s been a continuing problem since Warner left and now since Arians and Palmer retired.

Just look at how Steve Keim tried to fix the quarterback position this past offseason:

  1. They tried to sign a mid-level QB in Kirk Cousins to a massive deal that would have burdened them for years to come
  2. They moved onto a decent contract for a purely backup quarterback over several cheaper starting options in Mike Glennon
  3. They invested a good deal into a former starting QB in Sam Bradford whose health was such a question mark they didn’t even allow him to run in the conditioning test for fear of hurting himself
  4. Traded up to draft a rookie quarterback
  5. The guy to develop this new offensive identity said that he wanted to be “flexible and adaptable to players” and then proved the opposite and that they HAD no identity...and this was who they picked to develop a rookie that they stumbled into.

In the biz they’d call that “throwing at the wall to see what sticks.”

And it shows they had no patience and wanted to win now. If they were committed to a culture of change, why not start Rosen Week 1 knowing that it’ll take time but that you have the people and staff in place to change and develop him?

Answer: they didn’t believe it would win games NOW.

They’re afraid of commitment, in a way. And when you don’t know what to look for in a guy, you can’t narrow down free agents and draft picks as easily, can you?

It means that Michael Bidwill and Keim are too concerned with the WHAT (winning games) and are ignoring or not caring about the WHY (culture). Previously, Bruce Arians was the WHY with the team with a simple two phrases:

  1. No Risk It, No Biscuit (aggressive, risk-taking team focuses on big shots, speed, sacks)
  2. All that matters is the Ring on that finger (high goals & lofty expectations)

Wilks has focused on trust, accountability and commitment...but that’s been about it. He hasn’t been able to back up stopping the run because the identity he’s trying to bring and shape isn’t fitting with Arizona.

And what was there was mis-evaluated by Arizona which tells you that Keim and Bidwill thought the culture had ARRIVED.

Steve Keim had built a culture around “good guys” and “high character” and then went out this summer and got a DUI.

When your leadership violates the culture that they proclaim, that’s got to have an impact on your locker room, or any business or office space.

Not that they needed to work on continual improvement and commitment to their ideas.

And they decided to do it by doubling down on winning now with defense and the run game, essentially, building around their D and David Johnson.

Then the team went out and...didn’t do that.

And they’ve already shown they aren’t willing to spend multiple years building this new identity rather than simply firing him to find a new one.

What it means going forward is that they’re going to have to figure out who they are now that the identity change has been so drastic.

Do they bring in Todd Bowles and say “we’re a team that needs an adaptable defensive coordinator who sends the house” and see if they can keep some of the Arians’ culture with his return?

Maybe it could be that at a defensive coordinator spot.

They’ve tried the old school method with Josh Rosen under McCoy/Leftwich of the traditional pocket passer behind a bad OL and it’s been pretty much as expected without experience like Warner/Palmer had making up for it.

Heck, even under Coryell they were an air-raid offense (it plays to the indoor stadiums and lack of snow, folks) and had Neil Lomax and a big-time passer in Boomer Esiason. All built around passing attacks.

It’s the best approach for the team, always has been, and any change from that would take a MAJOR overhaul to accomplish. Wilks as a hire hasn’t shown the ability to quickly develop and change that—he needs people and players to adjust to his style of football since he hasn’t been able to adjust himself.

It’s why he’s not the right guy and AZ’s back to the drawing board at head coach. It’s the GM’s fault, too.

That means it’s time for a fresh start and building a foundational identity around Rosen and where the league is going.

The Cardinals should pursue a high-flying passing attack built on Rosen’s arm and new collegiate or spread concepts that protect Rosen’s strengths and also protect his weaknesses, rather than the opposite in this 32nd ranked offense.

And their head coach should have that voice, I believe. And Steve Keim, who seems to have become a victim of this lack of identity, shouldn’t.

I only hope that the Cardinals, starting with their owner, can affirm and find that identity and the WHY behind what they do.

Because if they don’t, it might be too late...or we start talking about Josh Rosen as a guy who had “a few good seasons” that didn’t amount to any sustainable success.

It starts with the new head coach.

And you’ve got the steps in who you should be right in front of you.

All it takes is some self-evaluation to find the hire that fits you, not you changing who you are (to who you aren’t) to fit the new head coach.

Cause that’s how you’ll get Steve Wilks 2.0.

You can follow @blakemurphy7 on Twitter.