To hear Steve Keim, talk about his latest draft pick is like watching a five-star chef meticulously garnish and glaze a steaming plate of chateaubriand. Keim can deliver you his detailed scouting report of a draftee in a New York minute---no wasted words---no frill---just “scout speak” about bend, speed, length, football IQ, work ethic, leadership, motor, twitch, versatility, coachability. Keim’s scouting rhetoric is a work of art.
Keim’s first three years as Cardinals’ GM were a ringing success. The team, under Keim’s inaugural head coach, Bruce Arians, and BA’s venerable staff, won 35 games, including a legendary OT home playoff win versus the Packers. Keim’s fingerprints were all over the recipe---he traded for QB Carson Palmer---he re-signed WR Larry Fitzgerald when the rest of the NFL universe was urging him to go play for the Patriots---he signed All Pro LG Mike Iupati and highly thought of LT Jared Veldheer---he brought in a cadre of veterans like John Abraham, Dwight Freeney, Chris Johnson, Red Bryant and Lamar Woodley on timely cap thrifty prove it deals---he drafted WR John Brown and RB David Johnson---he helped coin the term “money linebacker” when he turned Deone Bucannon, a college safety into a new age plug and play inside linebacker---he took the risk of drafting the Honey Badger and watched him elevate the play of the entire defense to the point in 2015 of being a consideration for NFL’s defensive player of the year award---Keim watched one of his undrafted free agents, Tony Jefferson turn into a Pro Bowl caliber safety. He permitted a film crew to chronicle on of the most exciting seasons in Cardinals’ history, the 2015 “All or Nothing” campaign. However, the documentary and the season ends abruptly with the Cardinals getting blown out in the NFC Championship game at Carolina.
The following two years, in contrast to the first three, have been bitterly disappointing. The level of the team’s play significantly declined. The team looked stale, predictable, turnover-prone, oft-injured and complacent. Keim’s draft picks were being heavily scrutinized and critiqued by the head coach. A veteran, whom Keim put a lot pf faith in, was deemed “a failure in progress” by the head coach. The kicking units choked away close games. The team got older and slower---while the coaches were loath to play rookies. Arians suffered through several health scares---the mood was testy and chippy and nerve wracking.
Last year, after vowing to the Cardinals’ fans that he would be “very aggressive” in free agency, Keim wound up signing 3 older veterans---(who are the easiest to sign---particularly on the 2nd day of free agency---because there is far less competition to sign veterans past their primes). Thus, citing the need for new leadership, Keim elected to make an old team older. As it turned out, only 1 of the free veteran UFA signees (S Antoine Bethea) had a good year. Phil Dawson missed FGs with maddening regularity and Karlos Dansby, the new/old QB of the defense was constantly fighting off injuries and unfortunately looked like a slower version of his former self.
In the NFL draft, Steve Keim, after talking so often and passionately during the off-season about the prospects of drafting a QB, watched the Chiefs and Texans trade up right ahead of the Cardinals to take QBs Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson---and, for yet another year---the draft came and went without the Cardinals taking a QB on Day 1 or 2...or even Day 3.
With the Cardinals rapidly sinking in the NFC West and with a league-wide perception that the Cardinals lowball the majority of their own players when they hit free agency---if and when they aren’t denigrating the players in public or blaming the latest loss on their lack of leadership or their botching of simple assignments---the news comes today that Steve Keim has received a contract extension through 2022.
The fact is that prior to this extension, Keim still had this year and a team option year in 2019 on his current deal. So why did Michael Bidwill find it so necessary to sign Steve Keim now to a multi-year extension?
Bidwill has gotten burned by both head coaches he gave extensions to a year or two before they were necessary. In Ken Whisenhunt’s and Bruce Arians’ cases, after taking the team to the playoffs during their first three years, after they were rewarded with contract extensions, it was downhill from there. Maybe that’s just an unfortunate coincidence. But, maybe not.
But there are some tell-tale signs about Bidwill’s current mindset that are impossible to ignore. After BA retired at the end of the season, Bidwill and Keim interviewed BA’s recommended candidates, the Cardinals’ DC James Bettcher and the Falcons’ STC Keith Armstrong---but ultimately Bidwill and Keim were enamored with the Panthers’ DC Steve Wilks. Thus, Bidwill and Keim not only didn’t buy into BA’s coaching tree, they have done their best to create a fresh clean slate and a swift departure from the previous regime.
Keim’s extension feels like a very strong vindication and an exculpatory measure on Bidwill’s part. In other words, Keim deserves to be rewarded for his diligence, that cannot be undone or mitigated by the shortcomings of the previous coaching staff. There is likely the sense that many of the previous shortcomings were the result of poor, stale coaching and a lack of player development.
Was it an uncanny coincidence that one of Steve Wilks’ main talking points in his introductory press conference was his intention to hire a staff of coaches who can “relate to all kinds of players” in order to motivate them and develop their confidence?
Wilks also talked very passionately about every person in the building---from the players, to the maintenance staff, to the cafeteria crew---being held to the highest levels of accountability, so that each day makes everyone stronger and more united than the previous.
Steve Keim is a humble, diligent and passionate GM. He says he has made some mistakes but is learning from them. With another first-time head coach to help along and a brand-new outlook, Steve Keim is facing the greatest challenge of his career. He needs to get the Cardinals caught up with the rest of the NFC West---which starts with signing or drafting a QB who can go toe to toe with Russell Wilson, Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo---not just this year, but for years to come. As a former offensive lineman, Keim must be beside himself every time he hears the echo of BA’s referring to the offensive line a bunch of “turnstiles.” The offensive line mess needs to be fixed asap. The WR and TE units are depleted. And on defense, there are question marks at linebacker and at CB.
Tough decisions need to be made about high salaried veterans such as Mike Iupati, Jared Veldheer, Deone Bucannon, and yes, unfortunately, the Honey Badger. Keim needs to free valuable cap space---he needs to hit a home run in free agency or pull off another big trade or two---and he needs---more than ever--- to deliver a signature draft like the ones the Falcons, Rams and Saints have had recently.
Keim can now proceed with the complete confidence of Michael Bidwill, and with the assurance that he’s been doing what his boss believes has been a great job all along.