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The Arizona Cardinals Perception Stigma

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The Cardinals are still working to change old perceptions.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the hiring of Steve Wilks as head coach and Michael Bidwill’s decision to reward GM Steve Keim with a new multi-year contract, the Arizona Cardinals are heading into a new era.

However, as Bidwill, Keim and Wilks embark on this new journey, the Cardinals’ biggest obstacle is far more than acquiring a QB and retooling the offensive line---no, this most prodigious obstacle is dealing with the national perception that the Cardinals have always been thrifty, loquacious pretenders, not legit, hunkered-down contenders.

On ESPN’s NFL Live yesterday, during their weekly “Over-reaction Monday” segment the panel was asked whether the Cardinals could make the playoffs this year if they sign prized UFA QB Kirk Cousins. Typically, for the sake of debate they have one of the pundits go out on a limb and say yes. That lone pundit yesterday was Teddy Bruschi who felt that with Cousins at QB, Fitz at WR and DJ at RB the Cardinals could make the playoffs by virtue of timely offense and a stout defense.

The other pundits scoffed and nearly laughed at the idea. They cited the usual: horrid offensive line play, only one decent WR on the roster, no TEs and the fact that DJ hasn’t played in so long that he’s nearly a forgotten man.

The Cardinals have been mentioned as one of the 4 finalists in the Cousins chase---but---the widespread perception is that the Cardinals are a distant 4th---that, per usual, they cannot afford to take on Cousins’ salary particularly in light of all their other glaring needs and deficiencies.

But, when one pulls the curtain back a little farther what one sees is a growing perception perpetuated by a number of the Cardinals’ former players that the organization doesn’t value their players the way they should.

Sure, the Cardinals over the past few years paid QB Carson Palmer is excess of $74M. Last year they signed DE Chandler Jones to a 5 year $82.5M contract with $51M in guaranteed money. In recent years they resigned Larry Fitzgerald (three times), Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu to lucrative deals. Steve Keim insists that the Cardinals will do everything the can to reward and take care of their “core” players.

So the Cardinals aren’t really cheap, right?

Yet, why then does the “Cardinals are cheap” stigma continue to persist?

Take Tony Jefferson, for example. In the 2015 NFC Championship game, Jefferson and his 14 tackles were one of the only bright spots in what was a humiliating pummeling. Jefferson headed into the 2016 season as a restricted free agent and was alarmed to find that the Cardinals low-balled him with a $1.4M tender.

Jefferson was arguably the Cardinals’ defensive MVP in 2016, but the writing was already on the wall. The Cardinals were going to let him peddle his wares in the free agent market. The Cardinals said they made Jefferson a reasonable “market value” contract offer, but Jefferson took the offer as token and pretty much an insult.

Jefferson was one of the hottest free agents last year and he was wined and dined by the Ravens to the tune of 4 years @ $34M ($8.5M/year) with $19M guaranteed. Afterward, when Bruce Arians was asked about Jefferson’s deal with the Ravens, BA had the temerity to comment that it will be interesting to see how Jefferson plays “now that he has his money.”

Curious that the Cardinals considered TE Jermaine Gresham at $7.25M a year a better “core player” value than Jefferson or D.J. Swearinger.

Even worse in many respects is what happened with Calais Campbell. One would think that Campbell would have been considered one of the Cardinals’ top core players and a deserving candidate to be a Cardinal for life and potentially to be a future inductee into the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor.

Again, the Cardinals made it publically known that they gave Campbell what they considered to be a handsome contract offer, but by then it was way too little too late---the most damaging reality goes back in 2015, the year before Campbell’s contract year, with perhaps the best chance to reach an agreement on a contract extension, Campbell was called out publically by his head coach for not playing up to his capabilities---which seemed more than a little odd during the middle of what was the Cardinals best 9 game stretch of football in Arizona.

The fact that Campbell was the top priority free agent of his class, that he received a 4 year $60M contract with $30M guaranteed, and then went on to have a historic season for which he was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year by the Sporting News and by the Pro football Writers’ Association---not only proved how wrong the Cardinals were to let him slip through their fingers---it also created a perception that former Cardinals’ players, now escapees signed to good contracts on other teams, find themselves in far more auspicious situations.

The national perceptions is: the Jacksonville Jaguars are trending upward and are considered a legit Super Bowl contender for years to come---while the Arizona Cardinals are sinking fast into the cellar of the NFC West and can’t block anyone to save their skins.

This year, despite the new changes on the coaching staff, from a PR perspective, the Cardinals face another highly precarious situation with regard to Tyrann Mathieu’s $5M roster bonus on March 14th. If the Cardinals pay the bonus, Mathieu will make over $14M a year in 2018 and 2019 and $19M of guaranteed money kicks in.

At the NFL Combine GM Keim appeared uncommitted to the auspices of retaining Mathieu, while new head coach Wilks was enthusiastic about what Mathieu could bring to his ferocious, ultra-aggressive style of defense.

If the Cardinals elect to move on from Mathieu and Mathieu gets scooped up by a contender, becomes rejuvenated and helps lead his new team to the playoffs the way Campbell did, what a PR nightmare this would be for the Cardinals, particularly if the Cardinals continue to flounder. Mathieu has tweeted that he is betting on himself, whatever that means. Sure, Mathieu is coming off a season where he played every snap, but at times played very cautiously, something he likely learned from his LSU teammate Patrick Peterson.

In a different setting, surrounded by a different mentality, Tyrann Mathieu may become the Honey Badger of old. And, man oh man, that would sting like a scorpion, especially for the thousands of avid Cardinals’ fans who don his #32 jersey with such pride. And, worst of all, it could further perpetuate the perception that the Cardinals’ best players are better off somewhere else.

From this fan’s perspective, I believe that the Cardinals should not take the risk of letting the Honey Badger go. Under Steve Wilks and with a change in defensive philosophy---and under the astute leadership of new DB coach David Merritt---there is a very good chance that the Honey Badger of yore will rear his yellow tufted head in triumph in 2018.

If it means honoring Mathieu’s contract---then---so be it.

There are good reasons why the Cardinals gave that contract to Mathieu in the first place.

This is a year when the Cardinals need to bring their swag back---big time. There are few players on the planet who have that special type of swag, bounce and passion for the game than Tyrann Mathieu.

This year---the Cardinals need to prove that Arizona is legit. That Arizona is team of ballers who play for the love of the game. That the grass and the money aren’t always greener on the other side of Camelback Mountain.

In essence, the Cardinals need to start betting on themselves.