This offseason was one of upheaval here in the desert—in 2018, we’ll be breaking in a new head coach, starting QB, and defensive scheme, as well as several new starters on both sides of the ball. With all these changes, the team is facing a bit of an identity crisis: What kind of team will we be under new HC Steve Wilks? How will our offense look with a new QB at the controls? How will the defense respond with the change to a 4-3 alignment? In short, what is the identity of this team moving forward?
The concept of a team identity is admittedly a bit nebulous, but bear with me. It’s not the same thing as the face of the franchise, or the best player, or the most outspoken personality. Rather, it’s closer to the most dominant personality, the individual who most embodies the persona of the team, who most influences the team both on and off the field, who monopolizes the local and national media conversation about the team.
It’s usually, but not always, the team’s coach or quarterback—or sometimes both. As an easy example, look at the Patriots. For the last two decades, the Patriots have been defined by the relationship (and sometimes friction) between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady—their approach to the game, their drive to win, their inscrutability to the media (and opposing coaches). That approach defines the organization from top to bottom; it’s the Patriots’ identity.
Looking around the NFC West, our rivals all have a clear-cut identity. The Seahawks’ identity was long found on the defensive side of the ball, specifically the boisterous and talented Legion of Boom. But with two of its most important members released or retired, the team’s identity shifts to the offense and the arm (and legs) of QB Russell Wilson. For the defending champ Rams, their identity is the physicality of RB Todd Gurley and DT Aaron Donald—they seek to impose their will on you on both sides of the ball. And for the 49ers, their identity is tied to their new golden boy, Jimmy Garoppolo—young, brash, and ascending.
For the last few years, the Cardinals’ identity came from former coach Bruce Arians and his outsized personality: “No Risk It, No Biscuit” and “Win or Lose, We Booze.” We were aggressive and opportunistic on both sides of the ball—regardless of personnel or game situation. That was who we were.
Now Arians is gone, off to enjoy life in the broadcasting booth. And that departure—for better or worse—leaves the Cardinals lacking a clear identity. So, then, who among the old hands or new faces will step into the void left by BA? Who will embody the Cardinals’ identity this season and moving forward? Let’s take a look at the candidates and make a guess, starting with perhaps the most obvious candidate.
WR Larry Fitzgerald
Fitz is a franchise icon, beloved by all Cardinals fans, and has a bust awaiting him in Canton when he decides to hang it up. But, at this point in his career, he’s a chain-moving slot receiver, not the game-changing phenom he was 7 or 8 years ago. He’s also never been a particularly forceful personality, instead preferring to lead by humble example. We’re all the better for having been witness to his career, but I don’t think the Cardinals’ identity will be defined by Fitz in 2018.
QB Sam Bradford (or Josh Rosen?)
If not Fitz, how about his QB? The identity of many teams is defined by the play of its QB, from the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers to the Panthers’ Cam Newton. But while Bradford has impressed in camp thus far and has proved to be an above-average starter when healthy, he’s not the type of franchise QB that defines an organization. Maybe Rosen can be that guy one day (as soon as next year?), but for now, he’s not even starting. No, the starting QB won’t define the Redbirds’ identity this season.
RB David Johnson
The NFL is a passing league these days, as the cliché goes, so there aren’t many teams defined by their running back like in years past, a lineage that stretches from Jim Brown’s Browns to LaDainian Tomlinson’s Chargers. The Rams’ Gurley is one, as mentioned above, and maybe Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers. Could DJ become one of the few true organization-defining RBs? If he achieves his goal of a 1000/1000 season—and perhaps a run at league MVP—he just might.
CB Patrick Peterson (and the secondary)
While the Redbirds have been an offensive-oriented team since the Kurt Warner days, our defense has actually been more consistently dominant. A large part of that is due to its best player, perennial Pro Bowler Peterson. As I mentioned with the Seahawks above, it’s possible for a team’s identity to come from its secondary. Can Peterson, Budda Baker, Antoine Bethea, Tre Boston, et al. become the new standard-bearers for the franchise? I could see it… but only if we can find a reliable second CB opposite Peterson.
DE Chandler Jones (and the pass rush)
Quietly, Jones led the league in sacks last season. With a bit more team success, he likely would’ve been squarely in the middle of the DPOY discussion. If Jones can keep up the production in the new 4-3 defense and the team takes a step forward into the postseason, could he become the new face of the franchise? If he does, and Markus Golden returns to double-digit sack form, we’d have the next great pass rushing D-line on our hands. That’s a lot of ifs, but ask the New York Giants what it’s like to be defined by your pass rushers.
HC Steve Wilks
A team’s identity doesn’t necessarily have to come from the players on the field. I mentioned Belichick and Arians above, and coaches like John Harbaugh (Ravens), Andy Reid (Chiefs), and Marvin Lewis (Bengals, to their detriment) all define their team’s identity. So how about new coach Steve Wilks? A lot of people are impressed by him thus far, but he’s still an unknown quantity as a head coach, and it usually takes at least a year or two for a coach to completely change a franchise’s culture/tendencies. I don’t think our identity will be determined by Wilks this season.
While the organization is in a state of flux right now, I don’t think that’ll be the case this time next year—one of these guys will step up and give the Cardinals an identity again. Of the candidates, my money is on David Johnson and his versatility, his dedication, and his positive attitude… as long as his contract situation doesn’t derail his season. (And I don’t think it will.) In 2019, the Redbirds will be known as DJ’s team—and I can’t think of anyone better equipped to handle the role.
Do you agree, Cardinals fans? Or will someone else establish our identity this season? Any names we missed (GM Steve Keim, owner Michael Bidwill)? Let’s try to solve this identity crisis in the comments!