Not like this.
With our optimism mostly sapped after the first two weeks, I think all but the most delusional of Redbirds fans were expecting a loss yesterday.
But not like this.
The first quarter was like a dream. Bradford hitting wide open receivers down the field, the defense playing physically and causing turnovers, the crowd energized. Maybe the season could be salvaged, maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed.
But then the dream turned back into a nightmare after halftime. Four straight turnovers on offense, a gassed defense letting the lead slowly slip away, the energy completely drained out of State Farm Stadium. A 14-0 lead turned into a 16-14 loss, salvation cruelly turned into validation of our worst fears.
We’re just not a good football team. Or even a mediocre one. As constructed, as coached, and as shown on the field, we’re a bad football team.
We played the blame game last week, and the fingers were pointed squarely at GM Steve Keim. That still holds true, as he’s the architect of this rapidly collapsing house of Cards, but yesterday’s loss can’t be pinned solely on him. No, yesterday truly showed the cracks in the pillars of this team, and one man was directly responsible for the debacle we all witnessed.
Head coach Steve Wilks.
When Wilks was hired, he talked a good game, preaching about his “three pillars” of trust, commitment, and accountability. But it seems those were empty words—when talk turned to action, he abandoned each of those pillars yesterday, showing an utter lack of trust in his best players, commitment to the decisions he’s made, and accountability toward those who need to be taken to task.
Whether these are just rookie coaching mistakes or signs that he’s in over his head remains to be seen. But given the following examples of Wilks betraying his own principles just three games into the season makes me lean toward the latter. Let me show you exactly what I mean.
As a head coach, you have to trust your best players to get the job done. When the game is on the line, you make sure your best players are on the field and put the game in their hands. Win or lose, at least you know you know you gave it your best shot with your best guys.
Wilks utterly failed in that regard yesterday by leaving David Johnson on the sideline and watching as rookie Chase Edmonds was tackled for a 3-yard loss on that pivotal 3rd-and-2 on our penultimate drive. Why not at least line DJ up out wide as a decoy? (If you’re not going to put the ball in his hands.) Leaving him on the sideline was simply inexcusable.
Local media, including our own Seth and Walter, have already rightly skewered Wilks for this indefensible decision. And after three games in which DJ has averaged less than 15 touches a game, it’s quite clear that Wilks trusts OC Mike McCoy’s system (don’t worry—more on him later) more than he trusts his own players.
Failing to trust DJ and putting misplaced trust in McCoy—this pillar is already showing some serious erosion.
For a head coach to keep the respect of the locker room, he needs to commit to his players. The players need to know that their coach makes sound decisions, even when faced with adversity. Leaders need to make tough decisions and stick with them.
Wilks has failed spectacularly at this as it relates to the quarterback position during his short tenure. After the draft, Wilks declared the position “open for competition,” only to then declare Bradford the starter at the beginning of training camp. Okay, Bradford was an established veteran and we were supposedly “retooling,” fine. Let the rookie develop for a year. (It worked wonders for Patrick Mahomes II!)
Then yesterday happened.
To say Sam Bradford had an up-and-down game would be a massive understatement. He followed up a 2-touchdown first quarter with a 3-turnover second half. His fumble deep in Bears territory in the fourth quarter was an absolute backbreaker, no doubt about it.
But to pull him and put rookie Josh Rosen in the game down 2 with under 5:00 to play is just unconscionable—and Rosen proceeded to do what most rookie QBs would do when put in that position. (No Baker Mayfield comparisons, please—Mayfield came in in the first half as an injury replacement.) The chances of Rosen succeeding in that situation were minuscule, and he deserved a better time and place for his debut.
We may have “needed a spark,” but Bradford has been there before. You have to show commitment to your veteran rather than making a panic move by putting the rookie in. Was he influenced by what Mayfield did on Thursday night? Has he been hearing some fans and media clamoring for Rosen? Whatever the case, this was not a sound football decision, and the team paid the price.
But Wilks might have saved his worst indecision for after the game. When you bench your $20 million veteran for a rookie late in the fourth quarter, there’s no going back. You have to commit to the rookie at that point or else risk a QB controversy the team can’t afford. Yet Wilks couldn’t even do that: “We’re going to evaluate Josh as well as Sam,” he said after the game. Would you like some waffle fries with your QB controversy?
This QB situation has been mishandled about as badly as possible. This pillar has a crack right down the middle.
When things go wrong (and many things have gone wrong for the Cardinals thus far in 2018), those at fault need to be held accountable by the head coach. While the defense—Wilks’s area of expertise—has largely been solid, the offense has been abysmal—so where’s the accountability?
There are two individuals that can be blamed: QB Sam Bradford and OC Mike McCoy. So far, Wilks has declined to hold either of them accountable. Yes, he pulled Bradford out of the game yesterday, but according to Wilks’s postgame comments, Bradford could still start next week. That’s not accountability.
And anyone who’s watched even a few minutes of Cardinals football this season can see that McCoy is a major problem. His schemes are vanilla (or is it that the playbook is too complicated?), he doesn’t know how to use DJ, and his playcalling a joke. This is a man who’s been fired from his last two coaching jobs and who hasn’t shown the slightest ability to adjust in his short stint here in the desert—and yet Wilks has “total trust” in him? Zero accountability.
If our offense is still this inept with McCoy at the helm going into the bye, this pillar will have completely collapsed. (And, for the record, I don’t think McCoy should be anywhere near State Farm Stadium when the Seahawks come to town this weekend.)
When Wilks was hired, there was a lot of talk about his qualities as a leader, how he had the perfect demeanor for the gig. So far—and, yes, it’s only been three games—I’m not seeing any of that. I’m seeing a guy unprepared for the pressure of managing 53 professional athletes, a coaching staff, and expectations from the fans/media. The moment was too big for him yesterday, as it’s mostly been so far.
Now, I’m not calling for his head—he’s a rookie head coach, and most rookie head coaches struggle at first. But if he can’t repair the cracks in his own personal pillars—which are now the pillars of our team—he risks becoming another Valley head coach who’s all words but no actions, no results. Another Earl Watson, if you will.
And Watson didn’t even last two seasons.
It’s your turn to weigh in, Cardinals fans. What do you think of Steve Wilks’s performance thus far? Do you agree with how he handled the game yesterday? Do you still believe in him, or are you tired of empty words? Let us know in the comments.