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Both Sides Now: Steve Keim

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 1967, Joni Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now,” a poignant song about the paradoxical nature of clouds, love and life.

“Rows and floes of angel hair—-And ice cream castles in the air—-

And feather canyons everywhere—-I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun—-They rain and snow on everyone—-

So many things I would have done—-But clouds got in my way—-

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now—-From up and down, and still somehow—-

It’s cloud illusions I recall—-I really don’t know clouds at all—-”

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If I have learned one lesson about the paradox of life—-it’s that in so many ways a man can be his own best friend and his own worst enemy all at the same time. This is why I foster such a fond appreciation of Joni Mitchell’s song—-because, like a great paradox does, it speaks to a curious truth.

The other day when I read the results of a recent Twitter poll that Arizona Sport radio host Jody Oehler conducted, I thought of “Both Sides Now” as it relates the the Cardinals’ GM Steve Keim:

If you could only make one change for the Arizona Cardinals, what would it be?

13%—-Fire Vance Joseph

13%—-Trade/cut David Johnson

16%—-Trade Patrick Peterson

58%—-Fire Steve Keim

At first I was a little surprised at these results (from 550 voters)—-but—-when one considers Steve Keim’s role in the hiring of Vance Joseph (as being able to take full command of his side of the ball and be a mentor to Kliff Kingsbury), in signing David Johnson (to a 3 year $39M deal with $31M in guaranteed money) and in turning down a 1st round draft pick for mercurial CB Patrick Peterson (who Keim maintains is “the best CB in the NFL”)—-perhaps these results are easier to understand.

Thus, today, I thought I would try as best as I can to paint both sides of Steve Keim in an effort to try to see what the curious truth about our GM is.

One note: Just as it Michael Bidwill took the blame for hiring Steve Wilks, Bidwill also deserves the credit (with assistance from Ernie Accorsi and Adrian Wilson) for hiring Kliff Kingsbury—-a decision that Steve Keim has embraced.

The Positives:

  1. Re-signing WR Larry Fitzgerald.
  2. Re-signing P Andy Lee and signing K Zane Gonzalez and STC Jeff Rodgers.
  3. Trading for Chandler Jones (2016).
  4. Signing OLC Sean Kugler and a host of good, solid offensive coaches.
  5. Trading for RB Kenyan Drake.
  6. Orchestrating the Cardinals’ 2019 talented Draft class.
  7. Signing UFAs guards Justin Pugh (2018) and J.R. Sweezy (2019).
  8. Signing LB Jordan Hicks (2019) and TE Maxx Williams (2019).
  9. Picking up LT D.J. Humphries’ 5th year option (gambling on him staying healthy this year).
  10. Drafting S Budda Baker (2017), WR Christian Kirk (2018), C/G Mason Cole (2018) and RB Chase Edmonds (2018)
  11. Compiling a record of 49-32-1, 1 NFC West Crown, and 1-2 playoff record with Bruce Arians as head coach.

The Concerns:

  1. Hiring OC Mike McCoy and DC Vance Joseph in back-to-back years.
  2. Previous 1st round draft busts.
  3. Only re-signing 2 of his draft picks (S Tyrann Mathieu and RB David Johnson) to 2nd multi-year contracts (both a year before their 1st contracts were up, both at 3/$39M/$31Mg with both players coming off the IR).
  4. Signing an array of aging veterans who cashed in and underwhelmed (QB Sam Bradford, T Andre Smith, S D.J. Swearinger, OLB Terrell Suggs and WR Michael Crabtree—all still collecting paychecks from the Cardinals).
  5. Enabling a culture where some veterans play hard only when they want to or only at aspects of the game they like.
  6. Keim’s handling of the Patrick Peterson situation (more on this later).
  7. Kowtowing to the NFL by keeping their #1 pick secret, at the expense of the best interests of the team, specifically with regard to the trade of Josh Rosen.
  8. Keeping Josh Rosen twisting in the wind with the “he’s our starter (QB), right now” at the NFL Combine in February and then not having the decency to speak with Rosen to wish him luck after trading him to the Dolphins.
  9. Losing DE Calais Campbell to free agency—-which is still haunting the club —-and he was in so many was the key to the 34 defense because of the double teams he commanded, which kept the $LB clean and free to make plays.
  10. Choosing to move on from OLB/DE Markus Golden by investing $7M guaranteed in the 37 year old career-Raven Terrell Suggs who apparently told a Ravens’ teammate that he had so much respect for the Ravens that he “didn't want to steal from them” and that he decided “to steal from the Cardinals instead.” His no-show at OTAs, constant days off from practice and his conspicuous lack of consistent effort at key times in the games corroborates not only Suggs’ notion of “stealing” from the Cardinals, but the more troubling perception (stigma) around the NFL that the Cardinals are not taken seriously and are nowhere nearly as respected as the top franchises. Moreover, there has been a league-wide perception for years that the Cardinals play relatively soft on defense.
  11. Since Bruce Arians’ retirement, compiling a record of of 6-20-1 (to date).

The strongest argument for retaining Steve Keim as GM in 2020 is keeping as much continuity as possible for Kliff Kingsbury. Keim seems to have the offense and special teams in good shape and on the up and up. By all accounts, Keim and Kingsbury have a good relationship.

However, the strongest argument for moving on from Steve Keim may be answered in the question of whether Keim has what it takes to build a championship level defense under the leadership of a highly competent defensive coordinator.

Under Keim’s tenure however, the defense has been getting progressively worse.

Here are the points per game the defense has given up since Keim became GM in 2013:

2013: 20.2

2014: 18.7

2015: 19.6

2016: 22.6

2017: 22.6

2018: 26.6

2019: 28.8

Obviously, these numbers have been trending in the wrong direction.

This season, despite the consistent chain moving and scoring drives the Cardinals have produced on offense and the fact that the offense has only turned the ball over 6 times in 11 games—-the Cardinals’ defense is giving up a whopping 415.2 yards per game (31st in NFL).

In terms of scoring defense (30th)—-the Cardinals this season have not held a single opponent under 20 points, as 6 of their opponents have scored in the 20s and 5 of their opponents have scored in the 30s.

This is a historically poor defense.

While Steve Keim has signed, traded for and drafted some good players on defense, it might be fair to ask the question of just how well Keim’s defensive personnel choices have catered to 34 prototypes. 34 outside linebackers typically need to be versatile—-strong enough to hold the edge on running downs while storming the edge on pass rushes—-and athletic enough to be reliable in keeping outside contain and dropping into man or zone coverage when needed. Think of how the lack of versatility at the 34 OLB positions have hurt the Cardinals in recent years.

A key player in the 34 defense is at WILB (a.k.a. $LB)—-and yet for years the Cardinals have struggled at that spot because they have tried to convert college safeties and outside linebackers to that role. It hasn’t helped their cause for the past three years without having the kind of presence and strength Calais Campbell offered at 34 RDE, where opponents no longer have to double team the DE inside, which means leaving the $LB more susceptible to blocks. It certainly would have helped to have had 34 DE Darius Philon and/or 2016 1st round pick Robert Nkemdiche in the 34 DE role, but you know how those situations turned out.

Then there has been the year to year revolving door and uncertainty at RCB. To be fair to Steve Keim, he signed UFA CB Robert Alford to take that spot this year, but after Alford broke his leg in training camp and it was clear that CB Patrick Peterson would embark on a 6 week golf vacation, suddenly the CB room was missing its two most talented veterans.

Keim does not deserve the blame there—-except subsequently for how foolish Peterson has made Keim look after Keim maintained to the national media that Peterson is still “the best CB in the NFL” and that Keim would personally go pick him up the minute Peterson’s suspension was lifted. The fact is—-Patrick Peterson had Steve Keim fooled when there were all kinds of red flags to warrant their apprehension.

Finally, the Cardinals’ defense for many years now has been particularly vulnerable on the perimeter to sweeps, reverses, RPO and read-option QB runs and every type of screen pass that’s designed to exploit the Cardinals’ lack of alertness and aggressiveness in defending such plays.

How an NFL GM could stand by and watch the defense get exploited on the perimeter game in and game out while so often leaving receivers wide open—-without doing everything he can to hire the right coaches and acquire the right players—-is very perplexing, to say the least.

With 5 games remaining in this season, I have pledged to keep an open mind to see if Vance Joseph can show clear signs of improvement, especially coming off of the bye week. I hope for everyone’s sake that Joseph delivers.

But if Joseph does not deliver these next 5 games, then I think it would be best to move on from both Vance Joseph and Steve Keim. The Cardinals’ pattern of poor, soft defense is too difficult to continue to withstand and to make excuses for.

The extremely exciting thing the Cardinals have going for them now is an emerging new culture of “team first” players who are eager to work diligently and toe-to-toe toward achieving the ultimate goal in their profession, Therefore, it behooves Michael Bidwill to do whatever it takes to support the new leadership and to get the right compliments in place as soon as possible.

Settling on continuity just for the sake of continuity often aids and abets mediocrity. Bidwill could have given Steve Wilks another year—-but Bidwill had a different vision for his team which he had the guts to act on. Should Michael Bidwill call on Ernie Accorsi (or another former GM) and Adrian Wilson again this year? What say you?

I think that in 5 weeks, the answer, one way or another, should be clear.