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Will Steve Keim’s gamble on Kliff Kingsbury save his job for the long-term?

Keim’s gambit with Kliff Kingsbury might not portend disaster if NFL history is to be believed

NFL: Arizona Cardinals- Kliff Kingsbury Press Conference Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The definition of a “gambit” goes very well when looking at Steve Keim’s status with the Arizona Cardinals.

There’s probably no better way to describe the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury. An opening action with a degree of calculated risk to gain an advantage.

Translation: hiring a former college head coach who’s known as an offensive wizard and quarterback guru to be the head coach when INSTEAD of the typical “offensive coordinator first”.

It’s a move made with the idea of skipping a year & potentially losing an asset to try and gain equal footing with the other young, talented offensive head coaches in the NFC West. And it wasn’t too surprising given that Steve Keim had a rough 2018.

To say the least.

To break down what happened from the day that 2018 began here’s a summary of what happened:

  • The winningest head coach in Cardinals franchise history retired the day after setting that record of 50 wins in 5 years
  • His starting quarterback retired the same day, leaving them with zero quarterbacks under contract
  • He and his boss, Michael Bidwill apparently missed out on their top choice to replace Bruce Arians (when listening to their press conference post 2018 season it’s clear that they felt they needed to keep things close to the vest)
  • On July 4th, he was arrested for driving under the influence in a car that wasn’t his and was suspended for 5 weeks by the Cardinals, fined by the team and spent 2 days in jail
  • His prize free agent acquisition of Sam Bradford was completely ineffective under the offensive coordinator that Keim agreed and paired with their head coach in Mike McCoy and was benched by Week 4 after Arizona had one of the most inept offenses in NFL History
  • The other big free agent acquisition in Justin Pugh spent a year battling injury and hitting IR while their reliable starting center A.Q. Shipley went down to begin training camp
  • Josh Rosen showed flashes but was largely ineffective as a rookie, leading to the firing of Mike McCoy and the 32nd ranked offense in the league
  • David Johnson was almost totally irrelevant in 2019 after signing a large extension before the season began.
  • Steve Wilks’ changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3 with a complex zone coverage scheme was out of left field from his expectations and the subsequent lack of talent and coaching led Arizona to a 3-13 record and the #1 overall pick

As I wrote earlier this season for Revenge of the Birds, the odds of a head coach and GM surviving that or the following season after losing enough to earn a top 5 pick in the draft was not pretty, with almost 80% of them being gone that year or the following year.

BUT as I pointed out, of the 13 surviving front office members from 2011-2017...11 of them were general managers. All who (except for Rick Smith and Reggie McKenzie) still have their jobs through the end of this year.

I proposed in the article that based on NFL trends, any team that kept both the head coach and GM saw them most often gone by the end of the next season (which makes sense because if it isn’t working, it won’t suddenly fix itself) and said that Keim would likely have to fire Steve Wilks to keep his job.

That is what happened.

What’s most surprising in this scenario is how Steve Keim and Michael Bidwill’s choice was, in essence, a very large gamble for a 3-13 team to take to turn the organization around.

They hired a 39-year-old college head coach (hit me, dealer) with no NFL experience (I’ll see and raise your bet) who had just gotten fired following a 35-40 record at Texas Tech (let it ride at the craps table 3x in a row)

Essentially, some thought the Cardinals were crazy.

Crazy as a blackjack player hitting on 16 in Vegas where the house usually always wins.

And yet...I thought it may have been a master stroke from a GM who seemed to understand both his current team, his organization’s history and the direction of the league in general.

It was a bold and aggressive move for a highly-sought after commodity (one that the Jets were also seeking to hire) that helped reinvigorate a fanbase that was on the rocks following the death by a thousand cuts of the Wilks regime.

Because it didn’t settle for a traditional “prove it first” mentality that many have in the NFL of liking a coach, “doing time” to build experience and learning and holding one year as a coordinator before immediately selling them a head coach job. That was the path that Steve Wilks got to help land the Cardinals’ job. And one we’ve seen from other one-year defensive coordinators or one-year playcallers like Matt LaFleur.

Keim looked past that and the poor NFL crop of offensive head-coaching talent and (oddly enough like I had pondered at the time of my last article on Keim) went outside the box with some creative thinking to find a coach with a proven track record of quarterback development and determined that Kliff’s reputation as a scheme-designer and a play-caller plus Keenum, Manziel, Mayfield, Mahomes and Webb were enough of a testament to Kingsbury to set him up at the highest position.

They found a coach and beat out the Jets for him.


But will it help Keim stay around as the GM long enough that he might sign yet another contract extension?

It might depend just as much on Keim’s draft picks as it does the performance of Kingsbury and his staff in year one. Keim essentially bet on not just Kingsbury, but also himself, in pulling in league contacts and interviewing NFL personnel to surround a rookie coach with zero NFL experience with some big-time names, likely convincing Michael Bidwill to have to pay up in order to do so.

And it’s worked so far...on paper anyway.

-The team’s seen Vance Joseph choose them over 3-4 other franchises.

-They also landed a solid OL coach that 3-4 other franchises desired

-A star running backs coach joined the team as well

-They’ve brought back a former NFL Defensive Coordinator in Bill Davis who’s got some personal connections to the player who might be the #1 overall pick in Nick Bosa, luring him away from a college gig at Ohio State.

The response from not just the fans but from the team and players themselves can be seen in two different ways:

  1. Larry Fitzgerald signed a one-year deal and announced his return with the team almost 3 weeks earlier than he did when Wilks was hired
  2. Patrick Peterson publicly announced he was sorry for his trade demand and that he was content to stay a Cardinal

So far, Steve Keim’s gamble (and Bidwill’s gamble on him) seems to be paying off. But he still has a long way to go.

Keim has to fix the offensive line, something he’s struggled to do for a few years in a row due to a lack of healthy players and finding solid depth.

He has to fill out a wide receiver room that essentially only had Christian Kirk before Fitzgerald returned.

And he’ll need to determine the right players and free agents to keep to fix a linebacker room that’s seen two 1st-round picks at the position and yet was one of the worst in the NFL last year.

Don’t forget fixing the #2 cornerback spot.

In short...

Keim’s entire ability to stay long-term with the Cardinals is dependent on him fixing the exact problems that he has struggled to address.

It’d be like asking a D.J. Humphries or Robert Nkemdiche to stay healthy when they have clearly not been able to. And it’s why, despite it looking like Keim is here to stay in 2019 and likely to 2020, he still may be on somewhat thin ice.

In any case so far, it’s clear that Keim was entrusted with the organization and that trust to this point from Michael Bidwill has been paying off in spades to start the offseason.

He hit on 16 at the blackjack table and seems to have landed a 20. And that means...

He’s seemingly well on his way to becoming the next GM to earn a top 5 pick, fire the bad coach & hire a new, better one, and keep his job for another 5-6 years.’ll take more than a strong start to the offseason to make that happen.

Especially when the Cardinals aren’t even close to seeing the reimagined & repackaged product between the white lines on Sundays.

But so far, the “Cards” seem to be in Keim’s favor.

You can follow @blakemurphy7 on Twitter.