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Culture Changes in Arizona

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

This off-season the Arizona Cardinals are well on their way in their attempt to reboot the entire organization and to, once and for all, try to build a winning culture in the locker room, on the field and in the community.

First and foremost, Cardinals’ fans are witnessing some drastic changes in how the Cardinals are rebuilding their coaching staff.

Essentially what the Cardinals have done is create a power quartet at the top with GM Steve Keim in charge of staffing and personnel, with Kliff Kingsbury in charge of the offense, with Vance Joseph in charge of the defense and with Jeff Rodgers in charge of special teams.

This is a new age setup for the Cardinals—-at each vertex of the power diamond is a hand-picked specialist. Each in his own way is the king of his command.

What’s readily conspicuous and enlightening about this change in the staffing hierarchy is that the franchise is no longer being ruled by one alpha male monarch as it was for five of the last six year with Bruce Arians in charge.

During a recent podcast, Kliff Kingsbury revealed that in preparation for free agency and the 2019 NFL Draft, Steve Keim has asked him and Vance Joseph to be very specific about the prototypes they covet at each position. Not only about physical traits, but about mental and leadership criteria.

If Steve Keim follows through and gives his coaches the players that they believe can help them succeed, this can be a major breakthrough for changing the culture in Arizona.

Where Keim struggled most under BA was in matching the personnel to the style of the head coach and coaching staff. BA did not make it easy for Keim, because BA and his coaches were “old school” in their approach—-which in today’s NCAA and NFL landscapes is becoming more and more of an anachronism.

With the Cardinals sending a record 63 employees to Indianapolis for this week’s NFL Combine, one gets the sense that the Cardinals are supremely focused on doing a better and more thorough job of vetting the draft prospects—-so that they can tailor their draft board to the specific wishes of the coaches.

Kliff Kingsbury set the tone for such thorough vetting during the hiring process. Michael Bidwill said that he was extremely impressed with Kingsbury’s diligence during the coaching interviews and that Kingsbury would spend hours and hours with the candidates to get as good a feel for the fit as possible. Bidwill said in the past that such hires were made in an hour or two, whereas this time around, Kingsbury dedicated whole days to the vetting process.

In hiring of assistant coaches on his side of the ball, Kingsbury has been exceptionally open-minded. With the exception of WR coach David Raih (whom Kingsbury hired at Texas Tech) and to a smaller degree with OL coach Sean Kugler (whom Kingsbury coached against while Kugler was the HC at UTEP), Kingsbury hired a host of assistants with NFL or college experience whom he was only vaguely familiar with, if at all.

When you look at the coaches Kingsbury hired, at each turn, they were very thoughtful choices, the most salient of which were QB coach and passing game coordinator Tom Clements (Packers) and RB coach James Saxon (Steelers). Both Clements and Saxon have a track record of working effectively with All-Pros.

Credit Bidwill and Keim for hiring Kingsbury so quickly, because Kingsbury was able to pick some plums off the assistant coaching tree before other teams could get to them.

Again, this is a drastic departure from the kind of cronyism that BA employed.

It would have been easier for Kingsbury to hire a host of assistants he already knew and who were already well versed in the nuances of the Air Raid offense—-yet Kingsbury chose to go BCA—-as in—-best coach available.

In the short term it may take a little longer for Kingsbury to get all of his offensive coaches on the same page, but in the long run, these hires could yield the highest levels of success.

The biggest challenge for Kingsbury and his offensive coaches is to bring back the electricity, fun and swag that has been so glaringly missing in the offense the last three years. Let’s face it, the Cardinals’ offense has looked miserable for the better part of two years. Kingsbury’s creativity, precision and youthful exuberance can and should make a profound difference.

The biggest challenge for Vance Joseph is to bring back an attacking style of defense that is formidable versus both the running and passing games—-one that is predicated on far more forceful tackling and a greater penchant for creating game changing turnovers.

The biggest challenge for Jeff Rodgers is to build on last year’s improvements on special teams that this year include more productive performances from the return teams and more reliable performances in the kicking game.

The biggest challenge for Steve Keim is to make stronger choices in free agency the draft in order to expand the number of core players on the roster. As Keim heads into his 7th draft, the reality is that he has only re-signed two of his first 23 draft picks to second multi-year contracts, and neither one of them (Tyrann Mathieu and David Johnson) were first or second rounders.

When Michael Bidwill signs each draft pick, he always shakes the draftee’s hand and says “I hope we will be signing a couple more of these in the future.”

In retrospect, Steve Keim might want to question the wisdom of signing injured players to lucrative long-term deals a year before they are scheduled to become free agents. Obviously, what happened with the Honey Badger was very disappointing, bad for the Cardinals’ public relations and demoralizing for his teammates.

However, as much as has been said about the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury with regard to the development of QB Josh Rosen, KIngsbury’s offense could be a godsend for David Johnson. Kingsbury has already elaborated on his intention to move Johnson around the formations to do everything possible to exploit coverage mismatches and to get Johnson the ball in space.

The biggest challenge for the power diamond is to get the players in the mindset to play their hearts out every game of the season. The last time we Cardinals fans saw the team up for challenge week in and week out was in 2015—-but that was the year that the players’ every move was being recorded for the All or Nothing series.

The past three years, it became painfully obvious early in games when the Cardinals’ players looked lethargic, soft and disinterested—-most conspicuously during the home opener last year—-which, quite understandably, had the Red Sea up and booing by halftime.

The Cardinals’ players the past three years have made it clear which weeks they came to play and which weeks they did not.

Week to week competitiveness is the number one culture change the Cardinals need.

Hopefully the power of diamond of the Cardinals new leadership team will make a profound difference. But, at the end of the day, it will all come down to the leadership in the team’s locker room among the players themselves.

Adding tough, durable stalwarts would be a great place to start.

Best wishes in Indy this week to the staff of 63 Cardinals in attendance.