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Keim in (Pro Football) Focus after drafting Kyler Murray

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How the general manager’s pivot to analytics was the untold story of his dominating draft weekend...and how PFF might save the Cards for good

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If you had asked an Arizona Cardinals fan on December 30th, 2018 how they felt about general manager Steve Keim, I can imagine some of the reactions would have ranged drastically, with the majority being on the negative side.

“#FireKeim”

“Not a single successful first rounder.”

“He’s the one who hired Wilks and McCoy, and depleted the talent from this team.”

“Keim needs to go, NOW. Clean house.”

And today, Steve Keim and the Arizona Cardinals sit in a new-found light as the national attention spotlight has fallen directly on them, with rave reviews about their draft and even national football experts calling for their potential to be “the most improved team in the NFC.”

Nope, that’s not a hyperbolic statement there.

So the question then...how did we get here?

How did Steve Keim seemingly go from the scapegoat to Draft G.O.A.T. (greatest of all-time) this year?

The answer is a renewed approach in going all in on analytics.

It started at that press conference on December 31st, 2018 where Steve Keim said that he took accountability and felt that he needed to look himself in the mirror, make adjustments and “make adjustments to the football operations” in the post-Wilks firing interview on the day commonly known in the NFL as “Black Monday” (Starts at 5:15).

Keim was expected by some to lose his job along with Wilks, but he seemed to survive partially due to his past in crafting a 50 win over 5 seasons team but also in his outspoken commitment to personally changing his approach to shift into success.

That shift seemed to be part of the reason that he kept his job. It was a commitment to change. To avoid the Nkemdiche’s and Brandon Williams and Steve Wilks & Mike McCoys.

That success began with an out-of-the-box hire of Kliff Kingsbury from the collegiate ranks, for sure, but there were already early indications that Keim was bringing something new into the fold...

Already Keim had pushed the Cardinals forward a massive step in terms of their scouting department, so what more could he change? The answer came in an interview on AZSports 98.7 where Keim mentioned that he’d taken their scouting analytics and turned it into an entire department on their staff.

This, as they might say, was the turning point.

Most teams would usually have an analytics person or a stats person, but to put together a department of multiple people was a step forward. What sort of analytics could they be using and utilizing? What would be the impact potentially of bringing in a young, new wave coach like Kliff Kingsbury? And how would they do it?

Enter a most unlikely subject:

Pro Football Focus.

It’s hard to go almost anywhere around NFL twitter or even the broadcasts now without the advanced scouting metrics that it provides but for some background it was founded in 2004 by Neil Hornsby after he was dissatisfied with statistical limitations for pro football and he created a new method combining qualitative opinions and data with quantitative number data.

It has been met with both praise and criticism, with many questioning bias in the player grades as well as assignment information, but the tool has evolved over the years to showcase a large number of hits and misses as to who’s impacting and who’s being impacted upon in the NFL level, and it’s now used by all 32 NFL teams in some regard.

One prominent member of an NFL front office told PFF this year it saved them “thousands of hours in scouting” and there’s other testimonials as well.

Why does this matter?

Well, because I believe when you put together Steve Keim’s new-found “analytics department” and see how the Cardinals drafted talent this year, essentially Pro Football Focus wasn’t merely a major indicator of how they graded.

It practically WAS their grading scale.

Let’s build the case that Pro Football Focus’s analytical big board and the Cardinals big board this year were either one and the same, if not incredibly close this year.

It starts with the Cardinals electing to move on from Josh Rosen to draft Kyler Murray, without regard for the sunk cost of Murray and praising him as a better prospect.

Many laughed at this notion, believing that Arizona should keep Rosen and instead build around him. Not PFF. They were some of the main drivers for Arizona moving on from Josh:

It could just be the Kliff/Kyler connection, sure, and there was talk of Arizona moving up for N’keal Harry, but something interesting happened with the following sets of picks...but it can’t be stated just how much Pro Football Focus loved Kyler Murray this year:

Like, this is insane.

I showed this to my parents and several casual fans who aren’t even hardcore football people for the spider graph and they all had the exact same stunned reaction.

Granted, this is only Kyler versus the rest of his draft class. And PFF isn’t perfect as we’ve said.

But perhaps we can look past the argument being “Murray is too good to pass up on.” So there’s one step down but does it REALLY mean Arizona’s obsession with Pro Football Focus?

Yeah, pretty much. Starting with the selection of Byron Murphy at 33 overall.

This was DESPITE Arizona’s need for offensive linemen and multiple ones such as Cody Ford, Dalton Risner or Erik McCoy on the board.

Not only did PFF argue for taking Murray over Rosen being a “no-brainer” but there was a lot of correlation with the best available “PFF-graded” player that aligned precisely with the player that Arizona happened to draft.

This was the point where fans began to wonder if Keim’s “analytics department” and PFF were practically one and the same.

It’s not too much of a stretch.

When talking with noted analytical & statistical guru @Jimetrics on Twitter, he noted that his Quarterback model was driven ultimately by one key factor: the higher and better the high school production, the higher the ceiling for quarterback play in the NFL.

When comparing not only Murray and Rosen’s high school data points but also their college ones, something became clear:

Based on an analytical model, Josh Rosen tested out as a solid potential NFL starter but Kyler tested out with a WAY higher ceiling.

But perhaps we can look past the argument being “Murray is too good to pass up on.” So there’s one step down but does it REALLY mean Arizona’s obsession with Pro Football Focus?

Yeah, pretty much. Starting with the selection of Byron Murphy at 33 overall.

This was DESPITE Arizona’s need for offensive linemen and multiple ones such as Cody Ford, Dalton Risner or Erik McCoy on the board.

Not only did PFF argue for taking Murray over Rosen being a “no-brainer” but there was a lot of correlation with the best available “PFF-graded” player that aligned precisely with the player that Arizona happened to draft.

This was the point where fans began to wonder if Keim’s “analytics department” and PFF were practically one and the same.

It’s not too much of a stretch.

First Kyler, then Byron. But the rest of the draft was a showcase.

At this point, we knew that the Cardinals liked Andy Isabella...who was PFF’s #4 wide receiver and also their highest graded receiver of 2018.

Zach Allen was a top 40 player according to PFF and went top of the 3rd round.

They then went and took the top rated value left on the board in Hakeem Butler, which many fans predicted at least 12 hours in advance because...PFF.

PFF!

PFF!

PFF!

So, what does this mean for the Cardinals?

Here are three big impacts that I can see for the team moving forward:

Keim and Arizona now have a reproducible method of scouting that can help maximize not just draft success but also NFL success

Part of the problem in NFL scouting comes from the high levels of turnover. When you change out scouts, GM’s, positions and lose people to promotions to other teams, you lose a lot. Proven, productive athletic players provide a safer return on investment than taking production without athleticism, or projecting based on a dominant athlete despite them not producing at the college level.

Pro Football Focus isn’t perfect, but it’s consistent, and it’s approach fits with the way that NFL scouting and analytics are going: toward finding the “sweet spot” of draft capital, talent and risk.

All that the draft is about is mitigating risk. You look at completion % to rule out inaccurate guys, you look at rushing yards after contact to rule out running backs who go down too easily and you look at 40 yard dashes in the 4.6/4.7’s to rule out receivers who might not be able to run every route in the book.

It’s because those rules and trends work far more often than not that you can isolate and rule out wasting time on the vast majority of work to do and can focus on the main ones who hit the thresholds. Kinda like avoiding getting tied up in too many details when the big picture is “Successful NFL players are smart athletes with production.”

Outliers will always happen at the NFL level (see David Johnson’s criticism of east-west running suddenly “click” once he got to the league, or look at Kurt Warner and Tom Brady’s dominance despite not even starting much comparatively for their colleges.

Instead, Arizona’s getting rave reviews because they didn’t “reach” or take a talent who dropped for a reason like a Dorian Johnson (meh athlete with bad flexibility who had a health concern that wasn’t going away) in the top of the fourth banking on them to essentially be a backup or starter. The guys they took were high producers.

Scouting for Arizona will become a simpler process, allowing more time for other important items to replace that time.

It goes without saying that if you could save yourself 10 hours of work a week on a project by simply automating it, wouldn’t you choose to do that to focus on integral tasks you’ve felt were important but couldn’t get around to.

Or you can spend more time delving into something that you hadn’t had the time to do. For this example, let’s say that Arizona added 5 hours a week for their scouts not having to chart or look at some of the information that PFF now provides for them.

Instead, spending 5 hours a week looking more into a player’s work ethic, character and crafting a better “football grade” could help avoid and isolate other guys who might be built up into a lot of hype but ultimately ring hollow.

The only constant in the NFL is change, and Keim was willing to make it

Steve Keim got rave reviews for his draft.

And it might not matter in the slightest over the next few years.

Honestly.

Remember how people raved about Arizona’s 2015 NFL draft class?

Today, we look at Humphries as a bust rather than the long-term team left tackle, and Markus Golden went from a darling to a one-year deal. People said they liked the Shaq Riddick pick better than the Rodney Gunter one, and JJ Nelson was a disappointment that people were begging to get off the team.

Ultimately, the HOW of Steve Keim and the Cardinals’ new use of analytics is a departure from how they did things previously.

They stopped going off of film, perception, typical scouting methods.

Because they failed.

Those methods brought them a 3-13 team that hired an offensive coordinator who couldn’t run the ball to put forth a run heavy offense and hired a defensive-minded head coach who forced a 3-4 read and react defense into a 1-gap scheme.

And they all thought it would make it better.

Arizona has since pivoted to less looking for a “leader and rah-rah” guy at the position but rather looking at a coach who can lead by performance and production on the field in Kliff Kingsbury, and a defensive-minded coach who’s put up defensive production for the Broncos in a similar 3-4.

The “how” might not end up being correct. Things seldom turn out as expected in the NFL (see Dak Prescott as a 4th round pick potentially becoming the highest paid QB in the NFL).

Or maybe it will.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Arizona’s “why” is built around an identity that hits the right time and right place and will lead to sustainable success.

2018 I talked about the LACK of “why” and how Steve Wilks just focused on the “how”. Look where that got them. Inability to adapt and change led to a one-and-done staff and national embarrassment for the team.

Humiliation.

If that humiliation was the spark needed to change the Cardinals’ view of draft investment to go all in on @PFF, 3-13 was well worth it.

If Arizona is willing to adapt and change, they’ll move from a team that can’t get out of their own way to being a forward-minded one.

And that’s something that every Cardinals fan wants to hear.

You can follow @blakemurphy7 on Twitter and follow up with the rest of his draft thoughts below on the Revenge of the Birds podcast.