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Bidwill Behind the Curtain

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Washington Redskins v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

As an avid fan of the St. Louis and Arizona Cardinals since 1963, one of the fascinations I have had over the years is trying to unravel the enigma of the Bidwills. I was often very perplexed and at times disillusioned by Bill Bidwill’s football and organizational decisions---or lack thereof. Thus, I must admit that I still don’t have a grasp on what makes Bill Bidwill tick. These days he is practically an aged Jay Gatsby who only comes down from the shadowy recesses of his mansion to greet Larry Fitzgerald in celebration of Fitz’s newest contract.

Yet with Michael Bidwill, I believe that I have gleaned a keener sense of his outlooks and motivations. At heart, MB, like his father, is a guy who relishes his privacy. In running the Cardinals, he prefers to don the role of the unseen wizard behind the curtain---that is---except for the “Flight Plan” glimpses of his routines the he provides for the fans of presiding over the signing of new players (with personalized pens and signing kits), writing the new season’s schedule on his white board when the call comes in from the league and making surprise phone calls like the one he recently made to Carson Palmer.

In trying to peel the curtain back just a scosche, here is, for right of for wrong, what I believe about the man and the timeline of decisions he’s made since hiring Steve Keim as GM. These are connect-the-dots kind of theories that I have have been piecing together like a jigsaw puzzle (sections of which I have been sharing with you along the way) for quite some time. But, this is the first time I have been provide the entire timeline of MB’s decisions going back to 2013. If I have erred in fitting parts of this puzzle, I offer my sincere apology to Michael Bidwill and to all others involved.

But let me say this before I begin: I very much like and appreciate Michael Bidwill. I believe his heart is in the right place. I believe that his football acumen is starting to catch up with his zealous desire to provide Cardinals’ fans with a team they can rally around and get super excited about. We live in a society now where leaders of big businesses rarely if ever confess their own mistakes to their shareholders and minions. But, Michael Bidwill is cut from a more humble and conscientious cloth. Bidwill looks his own mistakes in the eye, openly admits to them and then goes about the business of making necessary adjustments, even if it means absorbing exorbitant costs.

The “All or Nothing” Years

* MB promoted Steve Keim to GM in 2013 to reward Keim for his long-term work as a Cardinals’ regional scout, director of college scouting and director of player personnel. After years of working with former GM Rod Graves, MB learned a great deal about the way in which NFL franchises work with regard to roster building, contract negotiations and the NFL Draft. However, I believe that MB turned to Steve Keim in 2013, not only to reward Keim for his loyal and dedicated service, but to exercise a greater control over the entire football operations. Bringing in a veteran GM like a Charlie Casserly or Bill Polian, for example, only would have happened if MB wanted to take a back seat in the running of football operations. But, taking a back seat is not in Michael Bidwill’s nature.

* While MB likes to be in control, he does not want to be perceived as a highly meddling and ubiquitous Jerry Jones type of owner. Bidwill likes it best when his GM, head coach and star players are in the limelight, because Bidwill loves giving them the credit.

* MB was thrilled with Steve Keim’s immediate success as a rookie GM, the two signature moves being the hiring of Bruce Arians as head coach and the trade with the Raiders for QB Carson Palmer.

* No one was more delighted than Michael Bidwill with the record 35 win three year run from 2013-2015, highlighted by the premier of “All or Nothing” on Amazon Video. The Cardinals had become Super Bowl contenders and media darlings---all of which is great for business. It’s one of the major reasons why after a mere two years Keim ripped up BA’s and Steve Keim’s initial contracts and rewarded them with lucrative extensions. This is what Michael Bidwill does when employees impress him---he doubles down far earlier than he ever has to. Problem is---he’s gotten burned numerous times doing that. But, one cannot knock Bidwill’s generous eagerness to reward those whom he deems worthy.

* In 2016, Bidwill started getting very nervous. His hand-picked GM and Bruce Arians had formed a brotherly bond through their Pennsylvania roots and their common lust for football and drinking. By now, Arians had become the alpha male face of the franchise. In essence, Arians had become too big and unfiltered to control.

* MB started growing concerned about Arians’ volatility, his worsening health issues and his vitriol toward some of his players at the expense of lionizing the members of his coaching staff, many of whom BA had been promoting as future head coaches born and bred from his own self-proclaimed coaching tree. The problem, was Steve Keim was now 100% on board and in lock-step with BA---which meant that MB had become the odd man out.

* Health-wise, 2016 was a disaster for Bruce Arians. In August, in prepping for a pre-season game with the Chargers BA took ill and was taken to the hospital with severe stomach pains. Then, in November, BA was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. Those type of scares are enough to alarm any owner or boss.

* When the Cardinals (media-hyped 2016 Super Bowl contenders) were beaten at home by the Jimmy Garoppolo led Patriots and then limped to a dismal 4-8-1 record with BA throwing a number of Cardinals’ players under the bus, Steve Keim issued an edict to the players that in the final three games the players would be playing for their jobs. The Cardinals won all three of those games which BA and Keim took a special pride in, but by this time, MB had become all too wary of BA’s stranglehold on the organization and his alarming health issues.

* In January of 2017, Michael Bidwill was now seriously contemplating a change at head coach. The young head coaching candidate he had his eye on was Sean McVay. But, Bidwill knew he was caught in an irreconcilable dilemma. On the one hand, Bidwill was worried, especially with BA’s new cancer scare, that BA had become physically unfit to handle the rigors of the job. Yet, on the other hand, how could Bidwill appease Steve Keim and the Cardinals’ fans if he were to remove the winningest coach in the history of the Arizona Cardinals? Bidwill also knew that because of BA’s imposing control over the organization that if BA were to agree to step down, BA would expect (and demand) that Bidwill and Keim promote Harold Goodwin or James Bettcher as “the cool uncle’s” successor.

* It was then in the early months of 2017 that, against Steve Keim’s better wishes, Bidwill initiated discussions with BA about his present and future as head coach. It would seem very likely that Bidwill implored BA to retire at that time due to his health concerns. Of course, BA wanted no part of that and was apt to feel indignant that MB would even broach the subject. This was not the way the autobiography (“The QB Whisperer”) that BA was just finishing was supposed to end. MB likely expressed to BA that he didn’t want to have to fire BA and that there would be greater dignity for BA if he stepped down on his own accord.

* What resulted from those conversations was a compromise---MB agreed to keep BA on as head coach for the 2017 season, but that unless there was a dramatic change in BA’s health and in the performance of the team, that 2017 would be BA’s last year. BA agreed because he could avoid being fired and he then could treat the 2017 season as a bird in hand. BA had every intention of winning back MB’s confidence and making it impossible for MB to let go of him after the season.

* The problem was that the 2017 season was in many ways a continuation of the 2016 season. The team was once again decimated by injuries, the biggest of which was the broken arm QB Carson Palmer suffered in London versus the Rams---who by now, led by the very same Sean McVay whom Bidwill was interested in back in 2016, had become the darlings of the NFC West---and had laid a two game 65-16 thrashing on Bidwill’s now hapless Cardinals. Again, BA’s Cardinals won the last three games to finish the season 8-8, but that was not enough for BA to make his case to Bidwill for a 2018 return. The agreement had been made months ago that BA would retire and BA could not renege on that agreement.

Wilks Hiring on the Rebound

* While Bidwill was eager to move on from Arians, he was then dealing with the rift between himself and Steve Keim. Keim wanted to honor BA’s recommendation that James Bettcher be promoted to head coach, but Bidwill had other ideas. However, in an effort to mend the rift, Bidwill tore up the last two years of Steve Keim’s second contract in favor of awarding him with a new contract and a raise. In many ways Bidwill’s announcing of Keim’s new contract was an attempt to win back Keim’s allegiance, while publicly exonerating him for the team’s failings of the past two seasons.

* Hiring Steve Wilks was Michael Bidwill’s decision. In some obvious ways, Wilks appeared to be the complete opposite of BA. Wilks was a defensive minded head coach, a physical fitness fanatic, a paragon of sobriety, a monotone media persona and a man very much eager and willing to work with players with “different personalities.”

* From the get-go, it appeared that Wilks himself suspected that he was not the unanimous choice for head coach within the Cardinals’ front office. In what had to be one of the most awkward moments in the history of the Cardinals’ introductory press conferences, Steve Wilks turned sharply toward Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim to claim, “you guys made the right decision. I really believe that.”

* When it came to free agency and the 2018 NFL Draft, Steve Keim didn’t do Steve Wilks many favors---especially not for a defensive coach who wanted to switch the team’s base defense from the 34 to the 43. Keim was heavily focused on two things that off-season: trying to reload the offense (including finally drafting the QBOF) and aiming to acquire as many compensatory draft picks as possible for the 2019 draft.

* Then came Keim’s severe DUI in early July---which humiliated Keim and infuriated Bidwill. Symbolically, it seemed like another conspicuous consequence of the BA hangover.

* Speaking of consequence of the BA hangover, It was apparent as early as the 2nd quarter of the first game that the hiring of Steve Wilks looked like a decision that Michael Bidwill made “on the rebound.” Ironically, Wilks was not able to inspire the players with ‘different personalities” and, as a game manger, he was far more conservative and old-school than BA.

* Fortunately for Bidwill, the only former Cardinals’ coach from BA’s staff who made a splash elsewhere in 2018 was Freddie Kitchens (whom Bidwill rightfully retained from Ken Whisenhunt’s staff). James Bettcher had his fair share of struggles in New York. The Giants’ defense under Bettecher ranked 23rd in the NFL in points against and 24th in the NFL in yards against. Meanwhile, while it may have come as a surprise to some, come December, Bruce Arians, now an NBC color commentator, was already posturing for head coaching jobs. While at first BA seemed to pin his hopes solely on the Browns’ job, he quickly warmed up to the climate in Tampa Bay and signed a 4 year deal with the Bucs. Jumping back into a new head coaching gig on a 4 year deal, hardly seems like the actions of coach who really wanted to retire.

* Knowing quickly on that his hiring of Steve Wilks was not “the right decision,” Bidwill went right to work on conceiving a brand new plan for 2019. Bidwill did the honorable thing by conceding to Cardinals’ fans that hiring Wilks was his mistake. What Bidwill and Steve Keim now had in common were their own separate public humblings and mea culpas---which Bidwill used to try to further close the rift between the owner and GM---this time hopefully for good.

Visions of Fireworks

* Fully aware that Steve Keim was at or near the top of the 2019 GM “hot seat” list, Bidwill went out of his way to laud Keim for being the architect of the best three year run in team history---but, as was the case when Bidwill hired Keim, Bidwill safeguarded his seat as the wizard behind the curtain.

* What Bidwill ultimately wants is a rock-solid triumvirate between owner, GM and head coach. To use the rock band Crosby, Stills and Nash as an analogy, Bidwill fashions himself as the Steven Stills of the trio, the lead guitarist and songwriter, with Steve Keim as David Cosby, the alluring lead singer/songwriter and with Kliff Kingsbury as Graham Nash, the ultimate harmonizer/songwriter.

* Drafting QB Kyler Murray was Bidwill’s idea from the get-go, which is why he called Ernie Accorsi, to ask the “QB Guy” what the former GM thought of Murray’s NFL prospects. When Accorsi offered his enthusiastic endorsement of Murray, the question then became who would ultimately be the best head coach to pair with Murray. After it was clear that Lincoln Riley had no intentions of leaving Oklahoma, Kliff Kingsbury soared to the top of the list. Bidwill was able to coax Kingsbury away from the Jets (who had been secretly meeting with Eric Burkhardt, Kingsbury’s agent, from as far back as December) by informing Kingsbury that all options were open with the #1 pick in the draft. Kingsbury and Burkhardt knew exactly what that meant, which is why it isn’t some strange cosmic coincidence that Burkhardt landed Kyler Murray as his new client.

* But what’s very interesting here is how important it was to Michael Bidwill to keep the whole Murray plan under wraps and hidden behind the curtain as steadfastly as he could---and---to create the illusion that when the decision was finally made to draft Murray---that the decision be viewed as primarily Steve Keim’s, with little pressure from Kingsbury.

* When Steve Keim said after the draft that he didn’t even want to look at Murray’s tapes (knowing it could mean having to trade Josh Rosen) and that he didn’t really start looking at the tapes until March, that was pure fiction. However, Keim was 100% truthful about the “fireworks” that he envisioned at State Farm Stadium with Kyler Murray leading the offense---but the visions of those fireworks were shared ones he had with Michael Bidwill while sitting together through 16 torturing weeks of watching the most monotonously boring, antiquated and conservatively inept offense in the NFL .If Keim hadn’t watched tapes of Murray until March, then he wouldn’t have said at the Combine in early February that Josh Rosen “is the QB, right now, for sure.”

* The “QB for now” statement was a calculated one by Steve Keim---it wasn’t a careless slip of the tongue. It was Bidwill’s and Keim’s surreptitious way of putting Josh Rosen on the trading block without publicly committing to it. Sure, Keim later that day walked back that statement to the national media---but that was because it afforded a golden opportunity to sing Rosen’s praises in order to try to elevate Rosen’s stock.

* Michael Bidwill was happy to assure Cardinals’ fans that Steve Keim arrived at the decision to select Kyler Murray in the minutes leading up to the draft. Bidwill is very dedicated to helping Steve Keim restore his once favorable image around the league. Bidwill is also very dedicated to doing what the NFL asks of him. The NFL wanted total secrecy leading up to the draft---not that they really needed it---but it may have induced thousands more viewers to tune in for the #1 pick. To Bidwill’s and Keim’s credit, they couldn’t have pulled off a better mystery for the #1 pick right up to the moment the pick was announced. As a result, the NFL is apt to reward Arizona with another Super Bowl commitment and/or with an opportunity to host the NFL Draft at some point in the near future.

* Recently, Michael Bidwill is delighted to hear that Larry Fitzgerald is excited to be playing in the new K-Raid offense led by QB Kyler Murray. It must have felt extra good for MB to hear Fitz say recently that Kyler Murray actually knows the offense better than anyone. How often has a 16 year NFL Hall of Fame caliber veteran said something like that about an incoming rookie QB? Ever?

Palmer to the Ring of Honor

* But, Michael Bidwill has also been thinking about another QB taken with the #1 pick in an NFL draft---the QB taken by the Bengals at #1 in 2004. Things didn’t end as well or smoothly with Carson Palmer the way Bidwill, Keim, or Arians had hoped. At the end of the difficult 2017 season and still rehabbing from a broken arm, Palmer scoffed at reporters when they asked him if he was going to return in 2018. Palmer knew the writing was on the wall for BA and for him. They came in as a package deal and they were leaving as a package deal. There was no way at that Palmer would entertain starting a new stint with another team at that late point in his career.

* Curiously, Palmer’s retirement announcement was issued the day after BA’s televised one, in a letter presented by the Cardinals. The announcement in the form of a letter suggested that Palmer did not want to have to answer the obvious questions that he would have received from the local and national media had he chosen to hold a press conference. Palmer simply wrote in the letter that he knew that “it was time” to retire and that other retired veterans told him he would know when it was time. However, a couple of months after his announcement, Palmer conceded that he really wasn’t planning on retiring after the 2017 season. Hmm...

* Therefore, in an effort to make good with recently painful disappointments of the past, Bidwill announced tlast week that QB Carson Palmer, one year retired from the league, will be the 18th inductee into the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor. Some have questioned whether Palmer is deserving of the honor and others have asked why now and why so soon? Yet, if you think about it, Palmer’s induction into the Ring of Honor is not only a way to pay Carson Palmer the ultimate honor for the quality of his play in Arizona (and to ensure a happier ending to his NFL book), it is another salient way for Michael Bidwill to compliment Steve Keim for the job he did assembling the double digit win teams of 2013-2015. Furthermore, it’s a way of suggesting that without Keim’s efforts, the winningest three year regular season stretch may not have ever happened.

Conclusion

Michael Bidwill likes to run the Cardinals the same way he likes to pilot his private jet---with his hands on the wheel (yoke) and with all of the controls within his reach---but not in the plain sight of the passengers. If the passengers do not enjoy the experience, Bidwill is not going to relinquish his seat at the controls, but he will, when prompted, hire a new crew. And when the passengers enjoy and appreciate the ride, Bidwill wants his crew to receive and bask in the vast majority of the credit. Ultimately, Bidwill wants to provide his Cardinals’ employees and fans with a spectacular, exhilarating and enjoyable ride. Thus, his Flight Plan message on the eve of this season’s takeoff...

”Carry on, love is coming, love is coming to us all.”