Eventually You Have to Pay Your Debts

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Kind of a weird title for a commentary on football, but hopefully I can tie it all together.

If you have been in Arizona for awhile and followed any of the other professional sport teams then you know how this current Cardinal's debacle is going to play out. We've seen it before.

Why Were the Cardinal's Historically Bad Last Season? (And maybe this season)

I believe much of the blame can be placed on Bruce Arians and by association Steve Keim and Michael Bidwill. As fans we enjoyed the early Bruce Arian's years. It was a ton of fun. We won a lot of games. We were really good there for a bit, but let's be honest with ourselves. We accumulated a lot of "debt". Only sort of in the sense of the salary cap, but what I mean is that the Cardinal's pushed all their chips in. It was the "All or Nothing" season(s).

  • Bruce Arian's was presumably at his last coaching stop
  • Carson Palmer was near retirement age
  • You never know when Larry Fitz is going to hang things up.

By extension Bruce Arians was not interested in developing young players. Rookies didn't play. Bruce had his loyalties to "his" players and coaches which seemed admirable at first, but extremely detrimental later (Amos Jones).

There was zero interest in planning for the future. I believe Keim was drafting players that Bruce wanted so that he could try and win now. We weren't wasting a draft pick on a QBOF because that meant we couldn't pick up an impact player in an early round to win now (even if that didn't shake out very well either). We didn't have big money to be able to pay a lot of big free agents in those years. Take 2015 as an example:

3 of our highest paid players were on the OL (so there's that), but there wasn't massive amounts of money to throw at more free agents. We didn't have 12 million more dollars to sign an impact offensive lineman. Steve Keim was looking for lightning in a bottle. That meant free agents that could contribute right now, but usually had an injury history or issue which is how we could afford them.

These players were never about building for the future. It was spending all your capital right now. No risk it no biscuit. We sure as hell risked it.

We have seen this before (Diamondbacks version)

Remember when the Diamondbacks won the World Series? Hey it worked, right? They did the same thing the Cardinals tried to do, but it worked. Colangelo mortgaged the future and paid out tons of deferred contracts to get guys to Arizona to win the World Series. Remember what happened after the 2001 magical season?

  • 2003 the DBacks were in 3rd place in the division with an 84-78 record. Johnson and Schilling both were injured that year. Schilling (even though still a very capable pitcher) was traded to the Red Sox (where he went on to win another World Series with his bloody sock). Arizona couldn't afford him any longer (Calais?) (Sounds like the 2016-2017 Cardinals)
  • 2004 the team was in dead last at 51-111. A historically bad team. In fact one of the 10 worst records in the modern era (sound familiar?) Jerry Colangelo gets pushed out by the rest of the founding investors that had bank rolled the world series debt. (Sounds like the 2018 Cardinals except Keim didn't get fired)
  • It was 2007 before the Diamondbacks made it back to the playoffs behind a young group that included Brandon Webb, Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Chad Tracy, Mark Reynolds, and Justin Upton. (Maybe the 2020 Cardinals?)
  • Unfortunately the 2007 success wasn't sustainable... (Uh oh).
We have seen this before (Suns version)

As fans we had a lot of fun in the high tempo version with Steve Nash and Coach D'Antoni. The Suns played an unorthodox style that was super fun to watch (could it be similar for the K-Raid?). We won a lot of games. Got close to a championship, but didn't quite get there. The Suns were in that same mindset of winning it all and rookies rarely played. Granted the NBA is a little different because there are only 5 players on the court at a time. A couple super stars can run the table for you.

But Phoenix held on to the glory days with Steve Nash for too long. The window had closed. Ownership and management didn't want to accept that the run was done. Instead of going into a rebuild they stayed in mediocrity for a few years trying to plug in the missing piece in order to stay competitive and make the playoffs. (2017 Cardinals?)

Fast forward a few years and the Suns didn't seem to have a plan for turning themselves around. The Suns were floundering.

3 point guards signed (or 3 rookie wide receivers drafted?)
  • Eric Bledsoe wanted a max deal after being injured quite a bit and the Suns never really knew what they had. In 2014 the Suns ended up paying Bledsoe (David Johnson anyone?) and it's not that he played terrible, but the team was not good.
  • Goran Dragic (spelling?) and Isaiah Thomas were all on the team and... well... it just didn't work out. Too many players at one position that wanted playing time and the culture of the team wasn't good and only got worse from there. Way worse. The point guards all wanted to be traded. Literally all of them (Patrick Peterson, Honey Badger, Tony Jefferson?)
The Suns kept talking about a timeline and a blueprint, but it's been 8 years since the Suns were relevant (god please no). They have finally embraced full rebuild, but it's been a long 8 years for the fans to endure since the run and gun Suns were fun to watch. The Suns still aren't relevant.

The past 4 seasons the Suns have been historically bad. They haven't won more than 30% of their games in any season over that stretch. Is it because the blueprint was wrong? Was it because the coach was wrong? Is it because the GM didn't know how to build the team? I'm not sure, but do we have faith the Steve Keim will do any better trying to turn the Cardinals around?

We have seen this before (Coyotes version)

I don't want to get into this too much because there are weird ownership issues with the Coyotes, but remember when Wayne Gretzky hired all of his buddies to run the Coyotes (Bruce Arians)? His loyalties to his buddies didn't turn into successful seasons and eventually Gretzky was probably politely (like Canadians always are) asked to no longer run the team. Seems similar to how Bruce was likely asked to retire.

Back to the Cardinals

Here we are in 2019 with the Cardinals that have not developed any young players for the past how many years? 5? Most of their free agent signings have been injured veterans to try and plug a hole because they didn't want to admit that their window had closed. 2018 was NOT a retool, yet that's what management was calling it.

Steve Keim seems like a bad fantasy football player that sees a name falling down the draft board and when it gets to his pick he feels obligated to grab the player (Nkemdiche - maybe Rosen?) even though the rest of the GMs wanted no part of them. I did the same thing with my fantasy team in the year Le'Veon Bell held out. I couldn't help myself. I also got last place in my league that year.

There is currently 34 million of dead money on the Cardinal's salary cap. That is enough to pay 2 - 3 pro bowl (or nearly pro-bowl) caliber players. Instead we may end up with a roster that is nearly 50% rookies. Cardinal's ownership and management haven't said that they have finally embraced the idea of a full rebuild (I don't think), but it's obvious that's what is happening. Seems like we are tanking for the chance to trade the Tua pick.

The Cardinals are finally paying their debts. The dead money on the salary cap is only part of it. In the Bruce Arians era they didn't invest in developing young players. Those young players should be up and coming now. There should be a mix players at different stages of their contracts at the different positions. Largely we have a bunch of rookies and then veteran players on 1 year deals. Essentially the Cardinals are now trying to rebuild the "farm system" (to steal a baseball phrase). The Cardinals are the post Johnson and Schilling Diamondbacks. They are the post Steve Nash Suns.

Do I blame Steve Keim for this? Yes... mostly... sort of.. I'm not sure. We won't ever see behind the curtain, but I could see a scenario where Steve Keim didn't want to build the team this way. Maybe Keim wanted to build the team in a different way. Maybe Keim has been arguing all these years about how he didn't want to mortgage the long term future of the team at all costs. Maybe Michael Bidwill made him pick players Arians wanted and sign the lightning in a bottle veterans. Is it a stretch to think that Bidwill wanted to win a Super Bowl so badly that he forced Keim to draft and build the team as Bruce Arians wanted it? It sort of makes sense if that was the case, because Keim still has a job. It seems inconceivable that Keim would have been retained with this disaster of a roster if it was built how he wanted. The logical part of my brain wants to think that Bidwill feels that this roster is his responsibility and that it would be unethical to fire Steve Keim for decisions that Michael made.

Years ago we were 1 reception away from a Super Bowl win. If we had won the Super Bowl and could look back and say that the pain we are feeling now is because of the what they did to win the Super Bowl then maybe Keim gets more slack from the fan base. But that was a long time ago and we didn't win. Fast forward to the end of the Palmer era and it feels like we have been floundering for the past couple years with an identity crisis not knowing if it's time to blow the team up or time to keep pushing for relevancy.

20/20 hindsight it seems pretty clear that we should have transitioned to a new mindset of investing in the future of the team 2 years ago, but we didn't. We should have started investing in young players, but we didn't. We should have begun building out our offensive and defensive lines, but we went for it one more time in 2017. Then 2018 happened. The debt collectors came calling. It was time to pay up.

The Cardinals spent all their money and capital and mortgaged the future to try and win in 2015 and 2016. It didn't work. They tried to hold on for 2017. That was a mistake. Now we have to pay those debts. 2019 is early, but right now it kind of looks like the Cardinals have gone "all in" again. Except this time it's like filing for bankruptcy. You tighten the belt, take your lumps, pay your debts, and emerge on the other side with a clean slate.

It's highly likely this is going to be another painful year while we start the rebuild. Will 2019 show signs of improvement? Maybe. Maybe not. Will 2020 be better? Probably. But realistically we shouldn't expect too much until 2021 when the team has developed some young talent. Yes, sometimes the NFL is a worst to first league, but not when you have this much "debt" you have to pay.

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Revenge of the Birds' (ROTB) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of ROTB's editors.</em>