The Super Bowl matchup is set: two Sundays from now, our NFC West rival the San Francisco 49ers will take on Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Miami. The other 30 NFL teams, the Arizona Cardinals included, will be at home on their couches watching with envy.
But I hope our leadership—Michael Bidwill, Steve Keim, and Kliff Kingsbury—will be watching and learning. These two teams have risen to the top of the league with different approaches—the 49ers and their run-heavy offense and the Chiefs’ high-flying aerial attack—but we can all learn a thing or two about how they got there.
With that in mind, here are five lessons the Cardinals can take away from the two Super Bowl entrants’ journeys to the top. If these lessons sink in quickly, maybe the Redbirds can make a return trip to the big game sooner rather than later.
Get Your Man at QB and Coach
More than anything else in the NFL, the main key to a franchise’s success is having the right QB and head coach in place. Look no further than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for evidence. Each of this year’s Super Bowl teams has their own version—Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, and Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid in KC.
The Niners didn’t wait to get their man at coach in 2017, poaching Kyle Shanahan off the Falcons’ coaching staff the day after they nearly won the Super Bowl behind Shanahan’s dazzling offense. Shanahan was one of the hottest assistant coaches in the league with a strong background and pedigree (Mike Shanahan’s kid)—the Niners identified their target and snapped up him. Just about nine months later, they did the same thing with their QB, trading a 2nd-round pick to the Patriots for Garoppolo. Garoppolo hasn’t exactly lit the league on fire statistically with the Niners, but he’s perfect for what Shanahan wants to do on offense, and that synergy has been invaluable in their ascent to NFC champions.
Speaking of lighting the league on fire, that brings us to the Chiefs. Andy Reid has long been known as an offensive guru, which is why the Chiefs snatched him up right away when the Eagles didn’t renew his contract in 2013. (Perhaps stealing him from the Cardinals in the process.) In Kansas City, Reid turned 49ers reclamation project Alex Smith into a Pro Bowler, but his finest work would come when the team traded up to draft Mahomes (also perhaps stealing him from the Cardinals…). After sitting behind Smith for his rookie season, Mahomes exploded onto the scene last season, running Reid’s offense to perfection, winning league MVP and coming up just short of the Super Bowl berth he claimed this year.
So how does this apply to the Cardinals? Well, it already seems like they have their man at QB in Kyler. He looked every bit the part of potential franchise QB during his rookie season, and could take the leap to superstardom next season. The jury is still out on his coach—Kingsbury had an up-and-down debut season on the NFL sidelines (although I’d say it was more up than down, overall). If he becomes more comfortable managing the intricacies of gameday coaching (an issue that has also plagued Reid at times in his career) and can fine tune his offense, we might have the QB/coach duo we need to succeed.
Don’t Overspend on RB
This lesson is especially relevant to the Cardinals, who have David Johnson under contract for $14M next season and might have to spend several more millions of dollars if they want to keep free agent Kenyan Drake in town. But successful teams don’t need to spend that much on the running back position, as both the Niners and Chiefs have proven.
The 49ers have a three- (and sometimes four-) headed monster at RB with Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Jeff Wilson—not to mention Kyle Juszczyk at FB. There isn’t even as high as a 2nd-round pick among them—Mostert, Breida, and Wilson were UDFAs, Coleman was a former 3rd-rounder who signed a modest contract as a free agent, and Juszczyk was a former 6th-rounder, albeit one who did sign a hefty free agent contract for a FB. Add it all up and the 49ers didn’t have to spend a ton of draft capital or contract money to field a dominant rushing attack.
The Chiefs obviously aren’t a run-first team, but they still get production from an even less-impressive collection of players. Damien Williams is a former UDFA who serves as the team’s lead back, and guys like Darwin Thompson (6th-rounder), Darrel Williams (UFA), and Spencer Ware (6th-rounder) have all rotated in behind him. Yes, they have former Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy, but he came to the team as a relatively cheap free agent and has been a healthy scratch thus far in the playoffs.
For the Cardinals to emulate this approach, they’d need to do a few things. The first would be to trade DJ—if they can find a taker. Second would be to let Drake walk if his asking price goes much above $5M per year (about what the Niners are paying Coleman). I’ve also seen a lot of push for the team to draft a running back with their 2nd-round pick. After seeing how these Super Bowl teams have assembled their backfields, it might be best to wait until a bit later in the draft to land a new RB—especially in such a deep draft at the position. And don’t forget about Chase Edmonds, who showed flashes that he could be a lead back this year.
Don’t Ignore Tight End
While these two teams are almost polar opposites on offense, one thing they do have in common is the presence of dynamic, defensive-gameplan-wrecking TE. George Kittle is probably the most important player on the Niners’ offense, and Travis Kelce is second only behind Mahomes on what might be the league’s best offense. Kittle’s elite blocking helps unlock the Niners’ rushing attack, and he’s a true playmaker after the catch, while Kelce’s dominance over the middle gives the Chiefs’ speedy outside receivers favorable one-on-one matchups. Neither of these two teams are here without their all-world TEs.
This lesson will be a lot harder for the Cardinals to follow. The team has never historically involved the tight end, and Kingsbury’s offense seems to view the position as an afterthought as well—consider that Cardinals TEs (Charles Clay, Maxx Williams, and Dan Arnold) combined for a 39/541/4 TD line this season. That’s not even half a season for the likes of Kittle and Kelce. The team would do well to emphasize the position more moving forward, both scouting-wise and on the field. The team will move on from Clay, but Williams and Arnold both flashed potential this season—and we still have Caleb Williams on the practice squad. None of them would seem to be a Pro Bowler in the making, but the same was once said about Kittle (a 5th-round pick) and Kelce (3rd-rounder). Perhaps the team will consider spending a similar pick on the position in the draft this year.
Invest in the Trenches
One reason for the 49ers’ seemingly swift ascension to the top of the league is that they laid the groundwork for that success over the past several years by investing heavily in their offensive and defensive lines. Their starting offensive line has three former 1st-round picks (Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson, and Mike McGlinchey), and they spend big free agent money on a center who is currently on IR (Weston Richburg). Their D-line is just loaded with pedigreed players: Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Solomon Thomas are all former 1st-rounders (with all but Armstead taken in the top 10), and they traded a 2nd-rounder for Dee Ford (whom they signed to a monster contract) in the offseason. This team is built from the inside out and positioned for sustained success.
The Chiefs don’t quite have the same inside-out model as the 49ers, but they have invested significantly in their lines as well. They have a former #1 overall pick at left tackle (Eric Fisher) and a big-money free agent at the other tackle spot (Mitchell Schwartz). Their top starting guard (Laurent Duvernay-Tardif) is also on a lucrative second contract with the team. On defense, big Chris Jones is a recent 2nd-round pick and they traded their 1st-rounder last year for Frank Clark, who then signed a monster deal himself.
The Cardinals have a ways to go to put this lesson into practice. To their credit, they haven’t ignored the O-line in recent years—although the moves haven’t always worked out (the Marcus Gilbert trade being one obvious example). The Justin Pugh/J.R. Sweezy signings at guard have worked out well enough, although center is still a giant question mark with no obvious answer on the roster. Even more concerning is that both our starting tackles are free agents. Justin Murray seems like a good bet to be back as an ERFA, but is he the long-term answer at RT? Former 1st-rounder D.J. Humphries is an even bigger question at LT—is he worth the megabucks he’s likely go get from someone as a UFA? Or will we draft a tackle in the first round of the draft? Big decisions are looming.
If the O-line is in decent shape, the D-line/pass rush is in need of a massive overhaul. There’s just no talent there beyond Chandler Jones (who is admittedly an absolute stud). Corey Peters is on the downslope of his career, and everyone else at DE and DT are JAGs at best. The draft hasn’t really helped either—Robert Nkemdiche was a bust, Haason Reddick is looking like one, and Zach Allen made no impact as a touted rookie. Keim likely needs to spend some money here in the offseason—could Chris Jones be a fit in the desert? Adding talent to the trenches has to be Keim’s main focus this offseason.
These Things Take Time
Finally, it’s important to remember that neither of these teams became a contender overnight. The 49ers were a rock-bottom 2-14 before Shanahan came aboard, and their rebuilding was delayed by Garoppolo’s injury (among many others) during last year’s 4-12 season—which included two losses to a certain lowly 3-13 team. The Chiefs were competitive for several seasons with Alex Smith at QB, but they weren’t able to get over the hump until they made the hard decision to go all-in with Mahomes—and even he sat out almost his entire rookie season. Both of these teams took their lumps to get here.
Which is exactly what the Cardinals are doing now—taking their lumps. Last year was about as bad as it gets, but it led us to getting (hopefully) our franchise QB and longtime head coach. That’s the most important part. From here on out, it’s about building the right team around them—avoiding spending big money at RB, maybe emphasizing the tight end more, adding as much talent in the trenches as we can, and—most importantly—showing patience. Let’s give Kliff and Kyler a couple years to grow together while Keim fills out the rest of the roster around them.
One interesting final note, however: Both the 49ers and the Chiefs made a change at GM in 2017, when several key pieces were already in place for both franchises. Sometimes, a different architect is needed once the foundation is firmly in place. Perhaps that will prove to be the case for this house of cards.