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Unhappy returns: Why Vance Joseph should not have been brought back as DC

Vance Joseph was brought back as Cardinals defensive coordinator despite a disastrous season. The numbers show there’s not much hope 2020 will be much better.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals
Vance Joseph wearing the same expression many Cardinals fans had when hearing he would be returning in 2020.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, the Cardinals announced that GM Steve Keim and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph would return for the 2020 season. The news on Keim was expected, if not entirely welcome—the late-season rally seemed to cement his return (if it was even in question in the first place). He doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

The news on Joseph was less expected, and even less welcome. This was an abysmal unit all season long, and Joseph’s constant exhortations that things would get better grated on many Cardinals fans and observers—especially when things never got better.

I thought Joseph was a poor candidate at the time of his hire, and he’s done nothing since to prove otherwise. The Cardinals’ defense had a terrible year in 2019, which is in keeping with Joseph’s track record as a defensive coach. Today, let’s take a dive into the numbers to see why Joseph is the wrong man for the job.

Disaster in the Desert

We all know the defense was bad in 2019. But just how bad was it? Let’s pop under the hood and take a look at this unit’s numbers under Joseph.

Arizona Cardinals 2019 Defensive Stats

Total Yds/Gm Rank Passing Yds/Gm Rank Rushing Yds/Gm Rank Total Sacks Rank Total Takeaways Rank Pts Against/Gm Rank
Total Yds/Gm Rank Passing Yds/Gm Rank Rushing Yds/Gm Rank Total Sacks Rank Total Takeaways Rank Pts Against/Gm Rank
402.0 32 281.9 31 120.1 24 40 17 17 27 27.6 28

Yikes. The only stat where we ranked in the top 20 is sacks, and almost half of them came from one man—Chandler Jones, who had 19. That means the rest of the defense only came up with 21 sacks total. This was just a brutally bad defense that was routinely sliced up by opposing QBs and ran over by opposing RBs. Only once did Joseph’s charges give up fewer than 20 points (13 points against Seattle in Week 16).

And what’s even more concerning is how much worse this defense was than last year in the one year in Steve Wilks’s and Al Holcomb’s 4-3. Getting back to the 3-4 was supposed to help this unit get right, help them get back to the top 10-15 unit they been for more of the Patrick Peterson era (since 2011).

That obviously didn’t happen. Instead, here’s what happened.

Arizona Cardinals Defense: 2019 vs. 2018

Year Total Yds/Gm Rank Passing Yds/Gm Rank Rushing Yds/Gm Rank Total Sacks Rank Total Takeaways Rank Pts Against/Gm Rank
Year Total Yds/Gm Rank Passing Yds/Gm Rank Rushing Yds/Gm Rank Total Sacks Rank Total Takeaways Rank Pts Against/Gm Rank
2019 402.0 32 281.9 31 120.1 24 40 17 17 27 27.6 28
2018 358.8 20 203.9 4 154.9 32 49 5 16 28 26.6 26
Differential 43.2 -12 78.0 -27 -34.8 8 -9 -12 1 1 1.0 -2

Joseph’s defense showed noted improvement in only one area: rush defense, where they improved from dead last all the way up to… #24. There was also a negligible improvement in turnovers. Everything else was worse—1 point per game worse, scoring-wise, and dramatic collapses in passing defense and total defense.

This despite similar—or even improved—talent from the 2018 unit. You certainly couldn’t argue that the 2019 defense had less talent than the 2018 version, not with the addition of players like Jordan Hicks, Terrell Suggs (while he was here), Byron Murphy, and the Thompson Twins. Not to mention career years from Chandler Jones and Budda Baker. Yes, Patrick Peterson’s suspension must be taken into account, but it’s not like things got much better after he returned (with the exception of the one game in Seattle).

This defense was markedly worse in 2019 than 2018—which is part of an alarming trend in Joseph’s career, as we’ll see.

Subpar Track Record

In each of his three coaching stops (Miami DC in 2016, Denver HC in 2017-18, Arizona DC in 2019), Joseph’s defenses have performed worse in his first season than they did the season before.

Vance Joseph Defensive Coaching History

Year Team YPG Rank PPG Rank
Year Team YPG Rank PPG Rank
2015 (before VJ) MIA 25 19
2016 MIA 29 18
Differential -4 1
2016 (before VJ) DEN 4 4
2017 DEN 3 22
Differential 1 -18
2018 (before VJ) ARI 20 26
2019 ARI 32 28
Differential -12 -2
Average Differential All -5 -6

In 2016, he took a weak Dolphins defense and made it slightly worse. That somehow got him the head coaching gig in Denver, where the previously elite defense began bleeding points. (Although Joe Woods was the DC, not Joseph himself.) Joseph was fired after the next season, when the Broncos defensive rankings were #22 in YPG and #13 in PPG. And we all know what happened this year in the desert. Defenses seem to perform worse with Joseph in charge of them, to the tune of 5-6 spots in the rankings.

Joseph doesn’t have a very long resume as a coordinator or head coach—it’s just those four seasons. He hasn’t helmed even an above-average unit in any of them. The average final ranking of a Vance Joseph defense is #22 in YPG and #20 in PPG. When you consider only his two seasons as a DC, those numbers drop to #31 in YPG and #23 in PPG. You have to wonder what Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim have seen that would make them think next year’s unit will be much improved. Unless they bought into his “closer than you think” lines. But the evidence that this defense is primed for a turnaround just isn’t there—not with Joseph in charge, anyway.

Final Thoughts

Vance Joseph has a short, yet highly ineffective, history of overseeing defenses. There is some value in continuity, yes, but it was clear from early on that Joseph was overmatched. The Week 3 game against Carolina—when fill-in starter Kyle Allen shredded us for 4 TDs—comes to mind. And the near collapses against Cincinnati and Atlanta not too long after. The actual collapse against Tampa Bay. And so on.

Yet it seems that we’re stuck for him for another season. Maybe a full season from Patrick Peterson would help—assuming he comes back, too. Continued strong play from Jones, Baker, and Hicks is a must. Health along the D-line, growth from our young players, and an influx of talent from the draft and free agency should all also help.

The bar for improvement is low—the defense was that bad in 2019. But even modest improvements won’t be enough for this team to challenge for a winning record in Year 2 of the Kliff and Kyler era. This unit needs to improve drastically in 2020. From what he’s shown in his career thus far, Vance Joseph doesn’t seem like he’ll be the man to lead a turnaround. I hope I’m wrong about him.

What are your thoughts, Cardinals fans? What was your reaction to the news of Joseph’s return? Do you think the defense can turn things around in 2020 with him back? Let us know in the comments.