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Chiefs or Niners—which approach should lay the groundwork for the 2020 Arizona Cardinals?

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The two teams in the Super Bowl got there through a combination of offensive and defensive progress from their previous year, how can AZ learn from the moves they made?

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-City Views Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a big game in the NFL happening this weekend, in case you haven’t noticed.

The San Francisco 49ers, obviously a divisional rival, made it to the big game with the #2 overall defense in the NFL this season, a brutal running game with the #2 rushing attack and Jimmy Garoppolo being excellent on 3rd down this season. They ran over the Vikings and Packers on their way to winning the NFC.

On the flipside, the Kansas City Chiefs picked up after the leading offense in the NFL in the Baltimore Ravens stumbled against a solid Titans defense and took what wasn’t even a top 5 offense (in passing it was and it was 6th overall) but it WAS the top passing offense in the postseason.

Essentially you have two polar opposite meeting in the big game.

The Chiefs: quarterback reliant with Mahomes throwing the ball all over the place (and with him leading the team in rushing!) and doing just enough on defense (17th on defense, aka just below average overall).

The Niners: win with a complete defense and pass rush, the run game and efficient play from their QB.

The question, then is...which approach is right?

In my opinion it’s pretty simple and isn’t something that will be “decided” by whichever team or approach wins on Sunday.

Both could be.

That said, I think it’s a bit more complex than that as far as when it comes to the concept of “team-building” but let’s take a look at the Arizona Cardinals the last two years as well (for brevity’s sake I am avoiding special teams to focus on offense and defense).

2018-2019 SB Team Comparison

2018 Niners 2019 Niners 2018 Chiefs 2019 Chiefs 2018 Cardinals 2019 Cardinals
2018 Niners 2019 Niners 2018 Chiefs 2019 Chiefs 2018 Cardinals 2019 Cardinals
16th 4th 1st 6th 32nd 21st
15th 13th 3rd 5th 32nd 24th
13th 2nd 16th 23rd 32nd 10th
20th 2nd 31st 17th 20th 32nd
11th 1st 31st 8th 4th 31st
19th 17th 23rd 26th 32nd 24th

Niners 2018-2019:

To break it down simply—not much changed in the passing attack for the Niners or even their run defense, and they had a good passing defense to begin with. What changed was that they shut down the pass (due to a combination of their DB’s and improving their pass rush) and boosted their rushing attack in a BIG way. Classic trench warfare team similar to the Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom” days.

The changes were seen in up front, adding Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, Kwon Alexander, and they kept their DC Robert Saleh.

Chiefs 2018-2019

To put it together—the Chiefs offense got worse BUT not much worse (like at all), while they made big-time strides against the pass on defense.

Their team benefitted I think somewhat from not having to play the Patriots and the Ravens but overall their firing of the DC that had them rank 31st in multiple categories was a blessing and signing Tyrann Mathieu, Bashaud Breeland and trading for pass rusher Frank Clark all were moves that were made that saw a big increase in production against the pass.

Now, let’s compare to...

Cardinals 2018-2019

The Cardinals on offense saw big boosts in production on the offensive side, going from dead last in EVERY category on offense to seeing Kliff and Kyler put together a top 10 rushing attack...impressive despite the fact that David Johnson was a non-factor this season (thanks Kyler and Kenyan Drake).

On defense, however, they flip-flopped.

They went from 32nd vs the run to 31st vs. the pass and this is notable because...as we saw in Kansas City, you don’t HAVE to be bad against the pass to win 10+ games but....you need to in short score more on offense than you do on defense.

And Arizona didn’t do that this year. How does this break down, then?

(Spoiler alert: it might explain the difference in draft opinions this year amongst fans)

Arizona on offense is similar to the 2018 Niners in being a run-heavy team.

But on defense, they’re similar to the 2018 Chiefs in being poor against the pass.

Therefore, you could make an argument that the Cardinals could base any improvement model after EITHER team: either building toward an elite offense and competency on defense like KC. OR by doubling down on the run game and defense to build a contender.

Which one is right?

As I said above the answer is...Yes.

I really don’t think there’s one right approach because both of these teams got to the Super Bowl with their own individual identity and talent, rather than looking like a dominant “sort” of model.

If you’re a fan who looks at the defense and how well they ran the ball and believes they need to copy the “Niners” model and build an elite DL and OL through the draft and free agency, you’re justified in that argument.

If you’re a fan who looks at Murray and Kliff and Kyler and Reid and goes “man, they made huge strides on offense but it wasn’t top 5 worthy to make the playoffs” and believe the team should build an explosive offense and then supplement them with pieces in free agency like KC, you’re justified in that argument.

Heck, there’s even arguments for and against their decision to keep Vance Joseph this offseason. The Niners built around Robert Saleh for 3 years and it paid off. Likewise, the Chiefs fired their DC and ended up with a huge leap in pass defense. It’s not like 2+2 always equals 4 with these decisions...

It’s really not as complicated as you’d think as winning in the NFL takes talent, scheme and coaching but most of all it takes executing an IDENTITY to the best degree and being able to beat other teams through said identity. And we’ve seen Arizona make progress there from 2018 in which they had none.

So there’s that. And as for how it compares to the NFL draft? Simple cause Arizona has so many needs.

Want to add an offense tackle at 8 to protect and run the ball?

Check.

Want to add the best defensive player in Brown, Simmons or if Okudah falls?

Check.

Want to add an explosive offensive weapon?

Check.

It’s easy to see the 3 areas that Arizona needs to improve...but there’s definitely a caveat and a reason why I do think there’s a “better” way for Arizona to go.

And it comes simply in that I think it’s easier for Arizona to go the Chiefs route at this time than it is the Niners route if that’s an “identity” they want to adopt to try to make a push for the big game.

It takes a LONG time with multiple years to build an elite defense and as we have seen, those usually can fall apart after just a season or two, even with the best teams. If the Cards keep consistent on offense and boost on defense, they’ll first have to climb to being an “average” defense overall like the Niners were in 2018. That’s the first step on their way up.

The Arizona Cardinals already jumped from 32nd to 21st (11 spots) on offense this offseason. If they can jump another 11 spots in production in Murray’s year 2 (similar to Lamar Jackson or Pat Mahomes’ 2nd year), they’ll be a top 10 offense at worst. For a lot of teams, that’s good enough for a playoff push even with an average defense.

Some teams, of course, still lose out badly despite that offense by having TERRIBLE defenses on the other side, especially against the pass (looking at you, 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

Meanwhile, if they jumped up 11 spots on total defense in 2020 you’d be sitting at an above average defense.

But if it becomes an “either/or” goal, ultimately you’re probably going to fall short in one area. To me, it makes more sense to push for a huge leap on offense as the PRIMARY identity for the Cardinals.

Why is that?

Because the Chiefs proved this year that if you have a dominant offense, you can get WORSE offensively and still perform better overall in terms of a super bowl. Their identity has gotten them much much further than the Niners who, even with Garoppolo’s injury, weren’t lighting it up on the defensive side.

It’s a way where I think that the approach isn’t wrong, but taking a dominant and explosive offensive playmaker at 8 is probably the “best move” with building an elite trenches team on the other side with the offseason being the other extreme.

Drafting a tackle? Kind of the middle for both as you’re building the trenches but also around Murray. My opinion is that the Cards can find pieces on the OL or Defense outside of the draft. But when it comes to adding explosive weapons, unless they decide they want to pay up a LOT for a player like Amari Cooper or an aging AJ Green...they will probably have to look at the draft, and early, to find that type of explosion to mimic Kansas City’s approach these past few years.

So that’s it!

What are your thoughts?

Should the Cardinals build their offseason around explosive weapons? Should they focus on improving their defense? Or a bit of both and focus on the trenches and pursue perfecting the offensive line?

Sound off in the comments section!