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2020 Arizona Cardinals: A Culture in Conflict

Washington Football Team v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Like my writing mentor, Barbara Helfgott Hyett, always says to poets who aspire to be published, “If there is no danger...there is no poem.”

“You can write poems that are void of conflict and there is a market for that—-as with Hallmark cards. But, you won’t find any Hallmark cards in a poetry anthology.”

After the Cardinals’ disappointing 34-31 home loss to the Dolphins last Sunday, QB Kyler Murray sat before the media and had a very difficult time finding words to describe his frustration.

Despite doing everything humanly possible to atone for a 1st quarter fumble that the Dolphins scooped up and ran for a TD, even to the point of lowering his shoulder on one of his cat quick scampers downfield, all that Kyler could think of in summing up the loss was:

“We came out here and laid an egg.”

This week Kyler has been heavily criticized by some in the national media for not playing the role of the gracious losing QB who tips his hat to the other team and says, “at the end of the day, they made more plays than we did.”

Kyler himself has since said that he agrees that “it’s a long season, this isn’t college football, and I have to stay optimistic.”

But, for long-time Cardinals’ fans like myself, I appreciated Kyler’s reticence and his utterly exasperated demeanor. Not only did it coincide with my own feelings of frustration, I think it was a great way to send the message to the media and his own teammates that no true competitor should ever “get used to losing.”

I was very happy to see that I was not the only fan who appreciated Kyler’s mood.

Let’s not forget that after the Cardinals lost back to back games earlier in the season versus the Lions and Panthers, GM Steve Keim called out some of the underachieving veterans and said that “our star players need to play like stars.”

Keim’s comment seemed to light a fire that helped to spark a three game winning streak, highlighted by exciting prime time wins over the Cowboys and Seahawks.

But, this past Sunday several of the team’s highest paid veterans, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, turned in disappointingly lackluster efforts, especially with the game on the line.

It was a game too where, despite being tied or behind for much of the first half, Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray only once threw a pass in the direction of All-Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins (it didn’t count as a target because Hopkins drew a PI by CB Xavien Howard on the play). A few weeks ago during the first half of the Cowboys game there appeared to be something of a disconnect between Kyler and DeAndre. Seemingly, they worked out their frustrations on the sidelines—-but not throwing to Hopkins once in the first half this past week is too odd and conspicuous to ignore.

Something is the matter.

It very likely has to do with the fact that DeAndre Hopkins takes most of the Wednesday practices off. Some have even speculated that it was a condition that he worked out with the Cardinals in his contract extension. And Bill O’Brien made it no secret that he felt that Hopkins’ proclivity for missing practices was setting a bad example for the younger players on the Texans’ team.

Yesterday on Bickley and Marotta, Bick asked Mark Schlereth, a former standout guard on the Broncos, whether players missing practice on a regular basis is an acceptable thing.

Schlereth first said that “it depends upon the player.” But, his caveat was that football is game of sacrifices and that championship teams are usually the ones who get all of the players to buy in to a common commitment and sacrifice. Schlereth ended his response by saying that as a former offensive lineman, star WRs should understand that they can’t do jack unless the offensive line does the dirty work.

Back in Schlereth’s day, weekly practices were a whole lot different than what they are today. The NFL hadn’t ratified the kind of full contact or length of practice restrictions that there are today. By any measure of standard labor policies, the weekly regimen for an NFL player, practice-wise is a cupcake in comparison to those who work 8-9 hour shifts.

Basically, NFL teams practice on the field for three days, Wednesday through Friday—-which involves virtually a 6 hour time commitment. Players have “room” meetings and spend a few hours a week in the weight room on Mondays and at various times during the week. Saturday practices are generally walk-throughs.

The question is—-is devoting 6 hours on the practice field a week in order to gel with ones teammates and get everyone’s assignments straight in all three phases of the game too much to ask from the players?

One way to lead the NFL in penalties is to squander practice opportunities.

As a high school teacher and coach, I always advised my students and players not to ask for “special treatment” when it comes to being in the work force or in any setting that requires team building. I always assured them that if they ever wanted to be resented and abhorred by others, asking for and demanding special liberties is a sure way to do it.

I once had a student who had a special ed accommodation that he was not to be held responsible for doing any homework, because doing homework made him too anxious. After he bragged about this to his classmates, he became, at first, thoroughly envied, and, in time, ultimately despised.

People in the work force or members of a team just want to be assured that everyone is working the same kind of hours under the same conditions.

The Cardinals have been flirting with failure for a few years now with regard to their willingness to give certain veterans days off from practice during the week. How did this policy work out with Terrell Suggs? Not only did he skip the team’s OTAs under a new coaching staff while being a brand new player on the team, he routinely missed practices during the week. You know, in favor of the old, “show up and play on game days.”

Then a report surfaced from a former teammate of Suggs’ on the Ravens who revealed that Suggs told him with regard to signing a free agent contract in Arizona, “I would never steal from the Ravens, man. So, I am going to go steal from the Cardinals instead.”

What this says about the perception of the Cardinals’ culture is alarming—-yet—-is it really all that surprising?

Unfortunately, the Cardinals have earned the reputation of hosting a country club atmosphere where star players can sign lucrative contracts and then play hard in games only when they want to—-or just as bad—-they are allowed to shun certain responsibilities at their position (like tackling) by acting like it shouldn’t even be in their job descriptions.

Imagine being Kyler Murray, a QB who has always taken the most pride in his teams’ winning streaks, getting a close view of the kind of “stealing” that has been going on in the organization for years and wondering how in the world he could change this type of losing culture.

Imagine being Kyler Murray and having to hear certain star teammates talk, talk talk about how great they are and what great things they are going to do—-only to watch such players run half speed at times during games and do everything they can to avoid contact.

Kyler Murray is a doer—-not a talker.

When he arrived as a rookie, he showed the maturity to work hard to gain his teammates trust before he ever dared to lead them or challenge them.

Losing 10 games last year was extremely tough on Murray. But for much of the season, he bit his tongue for the better good.

This year, now that he is a captain, he is standing up to anyone and everyone. He is fed up with losing and even though he hasn’t said so publicly, it would be logical to believe that he is fed up with the “stealer” “I can turn it on when I want” culture that keeps bringing this organization down and causing the team to lose games and people’s respect.

Kyler doesn’t even care about personal awards or stats—-he didn’t even know that his offense was leading the NFL in yards per game. Any time that he wins an award like NFC Offensive Player of the Week (which he has won 3 times in 24 games) or 2019 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, the principal benefit that Kyler sees in those distinctions is how well it reflects on his team and his teammates.

Kyler’s statement to his teammates on the field versus the Dolphins was to play the gutsiest game of his career to the point of taking hits that he normally avoids, to try to get that extra yard for a 1st down. He left everything he had out on the State Farm Stadium field.

Kyler hates the bye week because some players check out for 2-3 weeks instead of one. This year Kyler was a man possessed to try to reverse the bye week letdown the team suffered last year. But—-as any NFL player knows—-it takes a full commitment by the team to win.

There is nothing that Kyler Murray would rather be doing than playing football.

If it were up to him, there would be no bye week. Some of his teammates might be pissed at him for that. But, I think deep down, Kyler’s teammates appreciate that he knows what kind of commitment and hard work it takes to win. Not only that, by now there is no doubt that Kyler has all of the ingredients of what it takes to win.

Would Kyler Murray be upset about some of the double standards that certain star players are able to receive? Of course, he would.

Would he be worried that the Cardinals may never win enough to challenge for Lombardi trophies under the current circumstances? Of course, he would.

If you heard him yesterday, he kept talking about not having to wait “six or seven years” for the team to be relevant. “I don't want to take anything for granted,” he said. “I want to win now.”

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury keeps trying to be diplomatic after tough losses like last Sunday’s by taking personal blame and by continuing to laud “the outstanding veteran leadership in the locker room.”

Kingsbury said, “no one (the vet leaders) is panicking.”

I get this. But, why don’t I find it reassuring?

It would feel more reassuring to me as a fan if the majority of veteran leaders on the team were playing with a greater sense of urgency. Panic is one thing, but urgency is another.

Here are all of the Cardinals veterans making over $4M with regard to their average salaries:

  • Chandler Jones $21,333,333
  • DeAndre Hopkins $18,900,000
  • D.J. Humphries $14,583,000
  • Budda Baker $13,810,000
  • Patrick Peterson $13,184,589
  • Larry Fitzgerald $11,750,000
  • Justin Pugh $10,500,000
  • Jordan Hicks $10,500,000
  • Jordan Phillips $10,000,000
  • Kenyan Drake $8,483,000
  • De’Vondre Campbell $8,000,000
  • Robert Alford $7,500,000
  • Devon Kennard $7,000,000
  • J.R. Sweezy $6,500,000
  • Corey Peters $4,437,000

Which of these veteran players can you check all three boxes on:???

  1. Having a good, productive season that justifies the salary.
  2. Showing exemplary leadership.
  3. Playing consistently with a sense of urgency.

At the very top of the list, we have Budda Baker. (78.0 PFF and on a pace to make the All Pro Team)

Then, I would say that the next three closest are D.J. Humphries (best season as a pro, 80.1 PFF grade), Justin Pugh (0 sacks given up this season, 75.7 pass blocking grade, recent nominee for the Salute to Service Award) and Corey Peters (2nd highest graded veteran behind Budda on defense with over 250 snaps at 64.8).

Moreover, I think a cogent case can be made for Larry Fitzgerald. While his production was bound to drop because of the addition of DeAndre Hopkins and the emergence of Christian Kirk, Fitz is the epitome of a leader by example—-and when to comes to playing with urgency, how about the two plays where he rushed the ball to the center for the Cardinals to spike the ball and win the game—-now that’s what playing with a sense of urgency looks like.

When you think about it, Fitz and Kyler are perfect compliments as leaders. Fitz is a natural nurturer who tries to lift all his teammates’ spirits and confidence up, while Kyle is more of taskmaster who holds himself and every around him accountable.

At the end of a tough loss, when all Kyler Murray can think of to say is “we went out and laid an egg”—-what he is saying to everyone is we played with a lack of urgency.

To borrow from Barbara Helfgott Hyett, what Kyler was saying was “If there is no urgency...there is no win.”

So—-when Kyler Murray is at a loss for words after a tough loss—-maybe we should be extra thankful.

If you want to hear what a powerful sense of urgency sounds like, take a listen to this:

“I want to win every game. It’s year 2 and we and I don’t have time to wait around to say we’ll do this in year six or year seven, you never know what can happen, I am always striving to get better. I don’t really want to get used to this cycle of losing and then being underdogs and being hyped. I want to win every week. This is the NFL it’s hard to do that, obviously. I think we can get better at locking in and not taking any opponent lightly or take any game for granted. Like I said, you never know what game or play will be your last, so that’s the way I play.”

This is the kind of urgency—-that can resolve conflicts and change cultures—-sooner, rather than later.

Like Rodney Dandgerfield said as Al Czervik on Caddy Shack, “Let’s go—-while we’re still young!”