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Cardinals Evolving Through Adaptation

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NFL: Super Bowl LIV-NFL Honors Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In January of 2019, the Arizona Cardinals, coming off the exhilaration and hangover of the Bruce Arians era and the subsequent one year plunge to the rock bottom of the NFL in 2018, essentially, as an organization—-pressed the reset button.

As Cardinals’ owner, Michael Bidwill, said in this month’s edition of the Cardinals Flight Plan, “Adversity doesn’t bring the character out in someone, it reveals it.”

Yes.

A million times, yes.

While Michael Bidwill, Steve Keim, Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals’ staff and players will tell you, the bulk of the heavy lifting in trying to lift the organization up into a new era of prominence remains in the days, weeks, months and years ahead of them—-the majority of all the transformative adaptations the Cardinals have made overt the past 16 months appear to have gotten the team on the fast track and pointed in the right direction.

As wonderful as this Cardinals’ makeover feels, the Cardinals are nowhere near where they want to be yet, and there are a number of key questions that have yet to be answered, such as:

1—-did Michael Bidwill make the right decision to tab Kilff Kingsbury as head coach?

2—-did Michael Bidwill make the right decision to hold on to Steve Keim as GM?

3—-did Steve Keim make the right decision to hold on to Vance Joseph as DC?

4—-are the Cardinals going to start cashing in on their drafts by developing the players?

This Cardinals’ fan’s answers to these four key questions are as follows:

1—-I believe so. In so many ways, Kliff Kingsbury’s coaching style is the antithesis to Bruce Arians’ and to me, because of Arians’ old school and, at times draconian approach to handling personnel, I am far happier and confident knowing that Kliff Kingsbury is treating our players with due respect and is trying to motivate them through positive energy and reinforcement, rather than through fear.

What gives me confidence about K2 as a play caller were the adjustments he made during the course of his rookie season. Kingsbury vows that his main philosophy is to adapt his offense to the current personnel. Thus far with Kingsbury, especially after he heeded the players and coaches advice to make a greater commitment to the running game via an employment of 11 and 12 personnel, his words have matched the music.

That’s how a coach gains respect—-when his words match the music. As they, “if you talk the talk, you’d better walk the walk.”

It pleases me to no end to hear how Kingsbury has endeared himself to the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Chandler Jones.

The other thing as much as any factor that gives me hope is hearing how K2 and his coaches have specifically outlined “what Cardinals look like at every position” for the GM and the scouts—-which could help eliminate the Cardinals’ biggest draft mistakes of the past in trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

I am getting the sense that even in these most difficult days of physical distancing, the Cardinals as an organization are communicating more strongly and cooperatively than ever before.

2—-I feel as if I will know the definitive and conclusive answer to Bidwill decision to hold on to Steve Keim if Vance Jospeh rebounds with a good, strong season as DC. However, if the defensive struggles continue (blown coverage assignments, lazy, soft zones and ill-advised late game play calls), if Cardinals’ draft picks continue to be slow to develop and if so many of them are swiftly brushed aside and cut, then the Cardinals will need new leadership from the GM.

I believe that Keim’s work this off-season, while largely impressive in light of the stunning trade for WR DeAndre Hopkins and the three solid additions he made (OLB Devon Kennard, DT Jordan Phillips and WILB De’Vondre Campbell) to bolster the defense, plus adeptly managing to re-sign 11 of the team’s own free agents, could backfire on him:

  • if the $15M a year he gave to LT D.J. Humphries proves to be Keim’s 3rd blown excessively lucrative contract extension during his tenure (see Tyrann Mathieu and David Johnson).
  • if the decision to award RB Kenyan Drake with an $8.4M t-tag salary turns out to be a regrettable mistake while there is a draft chock-full of young RB talent.
  • if Keim swiftly awards WR DeAndre Hopkins with a $20-$22M a year contract, but the issues that Bill O’Brien had with Hopkins persist, this time in Arizona (not practicing during the week, which is not a good optic and example to set for the younger players or anyone on the team, for that matter).
  • if Keim decides to extend CB Patrick Peterson to a lucrative contract on top of Humphries’ and Hopkins’ lofty contracts—-that could severely limit (cap wise) the team’s ability to add more key pieces to the roster while trying to take advantage of Kyler Murray’s rookie contract.

The Humphries decision came at a time when the Cardinals are in an advantageous position to draft a top-level tackle at #8. At no time yet in his career (even when he’s been healthy) has Humphries demonstrated he is worthy of $15M a year. These are the types of decisions that can destroy an organization’s confidence in the GM, not only in the clubhouse amongst the players, but with the fans.

We all hope that Humphries rewards Keim’s faith in him. We hope that Kenyan Drake picks up where he left off last season—-but this is the first time in Drake’s 5 year pro career and college career that he heads into a season as the bell cow RB, so, once again, the $8.4M is a pricey act of faith.

As for DeAndre Hopkins, it appears that the trade for him was contingent on the notion that the Cardinals would rip up his old contract and sign him to the $20-$22M a year he wants.

What could be a concern is that Hopkins probably got to know Tyrann Mathieu pretty well when they were teammates in 2018. One can just imagine the picture that Mathieu painted of the Cardinals for anyone to hear—-heck all you have to do is follow his twitter feed.

However, Hopkins said today that he heard “nothing but good things about the Cardinals’ organization, the owner and the GM” from fellow Clemson alums D.J. Swearinger, Jaron Brown and Andre Ellington. Hopkins also said he is “overwhelmed” bu the enthusiastic welcome he’s received from his new teammates, particular from the “young players who are eager to win.”

Therefore—-hat we have to hope is that the new image that Bidwill, Keim, Kingsbury and Murray have brought to the organization is one that will inspire a veteran like Hopkins to play the way Larry Fitzgerald and Chandler Jones have—-and to put those past stigmas about the Cardinals and veterans “stealing” from the Cardinals to rest.

What does not aid and abet the “new image” cause is the uncertainty surrounding Patrick Peterson—-a mercurial star player who has wanted out and has bashed the club even though he was the one busted for PEDs and a masking agent. It would be a mark of the old regime if Peterson continues to simply “do his own thing”—-and by now—-we all know what that means.

If Steve Keim has the prerogative to wait for several months before he negotiates deals with Hopkins and Peterson—-that would appear to be the wisest course of action. If Hopkins assimilates very well is demonstrating exemplary leadership on and off the field, then the new contract would be well warranted. If Peterson is showing exemplary leadership on his side of the ball by doing all that is expected of him as an NFL CB, then by all means there could be a new confidence that Peterson is playing hard for the team and not just for himself. (Note: Hopkins said today that he will not be participating in the Cardinals’ “virtual” off-season program that starts on Monday, until a new contract has been agreed to—-which basically means that the Keim does not have the prerogative to wait to see Hopkins in action before the working of a new contract).

What’s encouraging about some of the adjustments Steve Keim has been making is that during the season he cut Michael Crabtree, D.J. Swearinger and Terrell Suggs for “stealing” and this off-season, he focussed his attention on adding free agents in their mid to late 20s, eschewing his old pattern of signing aged veterans as stop gaps and/or possible fan attractions.

It’s noteworthy too that Keim has chosen to move on from A.Q. Shipley in order to promote the Cardinals’ 2018 3rd round pick C Mason Cole. That decision couldn’t have been easy for Keim because of his high regard for Shipley—-but there comes a time when cashing in on draft picks, particularly top 100 picks (Days 1 & 2) is what’s best for the organization.

Finally, because Steve Keim is more focused on adding youth to the program, the Arians days of veteran privilege and general disdain for younger players could finally be a thing of the past. Carson Palmer said in an interview with Rich Eisen this week, “Being a rookie QB under Arians would be a long, long season because of how strict he is. If you are a young WR and you line up in the wrong spot, it’s probably another couple of days until you get another rep on the practice field. When he asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, then you are going to hear about it and everyone on the team will hear about it.”

Do you think BA’s a his staff’s approach to developing draft picks has something to do with the fact that of the 36 players drafted in his 5 year tenure as head coach—-only 3 are still on the roster? More on this in the response to question 4.

Hopefully, Steve Keim’s major decisions this time around will work in his and the organization’s favor. If the majority of them do, then Steve Keim will have performed a special odyssey—-as BA often admonished, “it’s a quick ride from the penthouse to the outhouse”—-and now Steve Keim finds himself and the organization mounting the elevator on the 2nd floor and pressing the button at the top .

3—-Steve Keim’s decision to keep Vance Jospeh as DC is of crucial significance. It appears that the players are embracing and relishing the continuity (which in light of this shortened off-season is looking better by the moment) and they appear to like Joseph’s passion and coaching style. Now the big questions are—-will they play tough, hard and cohesively this time around? Will they do their part to win games this season?

For a coach of Vance Joseph’s experience, it was shocking to see how vulnerable, tentative and mistake prone his defense was last season. It was a strange thing to watch, because half the players were playing their hearts out, while the other half were running half speed. Amazingly, despite having the worst defense in the NFL, the defense had two Pro Bowlers on the field in Chandler Jones and Budda Baker.

This season Vance Joseph gets his chance to press the reset button with players that he believes could turn his defense from a team weakness into a team strength. This won’t be easy, especially in the NFC West where V-Jo will have to prove he can match wits with Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Brian Schottenheimer—-three of the very best. most creative play callers in the NFL.

4—-Steve Keim and the front office worked very hard to cover all the team’s bases in free agency so that the team can feel free to draft the top player on their board at each spot.

Before we talk about Keim’s thoughts on this year’s draft, we should remind ourselves of how great to would be for the organization and the climb toward the penthouse if QB Kyler Murray, CB Byron Murphy, WR Andy Isabella, DE Zach Allen, WR Hakeem Butler, S Deionte Thompson, S Jalen Thompson, WR KeeSean Johnson, G Lamont Gaillard, T Joshua Miles and DE Michael Dogbe make big-time strides and come to camp this year ready to rock.

If K2 and his coaching staff develops the 2019 talent, then this draft class may go down in history as one of the Cardinals’ all-time best hauls, if not the best.

However, again, when we look at BA’s 5 drafts:

An astonishing fact is that the only player still on the Cardinals’ roster from Bruce Arians’ first 4 drafts, is, ironically, T D.J. Humphries (a 1st round pick who was never even activated for games his rookie season).

All of the Cardinals draft picks from 2013, 2014 and 2016 are gone. And only two from Arians’ last draft remain: LB Haason Reddick and S Budda Baker.

Conversely, here are the draftees during the BA years (2013-2017) still on other NFC West rosters (starters in bold):

ARI (3): T D.J. Humphries, LB Haason Reddick; S Budda Baker

LAR (9): DT Aaron Donald, T Rob Havestein, QB Jared Goff, TE Tyler Higbee, TE Gerald Everett, WR Cooper Kupp, S John Johnson, WR Josh Reynolds, OLB Samson Ebukam

SF (10): S Jimmie Ward, DE Arik Armstead, S Jaquizi Tart, DE Ronald Blair, DE Solomon Thomas, CB Ahkelli Witherspoon, QB C.J. Beathard, TE George Kittle, WR Trent Taylor, DT D.J. Jones

SEA (8): C Justin Britt, WR Tyler Lockett, DT Jarran Reid, RB C.J. Porcise, DT Nazir Jones, CB Shaquille Griffin, S Delano Hall, RB Chris Carson

The Cardinals have to change the tide here asap.

This year, Steve Keim said that he believes there are 8-10 “blue chip” players at the top of the draft. Those are auspicious numbers when a team has the #8 pick. And it’s possible that Keim wasn’t including the QBs in those numbers.

The biggest question is whether Keim will elect to stay at #8 or make a trade up (not sure the Cardinals have the current draft capital to make that work unless they throw in next year’s #1 pick) or trade down (as Keim says, if there are players of equal grades and he knows he can trade down and still be able to select one of them, then he’s “all for it”).

Keim has made it clear that if there is a player they love at #8, regardless of position and perceived need, then they will make the selection.

A reasonable hunch is that unless S/OLB Isaiah Simmons or CB Jeff Okudah slides to #8, Keim will try to trade down a few spots to pick up an extra pick or two.

Keim said the 4 tackles (Thomas, Becton, Wirfs and Wills) were “fun to watch” and “it will be interesting to see where they go.” While he was little more effusive in his praise of the 4-5 WRs at the top of the draft saying that “they are really exciting to watch.” Yet, he also lauded the WR depth, saying teams could get “a good X or Y in every round.”

By now we are so mocked out and all of us are clinging to our favorites just as Keim’s sons and Kyler Murray are—-thus, it should be interesting to see which player Steve Keim picks in round 1. One will likely be able to make a very good and cogent case for any of the “blue chip” 8-12 players ay the top of the Cardinals’ draft board.

What alsol should be interesting to see is how well Keim’s draft stacks up against those of the rest of the NFC West.

ARI (6): 8, 72, 114, 131, 202, 222

LAR (6): 52, 84, 104, 126, 199, 234

SF (7): 13, 31, 156, 176, 210, 217, 245

SEA (7): 27, 59, 64, 101, 133, 144, 214

The most successful drafts are the ones where the players are good, smart fits in the system and within the team culture and are well assimilated and developed by the coaches.

Conclusion:

In assessing where the Cardinals are right now, I tried to be as impartial and objective as I could. I hope I didn’t come across as overly critical or paranoid (the bane of old-time Cardinals’ fans, indeed).

However, the Cardinals as an organization, are acting in unison on a plan—-they are being aggressive, creative and resourceful—-and now the buzz surrounding the direction of the team is newly and profoundly positive.

For that, Michael Bidwill, Steve Keim, Kliff Kingsbury, the front office, the scouts, the coaching staff and the players deserve a great deal of credit.

Now let’s see whether they can take this positive momentum and run with it.

As Michael Bidwill said, “Adversity reveals character.”

Yes and we are seeing plenty of character from the leadership team of the Cardinals’ organization starting with Bidwill—-character and leadership not just within the organization, but within the entire community. The effort here is a noble one.

Who would have thought a year ago at this time, the buzz for the Cardinals would be this exciting in just over one year?

Therefore, as Henry David Thoreau, said so aptly:

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”