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Cardinals #1 Priority: Defining Leadership

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

If you could be the GM of the Arizona Cardinals, in your efforts to turn the franchise into perennial Super Bowl contenders, what would be your priorities?

In my opinion, the Cardinals’ most glaring flaw is their lack of understanding of what true leadership is and what it looks like.

With the accompanying photo above, I chose to show Budda Baker making one of his team leading 90 solo tackles. It is my belief that the most outstanding leader in the Cardinals’ organization today is Budda Baker.

Why?

Budda Baker:

  • is about as low maintenance and easy to coach as a player can be.
  • is the team’s most aggressive player on either side of the ball (with Dennis Gardeck a close second).
  • cut his teeth as a rookie by being a standout on special teams (Pro Bowl caliber) —- which says a lot about a player’s character.
  • is not afraid or reluctant to do the dirty work.
  • makes the sacrifices to the team that great players make, by showing up and balling his heart out every day, every snap and every game.
  • does his best to inspire and rally his teammates.
  • plays with a love for the game and an insatiable passion for competition.
  • tells things like they are —- the most telling thing that any Cardinal player, coach or front office person said this season was Budda’s assertion that some players aren’t doing their jobs.

When the 2020 Arizona Cardinals’ captains were announced, the most glaring omission was Budda Baker.

The 2020 captains selection made it clear, at least to me, that the Cardinals need to do a much better job of defining what true leadership looks like.

True leadership has nothing to do with popularity.

True leadership has nothing to do with past accolades.

True leadership has nothing to do with bombast and pomp.

True leadership has everything to do with work ethic, sacrifice, accountability, appreciation, respect, teamwork and integrity.

The most important descriptor of all is integrity.

Let’s pause and revel in the word integrity and all that it means.

According to Dictionary.com : integrity is defined as: adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

What is the key word in this definition?

That’s right —- honesty.

Without honesty —- there can never be trust.

My biggest concern about the Cardinals’ organization is how frequently the leadership at the top has been deceptive. In recent years the modus operandi of the team owner, GM and the current head coach has been to engage in what could be described as “covert ops.”

There is nothing wrong per se in keeping things close to the vest —- but there is something wrong with delivering misleading information and/or a conspicuous dearth of information.

Be honest —- please respond to this question —- do you feel a sense of trust in the trio of Michael Bidwill, Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury?

I do not. Not in the least. In fact, I am to the point where I feel repulsed by so many aspects of the way they in which they conduct their business.

For example, I think they totally botched the Josh Rosen situation. Not only did they miss out on getting better trade value for him before the draft, but they mislead him by saying “Josh is our guy” and then after keeping him hanging and trading him on Day 2 of the draft, the GM doesn’t even have the decency to call him. There is no integrity in any of this.

Let’s take a step backwards deeper into time for a minute.

Did you trust Bruce Arians when he was the head coach?

What I will always give Bruce Arians superb credit for is getting the Cardinals’ focus back on the ultimate goal in professional football, which is to contend for the Lombardi Trophy. Arians’ “All or Nothing” and “No risk it, no biscuit” mantras were such a refreshing change for Cardinals players and fans to consider and embrace. it was like bringing large silos full of drinking water into the desert —-and for three years it began to feel like Arians had created an oasis.

But, Arians’ mantras because to lose their efficacy and credibility when it started to become clear that he was more interested in creating his own coaching tree, selling his own brand via Kangol hats and his autobiography as the self-proclaimed “Quarterback Whisperer” and ultimately when he chose to favor croneyism over accountability.

Integrity also has much to do with how you treat people.

By virtue of the human condition, we are all flawed. There is no escaping that reality. But, the greatest blessing of teamwork is its propensity to encourage every member of the team to commit to a greater good, to the point where personal flaws can be overcome and minimized —- to where making sacrifices to the greater good can spawn newfound seeds of courage and fortitude.

If I were the GM of the Cardinals, the first thing I would do is form a committee with the leaders on the team I trust the most. Today, the current players I would choose are Budda Baker, Dennis Gardeck, Kyler Murray, D.J. Humphries, Chase Edmonds, Maxx Williams and Justin Pugh.

I would want to hold a series of meetings with them in order to hear their visions as to how the Cardinals are going to start contending for Super Bowls. I would want to hear what they believe is standing in their way. I would want to ask them what they believe the team’s approach in free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft should be. I would want to form a list of free agents and draft prospects whom they believe could be vital additions to the squad. I would want to know how confident they are in the coaches and the current schemes.

Next, I would want to meet with my owner to discuss ways in which we can build back the trust of the fan base. I would want to suggest to his that the “covert ops” of the past few years have created more doubts than trust. I would want to discuss the dysfunctional aspects of the current culture in order to draw up a concerted plan as to how to change the culture. I would want to discuss this issue of double standards and red carpet treatments that star veterans have been afforded and what those exceptions have meant to the team’s integrity, morale and overall performance.

Next, I would want to sit down on multiple occasions with my head coach. I would want to know why the team was not improving from week to week. Why the game plans seemed vanilla at times. Why the team went 0-4 in games at the end of the bye week, the week of Thanksgiving, the week of Christmas and the week of New Year’s. I would want to know why he continued to maintain that practices were going well and continued to laud the so-called outstanding leadership in the locker room. I would want to know why in the world he would go for it on 4th and 1 from your own 20 yard line down 2 to the 49ers in a must-win game and then choose to punt on 4th and long at mid-field versus the Rams in the final must-win game behind by 11 with 4 minutes and change left, down to only 1 timeout. I would like to discuss how he can improve his typically redundant post-game interviews by being a little more honest and ingenuous.

Then, most importantly I would like to know from Kliff Kingsbury what his own vision of the offense is and would like to hear his explanations as to what’s holding him and the offense back. I would like to come out of this meeting with a list of improvement ideas, both in terms of scheme and personnel. Just as importantly, I would like to have a long conversation with him about the organization’s philosophy with regard to game planning and practice. I am of belief that the best team’s cater their game plans to the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent —- and it felt to me like the coaches’ philosophy this year was more of a “do what we do and try to do it better” approach. In my opinion, that approach has to change. What also has to change is the organization’s laissez-faire approach to practice. Under my watch, every player would be expected to practice and even those who are injured would be at practice to contribute in whatever way they could and then do their rehab on their own time. I would have every person in the organization listen to this:

This is what true leadership looks and sounds like.

Why? Because it the truth.

“If you can’t come in put work in in the building and go out to he practice field and work hard, do lifts and do what you are supposed to do. then you should not be here. This is a job where you get paid a lot of money. There are a lot of people out there who watch us and invest their time in us and buy our jerseys and all kinds of stuff —- and they care about it —-they care about it every week. So if you can’t put the work in and go out there and practice every day, then you should not be here.” J.J. Watt

Next, I would want to sit down with my defensive coordinator to ask him why his inside linebackers (not named Simmons and Vallejo) did not run downhill on a consistent basis to make tackles. Why his defense was so soft in keeping contain and making stops on the perimeter. Why RBs and FBs were consistently left wide open. Why he was reluctant to play the younger players. Why he was willing to cut the one young CB who made a highlight reel tackle. Why he was reluctant to keep Dennis Gardeck rushing from the edge after it was clear that he and Haason Reddick were the most explosive edge rushers.

I would want to know if the defense would be better off schematically if he gave the defensive linemen on the interior more freedom to penetrate and be aggressive —- like the mantra goes: “defend the run while teeing off to rush the passer.” I would want to know schematically and personnel-wise what it will take to strengthen the perimeters, plus what we can do to improve the man-to-man and zone coverages. I would want to know why he is struggling to defend the Rams’ bread and butter plays. I would want to know why the defense struggled as much as it did in giving up FGs and TDs late in the first and second halfs.

Next, I would want to sit down with my assistant head coach and special teams coordinator to ask him how we can improve the kicking game and the return game. I would want to know which STs players he wants the team to re-sign. I would also like to know what his NFL coaching aspirations are. As such, i would like to hear his vision of what the team needs to do to evolve into a championship caliber squad.

Next, I would want to sit down with my quarterback to ask him about his thoughts as to how he and the offense can improve to the point of becoming elite. I would want to know the reasons for his mood swings and get to the bottom of that so as to maximize his leadership skills. I would want to know what his vision of the offense is, philosophically and schematic-wise. Then, having gone back and watched the entirety of Kyler’s stunning performance in the 2018 Big 12 Championship game avenging the Sooners’ only loss to Texas, I would want to go through the tape with him to remind him of how much fun he was having that day and how this is the fun-loving, superbly innovative and precise Kyler we want on the Cardinals.

Then, I would want to sit down with my Pro Bowl safety to ask him what he believes are the answers to making the Cardinals’ defense consistently productive and efficient. I would want to know which players on the defense he trusts the most and which ones he trusts the least. I would want to know why there were still so many breakdowns in coverage at key times in games. I would want to know his thoughts about which free agents would be upgrades and game changers.

Next, I would want to sit down with my special teams captain to ask him what it would take to sign him to a long-term contract. If an agreement can be reached, that would be a great way to start off the new year.

Finally, I would then ask my tech crew to create a tape of what I considered to be the best 15 plays of the season and the worst 15 plays of the season (30 total, 10 for each of the three phases), I would like to go through the plays with the coaches and player in fine detail. While it is of paramount importance to dig for answers as to why the team struggled, particularly in losing 5 of their last 7 games, it is also of paramount importance to accentuate the positives in an effort to provide encouragement and a sense of confidence in the team’s ability to accomplish success.

if there is one important thing I have learned about working with students and athletes in a group setting, is to build individually on each of their strengths and then collectively when the team (or class) becomes galvanized and welded in the genuine spirit of truth, it will empower all of them to overcome their individual weaknesses for the sake of the common good.

To be honest, i think the meeting I would cherish most of all would be the one with Budda Baker. I think I would come out of that meeting knowing exactly what to do to improve this football and the organization. Haha, I have a strong feeling that there is nothing like feeling good karma from Budda.