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Cardinals Coaching Changes Creating Clarity or Confusion?

NFL: NOV 29 Cardinals at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hours before the Arizona Cardinals announced that they have promoted OL coach Sean Kugler to running game coordinator and Cam Turner to QB coach while appointing Sean Jefferson as the team’s new WR coach, I was asked this question by GWatt on Twitter: (@GWattawa):

Walter, have you ever wondered that with the general lack of urgency in the Cardinals FO towards hiring a OC is because they aren’t going too. The team has had the opening for a while, and we have had no reports of anyone even taking intrest. Maybe the position is meant to be left open so that Kliff has complete control over the offense and the calls. Who knows maybe Kliff literally calls his game plan that allows the utilizes the talents of the players. Just food for thought.

To which I replied:

“GWatt, the Cardinals promoted Sean Kugler to run game coordinator today. Thought he was the RGC all along, but maybe this means they gave him a raise with a more distinguished title. As we saw this season, the running game between that tackles was a struggle. Hopefully, Kugs has the answers for turning that around. It appears that head coach Kliff Kingsbury is now the passing game coordinator (which was one of Tom Clements’ titles — while Cam Turner has assumed Clements’ other title as the new QB coach).

Maybe the thinking is that there were too many voices in the the room, so perhaps they are trying to simplify things. Sean Jefferson is now the WRC. It’s surprising that no defensive coaches have been let go. It was not a good year for the DTs, ILBs and CBs. But, there appears to be a perception within the organization and AZ media that the defense was acceptable. Man, it’s tough not to get discouraged by what you aptly describe as a “general lack of urgency.” Yup. That’s what it is all right.”

Interesting that Cardinals’ GM Steve Keim said in Week 15 with the playoffs on the line that the team had “to match the Eagles’ intensity” —- because the Eagles had finally won a game now that rookie QB Jalen Hurts had replaced Carson Wentz.

The notion of not exceeding, but “matching” a 4-8-1 team’s intensity —-certainly carried over into the Cardinals’ final two games, where, with a playoff berth on the line, the Cardinals failed miserably in trying to “match” the 49ers’ and Rams’ intensity.

The Cardinals —- after the bye week following their 5-2 start —- were the epitome of a team that displayed, as GWatt said, “a general lack of urgency.”

Ditto for Steve Keim at the trading deadline when it was clear that the Cardinals were woefully underperforming at CB, DT and WR. Plus, by then Kenyan Drake was injured and D.J. Foster was the coaches’ choice as RB2 behind Chase Edmonds.

And so it now appears that Steve Keim’s passive aggressive “go with what we’ve got” approach to running a football team is carrying over into the off-season.

Make no mistake about it —- Steve Keim is pulling the strings here —- just as he has since Michael Bidwill, with encouragement from Ernie DiCorsi and Adrian Wilson, made the bold decision to hire Kliff Kingsbury as head coach.

It therefore is not a real surprise to see that the one coach that Steve Keim fired (WR coach David Raih —- now the newly appointed OC at Vanderbilt) was the only assistant coach whom Kliff had previously worked with in running his Air Raid offense.

It is also not a real surprise to see Keim (a two time All ACC offensive lineman) give OL coach Sean Kugler a raise and a more prominent title. One could make a strong argument that Kugler is the best hire that Keim made in filling out Kingsbury’s staff. Actually one could take it a step further and say that hiring Kugler was Keim’s best assistant coaching hire since hiring DC Todd Bowles (although Bowles was BA’s guy all along).

Keim looks up to the football alpha in the room as he did with Bruce Arians. Kugs is just that. Not only has Kugs, with help from assistant OL coach Brian Natkin, galvanized the OL in ways we Cardinals’ fans have not seen in years, he and Natkin have created a weekly morale booster for the team, by having their players put on amusing performances in their OL room that now the entire team is welcome to enjoy.

What Kugler’s promotion appears to confirm, at least in my way of trying to connect the dots, is that Steve Keim has never been comfortable with Kliff Kingsbury as a head coach. Taking this a step further, they way in which Kingsbury has been advised to modify his offense with traditional NFL play design concepts, it would appear very strongly that Steve Keim has never been comfortable embracing an NFL version of Kingsbury’s Air Raid.

In essence, would it be a stretch at this point to believe that Sean Kugler, has emerged as the team’s de facto head coach?

What should be interesting to see this off-season are the personnel moves that Steve Keim makes along the offensive line and at running back in accordance with Sean Kugler’s wishes. Currently, the strength of the Cardinals offensive line is in pass blocking. However, if Keim and Kugler wish to bolster the team’s rushing attack, there could be some telling additions and subtractions along the line.

Furthermore, in light of the Cardinals’ offensive struggles in converting 3rd and 1s, will Keim and Kugler look to add a power RB as the team’s new bell cow?

As we know, Kliff Kingsbury raves about Kenyan Drake and did so to the point of persuading Steve Keim to place the $8.75M t-tag on him. However, the question is, do Keim and Kugler share the same appreciation and belief in Drake that Kingsbury does?

As for Chase Edmonds, it’s probably safe to assume that Keim and Kugler like him as a key cog in the team’s passing game. But, it would be surprising at this point if they were to tab him as the bell cow RB1.

Adding Sean Jefferson as the new WR coach is another signal that Steve Keim wants to run a more traditional NFL passing game. But, the glaring question is, where does Jerry Sullivan factor in? Why wasn’t he appointed as the WR coach? Has Sullivan, as the team’s “offensive assistant’ emerged as Tom Clements’ successor as passing game coordinator?

One thing would appear to be certain, with Jerry Sullivan still on the staff as the offensive advisor (he seemed to appear out of nowhere in training camp two years ago like a thief in the night, when the team already had a passing game coordinator in Tom Clements and a WR coach in David Raih) it doesn’t seem that by pure coincidence both Tom Clements and David Raih are now gone.

As some of us long-time Cardinals’ fans might remember, Jerry Sullivan was Dave McGinnis’ offensive coordinator in 2003 —- the year in which rookie WR Anquan Boldin made the Pro Bowl (1,377 yards receiving) —- the same fateful year in which Josh McCown hit Nate Poole in the back corner of the end zone in the Cardinals’ Week 17 improbable 18-17 upset win over the Vikings (which cost the Vikings a playoff berth and cost the Cardinals the #1 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft) —- which was McGinnis’ swan song —- and which led to the hiring of Denny Green and the decision to bypass taking QB Phillip Rivers in favor of drafting WR Larry Fitzgerald.

If one takes a close look at Sullivan’s NFL career from that point forward, while he was always considered one of the top veteran WR coaches in the NFL, he had an uncanny habit of coaching on some of the worst teams in the NFL. Not to imply that the chronic losing was his fault, by any means, but have a look for yourself: (Year—-Team—-HC—-Record—-Top WR)

2003 AZ (Dave McGinnis) OC —- 4-12 —-top WR Anquan Boldin (1,377 yds.)

2004 MIA (Dave Wannstedt) WRC —- 4-12 —-Chris Chambers (898 yards)

2005 SF (Mike Nolan) WRC —- 4-12 —- Brandon Lloyd (733 yards)

2006 SF (Nolan) WRC —- 7-9 —- Antonio Bryant (737 yards)

2007 SF (Nolan) WRC —- 5-11 —- Arnaz Battle (600 yards)

2008 SF (Nolan/Singletary) WRC —- 7-9 —- Isaac Bruce (835 yards)

2009 SF (Mike Singletary) WRC —- 8-8 —- Michael Crabtree (625 yards)

2010 SF (Singletary/Tomsula) WRC —- 6-10 —- Michael Crabtree (741 yards)

2012 JAX (Mike Mularkey) WRC —- 2-14 —- Cecil Shorts (979 yards)

2013 JAX (Gus Bradley) WRC —- 4-12 —- Cecil Shorts (777 yards)

2014 JAX (Bradley) WRC —- 3-13 —- Allen Hurns (677 yards)

2015 JAX (Bradley) WRC —- 5-11 —- Allen Robinson (1,400 yards), Allen Hurns (1,031 yards)

2016 JAX (Doug Marrone) WRC —- 3-13 —- Allen Robinson (883 yards)

In this span of 13 seasons, Sullivan had only 3 WRs eclipse 1,000 yards (Boldin in 2003, Robinson in 2015 and Hurns in 2015) while his teams went a combined 62-146. (0.298 win %). Not one winning season in this span. Not one playoff berth. As said, it’s certainly not Sullivan’s fault, but the consistency of under-achieving here is uncanny.

Therefore, Jerry Sullivan must have felt a sweet sense of satisfaction when as passing game coordinator at LSU under head coach Ed Orgeron in 2018, he helped the Tigers go 10-3 (5-3 in SEC) and end the season as the winners of the Fiesta Bowl, 40-32 over the then undefeated UCF Knights.

While at LSU Sullivan helped to develop WRs Ja’Marr Chase (top 10 pick in 2021 NFL Draft?), Justin Jefferson (1st Round pick by MIN in 2020) and Terrace Marshall Jr. (2nd Round pick in 2021 NFL Draft?).

That was the good news —- but having worked with that kind of elite WR talent at LSU, one can just imagine how challenging it was for Sullivan to try to develop and embrace Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson. Sullivan was not on the Cardinals’ coaching staff that April, thus one has to wonder whether he would have banged the table for other options at pick #62 like D.K. Metcalf or Terry McLaurin. My hunch is that Sullivan would have seen a lot of Justin Jefferson type abilities in Terry McLaurin.

Sullivan was touting Justin Jefferson last year as his favorite WR in the draft. As it turns out, Sullivan was right on the money, as Jefferson led all rookie WRs in receptions, yards and TDs (88 catches for 1,400 yards and 7 TDs) —- numbers that compare favorably to DeAndre Hopkins’ (115 catches for 1,407 yards and 6 TDs).

Therefore, as interesting as it should be to see what Sean Kugler has in mind in free agency and the draft, it should be interesting to see Jerry Sullivan’s influence on any additions the Cardinals make at WR. The most obvious two connections that Sullivan has with players he has coached are Allen Robinson (CHI) and Terrace Marshall, Jr. (LSU).

It would be hard to imagine that the Cardinals would be able to afford Allen Robinson. Sportrac has his market value at $20M a year and PFF predicts Robinson to go to the Dolphins on a 4 year $84M contract ($21M a year).

As for WRs in this year’s NFL Draft, it would seem unlikely that the Cardinals would be able to move up to select Ja’Marr Chase, but if Jaylen Waddle (Alabama) were to be on the board at #16 perhaps Sullivan would bang the table for him. One could also consider TE Kyle Pitts (Florida) as an NFL slot WR whom Sullivan might be sky high on.

The point is that Kliff Kingsbury now finds himself sandwiched by two alpha offensive assistants in Sean Kugler and Jerry Sullivan. Working hand in hand with them, both schematically and personnel-wise, is of paramount importance. That is apt to require some nifty juggling and synthesizing on Kliff’s part.

As I mentioned to GWatt, it is, at least to me, surprising that there have been no changes as yet to the defensive staff, where the third coaching alpha, Vance Jospeh, is calling the shots. Steve Keim appears eager once again to try to provide Vance Joseph with the type of personnel that would afford him greater success. Therefore, let’s hope that this year’s free agent additions are better system fits and producers than DT Jordan Phillips, ILB De’Vondre Campbell, OLB Devon Kennard and CB Dre Kirkpatrick were this past season.

I have tried here to make as much sense of the current coaching maneuverings as I could.

At this point, GWatt and everyone, I do not think the Cardinals are going to add any other coaches to the offensive staff. The offense appears to be squarely in the hands of Kingsbury, Kugler and Sullivan.

If that is the case, then what do you think of the Cardinals’ plan?