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Cardinals’ Maddening Coaching Carousel

Arizona Cardinals Off-Season Workout Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“And the seasons they go round and round. The painted ponies go up and down. We’re captive on a carousel of time. We can’t return; we can only look behind from where we came; and go round and round and round in the circle game.” (Joni Mitchell)

Here we go around again, Cardinals’ fans.

Per Mike Florio of NBC’s Pro Football Talk:

Is Kliff Kingsbury on the hot seat in Arizona?

Posted by Mike Florio on June 25, 2021, 7:40 PM EDT

The Cardinals have existed for more than 100 years. No coach of the team has lasted longer than six season. In 2021, Kliff Kingsbury will be halfway there.

Here’s the question: Will he get a fourth season?

With Kyler Murray in the final non-negotiable season of his rookie deal, the Cardinals will have to give him a major payday, as soon as next year. During the relatively inexpensive seasons of Murray’s career, the franchise has failed to make the playoffs. If they go 0-3 with Murray under Kingsbury, it’s not crazy to think Kingsbury will be gone.

Whether and to what extent Murray vouches for Kingsbury could help him. But Murray also could decide after three seasons that, for Murray to get to the next level, he’ll need a next-level coach.

Regardless, the Cardinals don’t tend to exercise excessive patience with their head coaches. Ken Whisenhunt lasted only six years despite taking the team to its only Super Bowl. Bruce Arians got nudged into retirement after five years despite cobbling together a consistent contender. If Kingsbury can’t take a team with one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL plus plenty of weapons to the postseason in his third crack at doing so, the organization may decide to find someone else to get the most out of Murray.

Many Cardinals’ fans whom I have spoken to, like my friend Peter (@p_rock88) believe:

Well. as Mike Florio said, “the Cardinals don’t tend to exercise excessive patience with their head coaches.”

In fact, by half-time of his first game as Cardinals’ head coach, Kliff Kingsbury confessed that he was wondering whether he was going to lose his Scottsdale, mountainside villa.

For the sake of reviewing he Cardinals’ carousel itself, let’s take a deep dive into the 34 year head coaching history of the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals (1988-present):

  • Gene Stallings (23-34-1) —- dismissed mid-season
  • Hank Kuhlman (0-5) —- interim head coach, dismissed
  • Joe Bugel (20-44) —- was given playoffs ultimatum, went 7-9, and was dismissed with 1 year remaining on his contract.
  • Buddy Ryan (12-20) —- was dismissed after two seasons with 2 years remaining on his contract.
  • Vince Tobin (28-43, 1-1 playoffs) —- despite leading AZ Cardinals to first playoff berth was dismissed mid-season with Dave McGinnis becoming the interim head coach.
  • Dave McGinnis (17-40) —- was dismissed with 1 season remaining on his contract.
  • Dennis Green (16-32) —- was dismissed with 1 year remaining on his contract.
  • Ken Whisenhunt (45-51, 4-2 playoffs) —- despite winning Cardinals’ first NFC Championship and taking Cardinals to their first Super Bowl, and being awarded with a second contract, he was dismissed with one year and a team option for another year remaining on his contract.
  • Bruce Arians (49-30-1, 1-2 playoffs) —- despite the winningest three year stretch in AZ Cardinals history (during which he was signed to a lucrative second contract) while taking the Cardinals to the NFC Championship game, he was, as Mike Florio politely speculated “nudged into retirement” with one year remaining on his contract.
  • Steve Wilks (3-13) —- was dismissed after one season with 3 years remaining on his contract.
  • Kliff Kingsbury (13-18-1) —- despite inheriting the worst team in the NFL and starting a rookie QB while improving the Cardinals’ record from 3 to 5 to 8 wins, he now could be facing a Joe Bugel-esque playoffs or bust ultimatum.

Arizona Cardinals have had:

11 coaches in 34 years —- 9 of which were 1st time NFL head coaches —-

Only 6 winning seasons in 34 years.

Kliff Kingbsury’s 8-8 record in 2020 is tied for 7th best record (in 34 seasons of Arizona Cardinals football).

Only 2 of 11 coaches were re-signed to 2nd contracts and, for various reasons, both Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians were unable to sustain the earlier success that produced the contract extensions.

Ken Whisenhunt’s 6 year tenure as head coach is the longest tenure in franchise history.

11 playoff games (5 seasons) in 34 years (6-5 record).

Two NFC Championship game berths (1-1).

One Super Bowl berth (0-1).

Three NFC West Titles (Whisenhunt 2008, 2009, Arians 2015) in 34 years.

What the Cardinals’ Front Office May Have Learned by Now:

  • Constant coaching switches, which typically involve roster overhauls and changes in coaching philosophies, tend to set the organization backward and put the organization in a constant catchup position, which versus organizations with GM and coaching stability and continuity is a formidable task. (BTW—-anyone think that Pete Carroll, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan are going anywhere anytime soon?)
  • Super Bowl winning coaches over the past 20 years who have had many years (6+) of longevity and continuity with their teams: Bill Belichick (6), Tom Coughlin (2), Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy. John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, Mike McCarthy, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid —- there are only three anomalies: Gary Kubiak, Doug Peterson and Bruce Arians.

Ramifications of a Kingsbury Dismissal after 3 Seasons:

  • It would prove that the local and national avalanche of naysayers about Kingsbury’s “undeserved” hiring was right on the money.
  • It would prove that on the heels of firing Steve Wilks after one season that the team owner/president and GM continue to show egregious incompetence in their hiring practices.
  • It would prove that Michael Bidwill’s consulting of former Ravens and Giants’ GM Ernie Accorsi, known as “The QB Guy”, was a mistake.
  • It would further relegate the Cardinals to hiring desperate head coaching candidates —- either ones who have never been an NFL head coach or former head coaches (like Ryan and Green) who are longing for a team to give them one more chance.
  • The organization could once again undergo a change in coaching philosophy and personnel preferences, thus leading to overhauling the staff and the roster.
  • It would create yet another financial setback of having to pay a head coach and fired staff members the remaining years of their contracts.
  • Get this —- over the past 34 years, the Cardinals put themselves in a position to pay extra years or a portion of years to EVERY head coach and his staff members.
  • The epitome perhaps —- is Mike McCoy whom the Cardinals paid a two year salary for his 6 months of work. At least the Cardinals recovered some of the salary they would have had to pay Steve Wilks had he not taken the Browns’ DC job.

Can Kliff Kingsbury Prove and His Skeptics Wrong This Season?

I believe he can —- but he needs Kyler Murray to take the next big step in his development, which may have to include Kyler finding a stronger way to play through assorted injuries the way stalwarts like Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have been able to do.

Behind Kyler, it’s questionable at this point as to whether Colt McCoy or Chris Streveler can lead the team to victories, if and when called upon.

I have been wondering whether the Cardinals could make a trade offer with the Patriots to acquire QB Jarrett Stidham, whom Kliff Kingsbury recruited at Texas Tech and knows very well. Stidham has the kind of arm, size and athleticism that Kingsbury covets. There are two years remaining on Stidham’s rookie 4th round contract. While Stidham has struggled in very limited action with the Patriots, he is the type of player whom Kingsbury could quickly develop and not have to change the offense for.

While the Cardinals are underdogs in the NFC West, because they have re-defined their veteran leadership and because they have made a concerted effort to improve their physicality up front on both sides of the ball, while adding speed and athleticism to the skill positions, there’s a chance that the Cardinals could be the surprise team in the NFC West this season. The Cardinals’ special teams could be the best in the division and one of the best in the NFL.

Reading the Tea Leaves

The speculation among pundits close to the team has been that while Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure might be in question, GM Steve Keim’s tenure still appears safe.

The reason why Keim might be safe?

It appears that the hiring of Steve Wilks and Kliff Kingsbury were spearheaded and rubber stamped by Michael Bidwill. Plus, if Bruce Arians was nudged into retirement, judging by Steve Keim’s crestfallen mug during BA’s retirement press conferences, it looked obvious that BA’s “younger brother” was not at all happy with the decision.

Therefore, if this tea leaves reading has merit, especially in light of the various moves that Steve Keim has made this off-season, Keim may be hitching his wagon to offensive line coach and newly appointed running game coordinator Sean Kugler as the Cardinals’ successor to Kliff Kingsbury as head coach —- that is if Keim can get Michael Bidwill to endorse the move.

What a Kugler to head coach promotion would likely mean is that Kugler and Keim would hire an offensive coordinator and that Brian Natkin would be promoted to OL coach, while Vance Joseph and Kevin Rodgers would continue with their assistants as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach/special teams coordinator respectively.

In my opinion, Steve Keim has never seemed comfortable with Kliff Kingsbury running his own NFL version of the Air Raid. Keim advised Kingsbury from the get-go to incorporate customary NFL play designs and formations into the Cardinals’ playbook. Which, to Kingsbury’s credit, and perhaps his own detriment, he has dutifully complied with.

Now that Sean Kugler is the running game coordinator, that will certainly put a little more pressure on Kingsbury to try to please and satisfy Kugler with the balance of the play calls.

Therefore, the great irony if Kliff Kingsbury is scapegoated and dismissed after this season, may well be that in three years we Cardinals’ fans would have been deprived of a genuine display of what Kingsbury’s NFL version of his Air Raid would look like, other than the flashes we may have seen of it during the first couple of games in 2019. while it was in its infant stages (that weren’t even practiced in the pre-season games, which Kingsbury later conceded was a mistake) —- as we know, before Kingsbury was asked by Kugler and the offensive linemen to play a steady diet of 12 personnel instead.

In my opinion, it is extremely difficult for an NFL offense to be both consistently dominant in 10 personnel and 12 personnel. Most teams are far better suited to excel at one, rather than at the other. The more reps you can take in practice at one of the two, the better. Proper timing requires maximum reps. The Chiefs, for example, split the difference and excel in their 11 personnel. Hopefully, we will seen Kingsbury take the reins of his offense in both hands and go about putting the most pressure possible on opposing defenses.

The Solution:

This 100% astute analysis by Mike Florio and Chris Simms (do yourself the favor and watch the entire thing):

Best-Case Scenario (in my opinion):

Stop this maddening coaching carousel, the perpetual coaching dismissals and the roster overhauls. Build on the existing continuity, for a change. The continuity could eventually surprise everyone.