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Vance Back on Head Coaching Track?

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Arizona Cardinals v New York Giants Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

Yesterday, venerable Arizona Republic sportswriter, Bob McManaman, published an article in which he prognosticates that if Vance Joseph has a big year this year with the Cardinals, then Vance is likely to land his second NFL head coaching assignment —- with another team —- or according to McManaman —- if Kliff Kingsbury struggles, then Vance could be in line for a head coaching promotion from within.

If you haven’t as yet read McManaman’s piece, “Arizona Cardinals could lose defensive coordinator Vance Joseph with big season in 2021”, here is the link:

My immediate reaction to Mr. McManaman’s article was one of befuddlement, largely because, while Vance Joseph made some strides from coaching the worst performing defense in the NFL in 2019 to one of the mid-level defenses in 2020, there are still too many flaws in his defense to ignore, the most alarming of which was his defense still not manifesting a clue as to how to defend Sean McVay’s bread and butter plays, whether it be with Jared Goff at QB or John Woolford in his first NFL start.

The second wave of discernment I felt involves a nagging sense of deja vu. Arguably, one of the worst mistakes Bruce Arians made as the Cardinals’ head coach was to passionately lobby for other teams to hire his defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, as a first time head coach.

In the litany of nagging “what if” scenarios that pester long-time Cardinals’ fans like myself, near the top of the long list is “what if BA and the Cardinals had managed to hold on to Todd Bowles for at least the 2015 season when the team was peaking?” “Could Keeping Bowles have led to the Cardinals’ second Super Bowl berth?”

“What if the Cardinals had had the foresight to give Todd Bowles a hefty raise and an assurance that he would take over the reins as head coach when BA retired?”

After what we saw from Todd Bowles and his outstanding Super Bowl game plan versus Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes and the normally high-flying Kansas City Chiefs, it’s reasonable to believe that the Bucs’ GM (former Cardinals’ assistant GM) Jason Licht will not make the same mistake the Cardinals did and will assure Todd Bowles of being the heir to BA as head coach when BA retires, that is for real and for good, this time.

There are times when Vance Joseph looks and acts the part of an NFL head coach. He is articulate, emphatic and charismatic. Former players often iterate how much they liked playing for him. Current players appear to trust and believe in Vance. And it may not be Vance’s fault that a number of high profile veterans have not played very well or hard for him over the past two years. But —- the majority of those veterans are now retired or playing elsewhere.

OK, so let’s take a look, numbers-wise,at Vance’s tenure as the Cardinals’ DC thus far.

Team Defense Improvements (per NFL rankings):

  • Total Defense: 2019 —- 402.0 (32nd); 2020 —- 351.9 (13th)
  • Passing Defense: 2019 —- 281.9 (31st); 2020 —- 226.4 (10th)
  • Rushing Defense: 2019 —-120.1 (24th); 2020 —- 125.5 (22nd)
  • Points Allowed: 2019 —- 27.6 (28th); 2020 —- 22.9 (12th)
  • Interceptions: 2019: 7 (T-30th); 2020: 11 (T-18th)
  • Sacks: 2019: 40 (T-17th); 2020: 48 (T-4th)
  • Opponents’ 3rd Down Conversion %: 2019: 46.73% (30th); 2020: 39.60% (10th)
  • Turnover Differential: 2019: -1 (T-18th); 2020: 0 (T-17th)

Most Impressive Improvements:

  • Total Defense (32nd to 13th);
  • Points Allowed (28th to 12th);
  • Sacks (17th to 4th);
  • Opponents’ 3rd Down % (30th to 10th).
  • Noteworthy reasons: Far greater success covering TEs. And despite losing Chandler Jones for 11 games, finishing 4th in the NFL in sacks. Vance Joseph’s ability to dial up pressures is one of his greatest strengths.
  • Vance Joseph’s defense gave up the 1st score of the game in only 6 of 16 games. This stat is especially impressive in light of how often the Cardinals’ opponents received the opening kickoff because of Kliff Kingsbury’s proclivity for deferring when winning the coin toss.

Most Misleading Stat:

  • If the alarming number of pass interference and holding penalties (and the yards the penalties cost the defense) were to be added to the pass defense numbers, the pass defense stats would most likely fall outside of the top half of the NFL. Patrick Peterson led the NFL with 12. Dre Kirkpatrick was 4th in the NFL with 9. Byron Murphy and Kevin Peterson each had 4.
  • Most Concerning Stat:

Vance Joseph’s defense gave up more yards per game on run defense than it did in 2019. In the NFC West, a division where the opponents stress the running game, the Cardinals’ defense was not consistently strong up the middle, nor, save for Haason Reddick, was reliable at enforcing contain. To compound matters the defense was arguably the weakest tackling team in the NFL on the perimeter, particularly at the CB position. (an issue that in his most recent presser Vance Joseph said the team has addressed this off-season, thank goodness).

  • Most Concerning Trends:

Last season, Vance Joseph’s defense had consistent difficulty thwarting inexperienced QBs who came into the Cardinals’ game getting their 1st (Beathard, Woolford) or 2nd (Tua, Hurts) start of the season. As favorites in all 4 of those games, the Cardinals lost 3 of the 4. losing two at home to the Dolphins (Tua in 2nd start) and 49ers (Beathard 1st start of season).

Vance Joseph’s defense gave up the 1st score of the second half in 9 of the 16 games and they gave up late 4th quarter scores when the Cardinals were tied or had the lead versus the Lions, Bills, Patriots and Dolphins (losing 3 of 4 with the lone win coming on the “Hail Murray, Holy Hop”).

  • Best Half:

Holding Russell Wilson and the Seahawks to 7 second half points, which enabled the Cardinals to rally from a 27-17 halftime deficit and to win 37-34 in OT thanks in large part by Tanner Vallejo’s pair of nifty downhill run stops which caused the key 3rd down where Isaiah Simmons plucked the game changing interception.

  • Best Game:

Totally dominating the New York Giants’ offense at Met Life Stadium, recording 8 sacks and limiting the Giants to 159 total yards and 7 points. The Giants had won 3 of their last 4 games at that point, including a stunning 17-12 upset of the Seahawks in Seattle with Colt McCoy at QB the previous week.

Commentary on Perception:

Heading into the 2019 season on the heels of Michael Bidwill firing Steve Wilks after one season as head coach, this is what Kliff Kingsbury was inheriting on both sides of the ball:

  • Total Offense: 241.6 (32nd)
  • Passing: 157.7 (32nd)
  • Rushing: 83.9 (32nd)
  • Points Per Game: 14.1 (32nd)
  • Sacked: 52 (T-26th)
  • 3rd Down %: 29.0% (32nd)
  • 3rd Down %: 29.0 % (32nd)

  • Total Defense: 358.8 (20th)
  • Passing Defense: 203.9 (4th)
  • Rushing Defense: 154.9 (32nd)
  • Points Allowed: 26,6 (26th)
  • Interceptions: 7 (T-29th)
  • Sacks: 49 (T-5th)
  • Turnover Differential: -12 (T-29th)

The offense was rock bottom in virtually every category, while the defense had two top 10 bright spots in passing defense and sacks.

In 2019, the Cardinals offense under Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray, made significant improvements, while the defense plunged all the way to the bottom of the NFL.

Steve Keim said that Vance Joseph deserved a mulligan because the organization didn’t provide him with the kind of defensive talent that would allow him to succeed.

But, if one goes back to how the Cardinals units were ranked during the 2019 pre-season, generally the rankings favored the Cardinals’ defense. For example, here were the 2019 pre-season unit grades that Vince Marotta provided for Lindy’s Pro Football 2019 Preview:

  • QB: 6.5
  • RB: 8
  • WR/TE: 7.5
  • OL: 6.5
  • DL: 7.5
  • LB: 7
  • DB: 8
  • ST: 6.5

The point is —- the original hope coming into the 2019 was that with Kyler Murray starting as a rookie QB, the team’s defense (with Chandler Jones, Corey Peters, Robert Nkemdiche, Haason Reddick, Budda Baker, D.J. Swearinger and Patrick Peterson joined by Jordan Hicks, Darius Philon, Terrell Suggs, Brooks Reed and Robert Alford) would help keep the games close while Murray was finding his groove.

Well, here’s how far the Cardinals have come, team rankings-wise, in two years:

  • Total Offense: 241.6 (32nd) —- 384.6 (6th)
  • Passing: 157.7 (32nd) —- 244.8 (17th)
  • Rushing: 83.9 (32nd) —- 139.8 (7th)
  • Points Per Game: 14.1 (32nd) —- 25.6 (13th)
  • Sacked: 52 (T-26th) —- 29 (T-11th)
  • 3rd Down %: 29.0% (32nd) —- 39.6 (T-21st)

  • Total Defense: 358.8 (20th) —- 351.9 (13th)
  • Passing Defense: 203.9 (4th) —- 226.4 (10th)
  • Rushing Defense: 154.9 (32nd) —- 125.5 (22nd)
  • Points Allowed: 26,6 (26th) —- 22.9 (12th)
  • Interceptions: 7 (T-29th) —- 11 (T-18th)
  • Sacks: 49 (T-5th) —- 48 (T-4th)
  • Turnover Differential: -12 (T-29th) —- 0 (T-17th)

The numbers and numerous improvements here are more impressive on offense and have been since Kliff Kingsbury arrived. Yet, according to local pundits and fans, Kingsbury’s job is on the line with this being his make or break season, while, conversely, a common perception is that Vance Joseph is on the fast track to securing a second head coaching gig.

In Bob McManaman’s article, Vance Joseph, whose two year record as a head coach in Denver was 11-21, said, “The bottom line is winning football games and I didn’t win enough football games, We played good defense there and I couldn’t figure out how to manage the offense enough to buy us time to fix the quarterback position. And that’s obviously an import role on a football team.”

Yes, Vance Joseph was the victim of a QB revolving door and yes his defense played well in 2017. But, to say his defense played well in 2018 is a bit of a stretch. His defense finished 22nd in Total Defense, 20th in Passing Defense and 21st in Rushing Defense and 13th in Points Allowed, with the most impressive rankings being Interceptions (17 —-T-5th), Sacks (44, T-8th) and a Turnover Differential of +7 (T-8th).

I was very encouraged to hear Brett Kollmann on the Red Rain Podcast state his belief that now that Vance “has his kind of personnel in place” he can “relax and enjoy the kind of defensive football he prefers.” J.J. Watt is a big believer in Vance, as is Budda Baker. The veteran leadership on defense this year should be remarkably improved.

I think we all will know whether Vance is on the top of his game if he finds the right formula for stifling the Rams’ offense for the first time, after four unsatisfactory tries over the last two seasons.

As you might recall, I mentioned Vance’s preparations for the Rams at the beginning of last season as one of the main keys to the Cardinals’ 2020 chances (urging him to start the Rams’ prep during the pre-season) —-

Then I reiterating the urgency for him to do so during the bye week —-

Then, after it was clear in the first Rams game that no such preparation had occurred in light of watching a then beleaguered Jared Goff (coming off some of his worst games against teams like the Dolphins and 49ers who were well prepared to take away the bread and butter plays), roam free versus the Cardinals to make easy throws all game was beyond frustrating —-

So then Vance and the defense had the golden chance to redeem themselves in the all-important playoffs or bust Week 17 game —- only to watch the same-old, same-old soft resistance to the Rams’ signature off tackle play and the same-old easy surrendering of QB contain on virtually every bootleg —- plus, allowing easy scrambling escapes on key third down conversions —- this time to John Woolford in his first NFL start.

Knowing how heavily scrutinized Kliff Kingsbury has been by the media and a host of Cardinals’ fans, it feels odd to see Vance Joseph (who in his first head coaching gig inherited a more talented team in Denver and had a worse two year record at 11-21 than Kliff’s —- ten games under .500 —- to Kliff’s 5 games under at 13-18-1), in contrast, be hailed as a promising head coaching candidate, particularly if, as Bob McManaman put it: “A starker scenario might also exist that if the Cardinals flop this season and Kingsbury were to be replaced, Joseph could be promoted from within.”

You know what I hope? I hope that Kliff and Vance have great seasons and the Cardinals do their best to keep them together. At least long enough to ...

You know what.