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Opinion: Butler pending retirement puts Cards in a corner

Steve Keim’s been known for the “Keim Time Sign” of veteran players to a one-year deal, but a new challenge is in front of him now

NFL: Arizona Cardinals Training Camp Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

For the Cardinals fans who are on the ledge, let me put this out there first:

If your entire season gets derailed because of one player on a 1-year deal that isn’t even the team’s quarterback...it wasn’t going to be much of a season anyway.

Thus, do I think the season is derailed? Not yet, anyway. But perhaps expectations went from optimistic to tempered to downright worrisome for Cardinals fans within the last 24 hours.

As of yesterday at 4:30 PM, Cardinals fans were enjoying a semi-respite from the pressures that other NFL teams such as the Ravens, Jaguars and other teams were facing in dealing with season-long injuries.

The team was slowly releasing their roster cuts and outside of a few surprises, nothing major was on the precipice. Nothing TOO major, at least.

Then at around 4:40 PM quite a lot changed in a big way with one announcement about one player who was in some cases, the very definition of the Cardinals’ approach to free agency the past few 5+ years:

This past April, Butler signed a 1 year, $3.25 million deal with Arizona upon being released from the Tennessee Titans.

It doesn’t do to speculate about things such as Covid, vaccine hesitancy, injuries, family matters, team matters or otherwise in part because...Butler’s decision is up to him.

Not all of us can turn down $3.5 million guaranteed for a larger reason, and that needs to be respected.

What it does do, however, is put Steve Keim, Kliff Kingsbury and Co. in a bit of a bind by having this information leak out to the public merely weeks before the opening kickoff. Butler had been away from the facility for a week, and while Arizona’s dealt with some potential retirements before (Jared Veldheer comes to mind taking a personal day off to consider his future, David Johnson after several injuries..as well as Larry Fitzgerald every year, of course) this one is different.

It takes place in a season in which the Cardinals seem to be “all in” having added multiple veterans at the cost of young rookie picks in J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, trading a 3rd rounder for Rodney Hudson and even trading away a future pick to move up for a cornerback in Marco Wilson...a season in which the Cardinals are trying to break out of the cellar of the NFC West.

It’s year 3 of the Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray and Steve Keim experiment. And while that experiment has improved upon the 3-13 season, it’s more panned out well for Kyler Murray than it may have for the other two pieces of that trifecta.

Murray has earned Offensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl accolades and was even a top 40 out of this year’s #NFL100 which is voted on by his peers, no less.

Kingsbury, on the other hand, took the brunt of the blame for the team’s 2-6 collapse down the stretch while Keim jettisoned a large amount of the team’s younger players after feeling the team wasn’t disciplined enough, going heavy in on Kingsbury as the 3rd coach under his tenure at a time when many have questioned his own job security.

But this does bring up a larger issue in addition to questioning not only if Keim’s plan was to rely on (nothwithstanding a solid player who could be great in Byron Murphy) a two-years-injured Robert Alford, an injured Darqueze Dennard who went to IR and a promising but raw 4th round rookie in Marco Wilson if Butler went down....it brings up an issue about Keim’s “one year at a time” approach in general.

Keim has been quoted as saying that the NFL is a year to year business, and in his time with the Cardinals it’s been almost exactly that case when it’s come to the cornerback position. Particularly the CB2 position on the roster. Let’s take a look at the team’s starting corners since the start of his tenure:

2013: Patrick Peterson / Jerraud Powers

2014: Patrick Peterson / Antonio Cromartie (1 year deal)

2015: Patrick Peterson / Jerraud Powers

2016: Patrick Peterson / Marcus Cooper (1 year deal, signed just before the start of the season after starting rookie Brandon Williams for a game vs. the Patriots)

2017: Patrick Peterson / Tramon Williams (1 year deal after competing with Bethel and Brandon Williams in training camp after Ronald Zamort tore his ACL)

2018: Patrick Peterson / Bene Benewickere or David Amerson or Brandon Williams, etc

2019: Patrick Peterson / Robert Alford (2 year deal, injured) & Tramaine Brock (1 year deal, waived) & Byron Murphy (6 game suspension for Peterson)

2020: Patrick Peterson / Robert Alford (injured again) & Dre Kirkpatrick (1 year deal)

2021:

Boy, at what point does a pattern become a trend versus becoming a religious conviction?

Where I can give Keim credit is that in 2019, he TRIED to fix the issue with a multi-year deal in following the footsteps of Arians bringing Powers over from Indianapolis to join Peterson, but it didn’t work out.

Some of the approach, honestly, comes to just bad luck. Such as this year in which Keim signed a player who by all accounts didn’t seem ready to retire.

But...the issue of investing one year at a time is something that fans can certainly critique about the GM in terms of building not just a playoff “team” but in being able to build a dynasty or a LONG-TERM approach.

Keim’s spending of two Day 2 picks when he needed to on Brandon Williams and Byron Murphy were essentially the only ways he addressed the cornerback position across from Patrick Peterson with any semblance of consistency. And in that regard, perhaps Steve Keim just isn’t interested in building long-term rather than a series of “win now” or “get by” investments. Perhaps Michael Bidwill’s reticent to spend too much at any one position, or Keim might be.

Which is why it’s worth acknowledging that by drafting two first-round Linebackers in back to back years with different skill-sets DESPITE past mistakes, Keim can be lauded at perhaps breaking his pattern of addressing long-term needs with short-term supply.

It would seem that this is where the rubber might meet the road for Steve Keim and the Cardinals. Those who dig a pit, usually fall into it (see the zero QB’s on the roster for the 2018 season). And he’s in a corner right now IF Butler decides to retire and leaves the team with:

-3rd year Byron Murphy playing outside of the slot

-Robert Alford after 2 years of not playing at post 30

-Marco Wilson, a 4th round promising rookie

-Tay Gowan, a 6th round developmental rookie

Holding the balance of the defense and the 2021 season. How would he respond?

In whatever case, they sometimes say that a cornered beast will bite...and we saw in 2018 when Steve Wilks and the entire coaching staff save special teams was fired. I, for one, am hoping that Keim’s bite is worse than his bark.

As for the players in the meantime?

In life, and in football alike, sometimes all you can do is keep moving forward.