Sunday’s Cardinals/Rams game features a 3-5 Rams team against a 3-6 Cardinals team with an over/under of just 41.5 and last place in the NFC West on the line. This certainly isn’t what either team or fanbase had in mind before the season.
Today, let’s take a look at what these teams’ expectations were, what went wrong, and what the future might hold for these divisional rivals.
The Rams, of course, are coming off a Super Bowl title and were looking to repeat coming into the season. They had lost a few key pieces on the field and several members of the coaching staff, but with an offense led by Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp and a defense led by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, they were still tipped to be one of the top teams in the NFC.
The Cardinals team that started 10-2 last season returned largely intact, the idea being to run it back and again challenge for the NFC West title and return to the playoffs. We added Hollywood Brown to pair with DeAndre Hopkins with the hope that the Kliff and Kyler show would finally take flight in Year 4 of the regime. Most prognosticators had us as a potential playoff team coming into the season.
So what went wrong? Both teams actually share some common maladies—subpar QB play and injuries on the O-line leading to a stagnant offense, a defense over-reliant on its stars, and a paper-thin roster due to questionable decision-making by the GM.
For the Rams, it sure looks like Matthew Stafford’s elbow is still bothering him, but it’s sometimes hard to tell because the O-line play has been so bad due to a rash of injuries and no real depth—a common theme throughout the roster due to GM Les Snead’s habit of trading draft picks for veteran stars. It did lead the team to the Super Bowl last season, so the approach worked as intended, but now the team is paying the bill for all those trades. It doesn’t even look like wunderkind Sean McVay can coach this roster back to the playoffs.
The Cardinals have had a ton of O-line injuries as well, plus Kyler isn’t having a great season with DeAndre Hopkins’s suspension and then Hollywood Brown’s injury. But unlike in L.A., the coaching *is* a big part of the problem here in the desert. Kliff’s offense hasn’t worked in a long time and he seems unable to adapt or make adjustments. He’s already lost the fanbase, and it seems inevitable that he’ll eventually lose the locker room as well. On the defensive side of the ball, Vance Joseph had his unit playing well for a few weeks after the Week 1 thumping by the Chiefs, but the defense has crashed back down to earth in the past few weeks, albeit with some big plays here and there. This team has earned its 3-6 record and almost certainly won’t return to the postseason.
Whichever team wins on Sunday will be (barely) alive in the playoff chase, while the loser can probably be counted out. But either way, this season is already looking like a failure for both the Rams and Cardinals. And the future looks cloudy at best for both organizations beyond this season.
My question to you today is this: Which organization is in the best shape moving forward? (H/t to 98.7, where they were talking about this just the other day.)
The Rams have one of the best coaches in the league in McVay and an aggressive GM in Snead, who just won a Super Bowl together. The QB situation is dicey with Stafford—there’s a good chance he’s done in a year or two. There are stars up and down the roster, but they’re expensive and the team has little depth and a huge draft pick deficit due to all those trades, not to mention a tricky salary cap situation.
I also think there’s a very real chance that McVay realizes a full rebuild is coming and decides to take a lucrative broadcasting gig before returning to the league in a couple years to a more attractive coaching job. I mean, he openly flirted with going to the booth after winning the Super Bowl. There’s a real chance the Rams are one of the worst teams in the league in a couple years. It was undoubtedly worth it to win the Lombardi, but Snead’s roster approach just isn’t sustainable. But you’re also in L.A. with ownership that isn’t afraid to spend. The rebuild could be quick. A lot to think about here.
The Cardinals might also be looking at a top-down organizational overhaul as soon as this offseason. (Read “might” as “damn well should.”) As I opined earlier in the week, there’s almost no way Kliff comes back from Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks. He seems as good as gone, and the man who hired him, GM Steve Keim, would very likely be out the door behind him. Do you trust Michael Bidwill to make the right hires to replace them? I know most Cardinals fans would answer a resounding “NO.” I’m a little more open-minded—he *has* been a massive improvement over his old man as owner—but it’s pretty clear that neither GM nor coach for the Cardinals are an attractive job for top talent. Sorry, but Sean Payton isn’t walking through these doors.
And the roster itself isn’t in great shape. The jury is still out on whether Kyler is a true franchise QB, even though he’s already being paid like one. Questions about his maturity and leadership have followed him ever since the draft, and he just hasn’t taken the leap you’d expect by Year 4. I still think he has the raw athletic ability to be one of the top QBs in the league, but he does seem to have problems reading the defense and going through is progressions. But I just want to see what he could do with a true offensive genius coach—if we can find one.
There’s talent elsewhere on the roster for sure—Hop and Hollywood, Hump, Zach Allen, Budda and Byron—but precious little roster depth and questionable contracts like Conner and Ertz still on the books. Keim has just been unable to consistently find useful players later in the draft and keeps trading those picks away for useless players like Robbie Anderson. At minimum, there will be at least a year or two of roster flux as (assuming we change leadership) the new coach and GM bring in “their guys” around Kyler—and then his extension will have kicked in, meaning very little financial flexibility. It’s hard to see a path to immediate contention. Quite frankly, we should already have been there while Kyler was on his cheap rookie deal.
So: Which organization would you rather be? The Rams with the shell of a Super Bowl roster right now and potentially facing a full rebuild—but with the resources to get it done? Or the Cardinals with huge questions at the most important roles in the organization, from the ownership to the GM to the coach to the QB?
I suspect many of you will say the Rams—and I agree. Things looks potentially dire now, but this is an organization with a track record of success. And if McVay sticks around, you’ve got one of—if not the—best coaches in the league. They can figure out the QB question later, just like they did with Stafford last year.
This Cardinals team just has too many question marks for me to feel confident in the future of this organization. And that starts at the top with Bidwill. Those Kliff and Keim extensions were ridiculous then and just look like an albatross around his neck now. What top-level GM and coach candidates are going to want to work for a guy who fires guys less than a year after signing them to lucrative extensions? And if he *doesn’t* fire them, then we’re basically relegated to 5 more years of frustrating mediocrity (at best).
It seems like a lose-lose proposition. Welcome to being a Cardinals fan, I guess.