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Cardinals Hard Knocks Episode 7

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

While watching the Cardinals’ Hard Knocks series with keen interest, I am finding myself getting more and more emotional as the episodes go by. When Kliff Kingsbury reminds us, typically after tough losses like the Cardinals’ most recent 19-16 OT loss to the Bucs this past Christmas night, that “there are great leaders in that locker room”, this HBO documentary, providing fans with a privileged glimpse into the Cardinals’ facilities and homes, vividly confirms Kliff’s assertion.

When we see how much blood, sweat and tears the leaders on this Cardinals team continue to exert, each loss feels all the more painful. Football is such a grueling and demanding sport that the only real reward for the physical pounding these players take is the satisfaction that comes with winning. There is no substitute for it.

In episode 7, we see JJ Watt’s gargantuan effort to win this game, with the viewers knowing well by now that he knew this would be the last home game of his Hall of Fame worthy career.

Note: some fans are now making a big deal out of Kliff Kingsbury not being in the loop regarding JJ’s retirement, when apparently Vance Joseph has known for a couple of weeks. There is a very good reason for this. JJ Watt likes to control his own business. Do you remember how upset he was when word of his A-fib scare was leaked? JJ apprised Vance (whom he has played for the longest) and must have asked him to keep it to himself until after he would make the announcement —- which JJ did in the same manner he did via social media when he announced he was signing with the Cardinals.

Next, we see how hard and physically Budda Baker played, knowing very well by now that he played most of the second half with a fractured shoulder. Unbelievable!

We see how much this first NFL start meant to Trace McSorley and his family.

We see how much Christmas morning meant to Antonio Hamilton and his family.

We see how much James Conner loves his mom and how she helped him through his darkest days when he was going through chemotherapy.

The human interest level of these stories is beyond poignant to the point of being searing.

On one of the previous episodes, one of the scenes that drove me to tears, was hearing James Conner implore his teammates how little time this team had left this season to reap the rewards of their hard work. It was the heart-felt urgency in his voice. It was knowing that James Conner, despite all of the trauma that the Cardinals’ team has suffered and endured this season, doesn’t want the season to end and even worse, to end on a sour note.

The gist is, with this kind of extraordinary leadership in the building, how could something so potentially good go so wrong?

The “could have beens” that this series evokes keep resounding in painful refrains.

We see Vance Joseph explaining to his defense how assignment mistakes can be corrected, but, how no coach can correct a player’s lack of effort.

On the whole, I thought the defense played arguably its best 60 minutes of the season this game. The overall effort was certainly not lost on color commentator Cris Collinsworth —- who is customarily critical of the Cardinals —- and yet on this night —- his praise for the Cardinals was brimming from start to finish. It was a nice touch by HBO to include the audio of some of Collinsworth’s kudos for the team.

But as I was watching Vance Joseph talk to his men about effort, I couldn’t help but continue to wonder why his defenses rarely if ever apply sticky pass coverage to running backs.

In virtually every 4th quarter of the Cardinals’ tough losses, passes to the running backs have led to easy, momentum-swinging TDs —-after watching Kenneth Walker, Austin Ekeler, Latavius Murray in recent weeks dominate the 4th quarters, this week it was Leonard Fournette’s and Rachaad White’s turn, as they combined for 107 receiving yards and the TD that cut the Cardinals’ 16-6 lead to 16-13. It was an easy pass from Tom Brady into the left flat to a wide open White, that ensued after a short swing pass to Fournette went for an unfathomable 44 yards.

Again, how could something so potentially good go so wrong?

You may have noticed the foreshadowing HBO did in capturing Trace McSorley a couple of times during the week’s preparation for the Bucs say how important it is to get the ball in the hands of DeAndre Hopkins.

As we already knew watching this episode, in the game DeAndre Hopkins was relegated to 1 catch for 4 yards on 10 targets. Ugh. However, Todd Bowles took a page out of Bill Belchick’s book, by bracketing Hopkins the entire game, thus creating the smallest of windows for a first time starting QB to try to convert.

And on the one deep pass where Hopkins was open, Hopkins did the right thing by beating the CB to the inside because the CB was employing outside leverage, but it takes an experienced QB to be able to see the adjustment Hopkins made on his route amidst a heated pass rush. Therefore, it is not apt to blame Trace McSorley on that missed opportunity.

What bracketing Hopkins on his traditional left side of the field did was create openings for Greg Dortch over the middle and for the deep crossing corner pass to Hollywood Brown —- which Trace McSorley did a commendable job of exploiting.

Weird to think that the 47 yard catch by Hollywood Brown tied Greg Dortch for the longest reception of there season —-Hollywood’s came from Trace McSorley and Dortch’s came from Colt McCoy. Heading into the team’s 16th game, those are the only two pass receptions of over 40 yards.

Weird too to think that in DeAndre Hopkins’ first game back from his 6 week PED suspension, Kliff Kingsbury had success putting Hopkins in motion on the pre-snaps which therefore made it all the more difficult for secondaries to bracket him —- and yet, all too often in recent weeks, Hopkins is right back to playing the left side of the formation almost exclusively.

Again, how could something so potentially good go so wrong?

The Cardinals had a very good night on special teams and HBO did a superb job of covering the fake punt pass from Andy Lee to Kamu Grugier-Hill and providing the perfect, back of the goalposts view, of Matt Prater’s successful “doink” off the upright which caromed in for the field goal.

James Conner’s TD, especially following the segment in his kitchen with his mom while documenting James’ cancer recovery and his emotional path to the NFL Draft, was a moment of pure joy. To see James’ mom and family celebrating the TD was special.

As was seeing Trace McSorley’s parents go wild after the 47 yard bomb to Marquise Brown. Trace’s dad was right on cue, shouting “HOLLYWOOOOD!”

One of the most heartening moments in the locker room after the game was how HBO captured Hollywood embracing Trace and saying how good it is to battle on the field together as they did as Ravens.

To see Michael Bidwill sitting next to Adrian Wilson and Quentin Harris was a meaningful new image.

One has to wonder what must be going through Michael Bidwill’s mind these days, as yet another set of premature, highly lucrative contract extensions that Bidwill has repeatedly made since becoming team president in 2013 have potentially blown up in his face —- again.

Contract Extensions That Turned Sour at the End

  • Tyrann Mathieu
  • Bruce Arians
  • Steve Keim
  • David Johnson
  • Steve Keim (after Steve Wilks’ firing)
  • Rodney Hudson
  • Steve Keim

The Exception:

  • Budda Baker

Still in Question:

  • Kliff Kingsbury
  • Kyler Murray
  • D.J. Humphries
  • Jalen Thompson

Note: the pattern here speaks to Michael Bidwill’s propensity to want to go out of his way to award coaches and players whom he feels have helped to pave the way for the latest signs of success. In this sense, Bidwill has ardently tried to refute the perception that he is a “cheap owner.”

However, with Bidwill’s eagerness to reward, there appears to be a common element here of “too much, too soon.”

You have to feel at least somewhat for Bidwill here, right?

To quote a paradox from Williams Shakespeare, Bidwill appears to be a man “who loves not too wisely, but too well.”

Other Notable Contracts that Bidwill had to eat that he didn’t get commensurate value from at the end of the deal:

  • Terrell Suggs
  • Mike McCoy
  • Steve Wilks
  • Patrick Peterson
  • Chandler Jones
  • Jordan Phillips

The Stare

On Twitter these days, Michael Bidwill’s icy stare pictured in the dream locker room after the team’s 19-16 OT loss to the Bucs, as Kliff Kingsbury was about to speak to the team, has received all kinds of notoriety.

First of all, what Kliff said to the team after the game, praising them for their effort, despite its redundancy, was heart-felt and entirely appropriate. This game was arguably the best 60 minute effort the team has staged all season.

This effort speaks volumes to the characters of Kliff, the coaches and the players who are still fighting hard to win games, when the main things to play for now, with the playoffs out of reach, is professional pride and, in some cases, future employment.

After all, a recurring theme throughout the Christmas episode was the Cardinals making a list of who’s “naughty or nice.”

After this game, one could imagine that Bidwill himself was impressed with the team’s effort.

Here is a guess with regard to the stare:

This glaring stare likely has a lot to do with the Fowler/Weinfuss report the ESPN published recently, wherein they speculated that Kliff is so “frustrated with the BS” that he might walk away for the job.

There were details and innuendos in that report that in all probability irked Bidwill to no end.

As we know, Michael Bidwill is a very private man who likes to keep issues behind closed doors.

As we know, Michael Bidwill is very dependent on the loyalty of his employees, particularly the ones he is closest to every day.

This off-season has gotten way out of control for Michael Bidwill, thanks in large part to social media posts, outbursts from disgruntled current and former players, a stream of organizational leaks (how many moles are there?), controversial contract clauses and a host legal and medical issues involving staff (present and former) and players.

Therefore this is the glare from a man whose world is crumbling around him at a time when he has few people left in his inner circle in whom he feels he can trust and confide.

Big time decisions await.

In the meantime, did anyone happen to see Kyler Murray at the last home game? Or is his participation with the team, as one of the team’s captains, now back to being voluntary? One could understand him missing the away game in Denver a few days after suffering his ACL tear. But, shouldn’t he have been at this game to support his teammates, at least in some capacity? Like JJ Watt dd last year?

Maybe that was just another thing on Michael Bidwill’s mind while standing in that locker room.