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Op-Ed: A Pro Bowl of Cherries For Cardinals?

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC at AFC Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals, coming off their best season since 2015, were very well represented at the Pro Bowl thanks to QB Kyler Murray, RB James Conner, OLB Chandler Jones, S Budda Baker and T D.J. Humphries.

The game itself, a 41-35 AFC win, was not tackle football. It may not have even been two-hand touch. J.J. Watt best summarized the optics from an onlooker’s perspective:

That said, QB Kyler Murray, after throwing a pick-six on his first possession, finished the day with the most impressive stats of any of the QBs: passing for 18/27, 160 yards, 3 TDs (plus a 2 pt. conversion), 1 interception and a 104.0 passer rating.

Here was Darious Leonard’s pick-six off Kyler:

Thus, Kyler’s history of struggles in the first half of his biggest, most recent first-time games continues —- his first BCS playoff game vs. Alabama, his first NFL game vs. the Lions - his first playoff game vs. the Rams, and his first Pro Bowl game vs. the AFC.

To Kyler’s credit, he typically fights his back, as he did in Las Vegas yesterday.

As the young QB did on his first TD pass to Mike Evans, which was another classic Kyler throw on the move to his left:

Then, this two pint conversion from Kyler to CeeDee Lamb had to have Cardinals’ fans wondering “what if”...

... especially now that the Bengals in Joe Burrow’s 2nd year are in the Super Bowl thanks in significant measure to the Bengals’ decision to pair Burrow, at his request, with his magical WR teammate at LSU, Ja’Marr Chase.

Had the Cardinals drafted CeeDee Lamb, could the Cardinals have surprised in year two of Kyler’s tenure the way the Bengals have? Or this past season?

Who knows? Probably not. But who would have ever predicted the Bengals making the Super Bowl this year?

Prior to the 2020 NFL Draft, Kyler made it clear to Steve Keim that he wanted CeeDee —- which was seconded by DeAndre Hopkins, who thought having CeeDee Lamb opposite him would be “sensational.”

Steve Keim’s cynical reaction to Kyler’s request which he uttered on Arizona Sport Radio prior to the 2020 NFL Draft implied that Kyler’s input on draft picks was above his pay grade.

Back at the Pro Bowl this past week, Kyler was seen yacking it up with the Bucs’ All Pro RT Tristan Wirfs —- which could have provided yet another “what if” scenario for Cardinals’ fans, particularly those who were banging the drum for Keim to select Wirfs in the 2020 NFL Draft.

It likely has not been lost on Kyler how the Bucs, last year’s NFL Champions, under Steve Keim’s former assistant GM Jason Licht, have drafted and developed All Pro RT Tristan Wirfs, stalwart LT Donovan Smith, Pro Bowl LG Ali Marpet and their stout RG Alex Cappa in addition to signing 2021 Pro Bowl C Ryan Jensen.

Steve Keim, after whiffing on all 4 of the centers he drafted over the past 5 years, traded a 3rd round pick for Rodney Hudson (who after making the Pro Bowl three times has missed it the past two years) and the only draft pick on the offensive line that Keim has ever seen make it as a perennial starter to date, was T D.J. Humphries. Like the 4 whiffs at center, the same can be said about all of Keim’s picks at guard,

For those keeping score:

  • 2013: R1 —- G Jonathan Cooper; R4 —- G Earl Watford
  • 2015: R1 —- T D.J. Humphries
  • 2016: R4 —- C Evan Boehm, R5 —- G/T Cole Toner
  • 2017: R4 —- G Dorian Johnson; R5 —- T Will Holden
  • 2018: R3 —- C Mason Cole; R7 —- T Korey Cunningham
  • 2019: R6 —- C Lamont Gaillard; R7 —- T Joshua Miles
  • 2020: R3 —- T Josh Jones
  • 2021: R7 —- C/G Michal Menet

Not only have Steve Keim’s draft struggles plagued his 9 year tenure as GM, his handling of several of the Cardinals’ star players has created an avalanche of bad PR for the team and how the organization operates.

You see —- one of the major problems for Steve Keim about events like the Pro Bowl is that players talk.

This year there was a tricky dynamic at stake —- Chandler Jones is now a free agent and is likely this year’s Patrick Peterson.

Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim, in order to try to appease the fans, will predictably say that the team “would love” to re-sign Chandler Jones. After saying that about Patrick Peterson last year, Peterson informed the NFL world after he signed with the Vikings, that the Cardinals never picked up the phone to make an offer.

It would be naive to think that Chandler Jones is happy with Steve Keim and the Cardinals. Like Peterson, he probably wants to become a member of the Cardinals Ring of Honor one day, so Chandler may not express his frustrations publicly.

But, privately, one can just imagine how he has already prepped teammate D.J. Humphries, whose $14M unguaranteed 2022 base salary in the last year of his contract, about what he can expect in the weeks ahead —- as in a salary cut request —- or perhaps a below market value contract extension offer.

Let’s not forget that after Jones’ conversations with Steve Keim last off-season, he asked to be traded. As we know, Peterson wanted to be traded. Plus, last year, Jordan Hicks asked to be traded.

Would it therefore come as a great surprise if D.J. Humphries, ironically the only one of Steve Keim’s 1st round picks to sign a second contract and the only one thus far of Keim’s draft picks of offensive lineman to become a full-time starter, will be the next disgruntled Cardinal to issue a trade request?

Could Steve Keim work out a trade for D.J. Humphries?

It certainly helps that D.J. made the Pro Bowl as an alternate this year. But, for teams that pay attention to analytics, would they be able to justify picking up D.J.’s $14M when he graded out on PFF as the 36th tackle of the tackles who played more than 500 snaps this season (and 56th of all tackles graded)? Plus, he was one of league leaders in penalties for the 2nd time in 3 years.

But $14M for a talented left tackle might be seen to one team as a plus.

Steve Keim was unable to get a team to trade for Tyrann Mathieu at a similar salary. Therefore, history would suggest that Steve Keim likely won’t be able to work out a trade for D.J.

Speaking of Tyrann Mathieu, he makes his contempt for Steve Keim and the Cardinals’ organization public knowledge every chance he gets. One can just imagine the words of advice that the Honey Badger had at the Pro Bowl for Kyler Murray, James Conner, D.J. Humphries and Chandler Jones.

Tyrann Mathieu is living proof for Cardinals’ players and fans that the grass can be so much greener on the other side of Arizona. Just ask another once disgruntled Cardinals’ star, Anquan Boldin. Mathieu and Boldin have the Super Bowl rings and a whole lot of great memories to prove it.

Moreover, it certainly doesn’t help the Cardinals’ that their greatest and most famous WR (and perhaps player of all-time) in their history, Larry Fitzgerald, left the Cardinals so disgruntled with the organization that he rode off into the shadowy covert on the backside of Camelback Mountain and to this day has refused to formally announce his retirement from football —- you know, the oft-poignant occasion where the vast majority of star NFL players take the opportunity to express their thanks to their teams, coaches and teammates?

I used to tell my students (with a half chuckle) that if you are on a double date and your dates excuse themselves to go to the bathroom you might expect a change in attitude when they return —- that whatever conversation the two dates have could either work to your advantage. —-or —- it could work to your distinct disadvantage if your friend’s date tells your date that she needs to open her eyes because she’s wasting her time with you.

When Kyler Murray came to the Cardinals as a rookie, imagine what an eye-opener it was to see a woeful, much beleaguered franchise in the throes of hitting rock bottom to the point of seeing the star of the defense skip OTAs because of being irate that the team wouldn’t pay him during his 6 week PED/coverup suspension —- the same guy who asked for trade in the middle of the previous season, the same guy who was such good friends with Larry Fitzgerald and the Honey Badger.

Not only that —- imagine what it was like to see another defensive player cut by the team in the middle of training camp in light of a domestic violence allegation —- or how about this one > to learn that a player on the IR was busted in Las Vegas for betting against the Cardinals.

Or —- how about this one —- >>> to learn that prize free agent Terrell Suggs informed a Ravens’ teammate that he would never want to “steal” from the Ravens, so he chose to “steal for the Cardinals” instead.

And —- then to watch Patrick Peterson come back from his 6 week suspension in golf shape running mostly at half speed—- to watch Terrell Suggs not even make a half-hearted effort to rush the passer late in games where the Cardinals had a chance to win.

Imagine then what it has been like for Kyler Murray to carry the 400 pound gorilla of the franchise’s woeful stigma on his shoulders —- and even worse —- imagine what it must be like to help lead his team out of NFL obscurity and into the limelight, and yet still be treated with such relentless scorn by the local media to the point of feeling stigmatized himself —-

And imagine what it has been like to see his head coach, who has been his greatest advocate and source of inspiration, be vilified, humiliated and hung out to dry by the media and such an imposing drove of furiously unimpressed fans —-

Yeah, maybe Tyrann Mathieu informed Kyler Murray that he is now trapped in a pocket of 4 Aaron Donalds and that, seemingly no matter what, he can never escape.

Or maybe Kyler didn’t need the Honey Badger to confirm what he has already seen with his own two eyes ?

The timing of these changes to Kyler’s IG page seems significant.

Just as the timing of when Patrick Peterson and Chandler Jones deleted their Cardinals’ related photos it seemed significant.

Maybe Kyler is the next disgruntled player to want out and ask for a trade?

Maybe Kyler is pondering whether to call the A’s? Maybe he can get an invite to spring training (if and when that starts)?

The most oppressing thing of all, imo, is that some media and fans, to their liking, couldn’t usher Kyler and Kliff out of Arizona fast enough.

Like the last four lines of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Boy Breaking Glass”:

  • A sloppy amalgamation.
  • A mistake.
  • A cliff.
  • A hymn, a snare and an exceeding sun.

Or just like the ultimate question to Langston Hughes’ great question:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Or does it explode?

I am agog in anticipation to hear whom Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim have in mind as the next head coach and new QB, aren’t you?