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Bidwill’s Gambit

Arizona Cardinals Introduce Kliff Kingsbury - Press Conference Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Yesterday, a tandem of Brinks trucks pulled up to front gates of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The first driver asked the gate keeper to page Steve Keim. The second driver asked to see Kliff Kingsbury. And voila! Just like that, Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury were informed that they are under contract with the Arizona Cardinals for the next six years —- which in NFL terms, for a GM and head coach, a six year contract is the equivalent of tenure.

Thus, as swift as Budda Baker storming the alley to make a tackle, Keim and Kingsbury went from potential lame ducks to tenured bucks.

Commentary:

Within the past week or so, some Cardinals’ fans like myself have been imploring Michael Bidwill to act with a sense of urgency, especially because on the eve of free agency, if Kliff Kingsbury was being perceived as a lame duck while Kyler Murray’s present and future in Arizona remains unclear, what free agents would want to sign with the Cardinals?

You might recall that some fans like myself were saying to Michael Bidwill, “I’ve got summer in my hair and I’ve got winter in my teeth, but if you don’t get some spring in your ass, we’ll be here to the freaking fall.”

Well, well, well...spring has arrived early in Arizona this year!

In signing Kliff Kingsbury to a long-term extension, Michael Bidwill has doubled down on his high-risk, potentially high-reward, decision to put the fortunes of the team into the hands of a humble, blue-collar, offensive minded innovator whose college head coaching record at Texas Tech was 35-40.

Through three seasons as a head coach in the NFL, Kingsbury has taken a 3 win team with one of the most depleted rosters in the NFL to an 11 win team. I don’t know about you, but if anyone told me that after three seasons, Kingsbury’s Cardinals would be 24-24-1 in the regular season, with a 4-2 NFC West record and playoff berth in year three, I would have volunteered to pull up the Brinks truck for Kingsbury myself.

Yes, Kingsbury has suffered several chinks in his armor along the way, but what gives me a good deal of confidence in him as our head coach is that he is well liked and respected by the players and his assistant coaches —- respected for his football knowledge, for his willingness to be flexible and, perhaps most of all, because they all know where he is at 4:30 am every day, while the vast majority of them, understandably, are still sleeping.

I can’t think of a Cardinals’ head coach who is more apt to attract free agents to play for the Cardinals than Kliff Kingsbury. The word amongst NFL players is that Kingsbury treats his players like men, he creates an upbeat working environment and he’s an effectively straight-to-the-point communicator. The dude never wastes any words in getting his points across. In college, some of his players called him “Coach Bro,” but in the NFL he’s far too busy to have the time to get all buddy buddy. The dude is on a mission. And when games don’t go as planned, the dude will fall on the sword for you. He ain’t gonna call you out to the media. And when games go as planned, he’s gonna celebrate your stats and toss you a game ball, bro.

As for K2’s offense, for the past two years, it’s been #6 (384.6) and #8 (376.3) in yards per game, despite the fact that Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins have battled through injuries through the back halves of both seasons.

The late season swoons that also plagued his teams at Texas Tech will be the focus of Kingsbury’s off-season work. K2 is very goal oriented —- for example —-last off-season, he tried to come up with a plan to counter for his team’s lack of success throwing to the middle and intermediate areas of the field, which allowed defenses to have sustained success loading up the box in order to prevent Kyler Murray from running.

Well, guess what? Kyler Murray’s completion percentage over the middle and into the intermediate areas of the field this past season climbed to 4th best of all QBs in the NFL.

That’s called turning a weakness into a strength.

Kliff’s problem solving may not be as fast as some fans would like —- but man, anyone who tries to build a brick house knows how long it takes to cement brick upon brick.

As Kliff keeps adding talent and depth to the Cardinals’ roster, the odds of late season success would improve.

Man, I feel greatly impressed that Michael Bidwill, on the eve of free agency, has acted with a profound sense of urgency.

As for Steve Keim, who certainly deserves his fair share of credit for being the architect of the coaching staff that has helped the team improve from 3-13 to 11-7 in three years, he has made a concerted effort over the past year to improve the veteran leadership on the team and to make the team more physical, personnel-wise, across the board.

Last year Kiem accomplished both off-season goals in terms of adding key players like J.J. Watt, James Conner, Zach Ertz and Rodney Hudson, but the depth of the roster was not able to sustain the team’s first half success when a number of the key veterans were lost to injury.

Compiling a deeper roster this off-season is Keim’s top priority. It is not going to be easy because of cap restrictions and the fact that 21 of the Cardinals’ own players are free agents this year.

Yet, again, with Kliff and Keim getting the long-term vote of confidence from the owner, this gives the Cardinals a fighting chance to crush free agency.

However, Steve Keim is in a precarious position this off-season with regard to how he handles his communications with Kyler Murray and his top free agents like Chandler Jones. That is not the only significant task on Keim’s to-do list, because he also needs to get his coaches to buy in on the team’s free agents and draft picks so as to do everything he can to avoid the dispiriting PR hits that the Cardinals have taken with their handling of such players as Malcolm Butler, Rasul Douglas, Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins.

In today’s NFL, it is imperative for teams to get the most out of their free agent additions and their draft picks.

Steve Keim’s Achilles heel has been communications issue between he and the team’s star players —- plus, between he and the team’s coaches.

Michael Bidwill has overtly stated that the team would “love” to re-sign Chandler Jones and that the “devil is in the details,” which he is going to let Steve Keim handle, To which Chandler Jones replied:

The falling-out with Cardinals’ stars and team captains has become an alarming “snakes in the grass” trend udder Michael Bidwill’s and Steve Keim’s watch.

Erik Burkhardt was addressing the issue of Bidwill’s and Keim’s words not having a way of matching the music when he wrote in his ultimatum to the Cardinals:

“Every player, coach and executive in the NFL knows (or should know) that words and hypothetical contractual promises are regularly dismissed and fleeting in this business.”

How Steve Keim handles his communications with Chandler Jones will tell us all we need to know as to whether Keim has learned some valuable lessons about the critical importance of honest and direct communications, or whether Keim truly doesn’t give a sh%^ about PR and/or some player’s feelings.

Last year in the same scenario, both Keim and Bidwill said they would like to re-sign Patrick Peterson, and yet they never even gave the man or his agent a call.

If that happens again this year with Chandler Jones, then I am going to lobby non-stop for Keim’s removal as GM. I could give two sh%^s about his contract extension if he can’t get this valuable part of his job correct.

To me the communication between Keim and Jones should be as simple as asking Jones what he wants in a new contract and, if it’s beyond what the Cardinals can realistically accept, then the communication needs to be honest. Something like this: “What you want is more than we can bargain for. If the market isn’t as robust as you are hoping, then please let’s talk again. No matter what, we believe that you lived up to the big contract we gave you and we are very grateful. Once you retire, we would like to induct you into the Cardinals Ring of Honor. Because Chandler Jones, you’ve earned it.”

Players simply want honesty. They understand that the NFL is a business. But, what players don’t want is to be toyed with or misled.

Same can be said of us Cardinals fans. Don’t tease us with false intentions.

The next huge hurdle is how Steve Keim handles the Kyler Murray situation. Again, pure honesty is what’s needed most. If Bidwill and Keim don’t think they have seen enough of Kyler Murray just yet to warrant a contract the size that he and Erik Burkhardt are demanding, then make it clear. Tell them the Cardinals expect Kyler to honor his current contract and to go and have his best season —- and then everyone can all feel confident in agreeing to the extension.

If Murray/Burkhardt demand a trade, tell them whether you are willing to listen to trade offers —- or —- tell them that you have no interest or desire to trade him. If they threaten to hold out, then tell them look Kyler, you are a team captain who is under contract and we expect you to conduct yourself as such. We are counting on your ability to lead. That’s what we are anxious to see this season, your leadership on full display.

But, as Erik Burkhardt is now sure to remind the Cardinals is the key role that Kyler has played in enabling Keim and Kingsbury to get their extensions. And, let’s face it, there are aspects of Keim’s and Kingsbury’s leadership that can be called into attention. Leadership is not in the least bit easy. Michael Bidwill has taken a leap of faith by committing long-term to Keim and Kingsbury and he openly claimed, “count me as one in the category who loves Kyler Murray.” Again —- in this case —- will Bidwill’s words and the music match?

When players and agents hear the word “love” they hear the cha-ching of a cash register.

Kyler and Burkhardt want what Keim and Kingsbury got —- an extension right now.

How then can Bidwill, Keim and Kingsbury play a waiting game with Kyler?

The more that I think about this dynamic, the more apparent it becomes that the Cardinals either complete the trifecta by signing Kyler to his extension asap —- or —- the Cardinals decide that they want to entertain trade offers,

Kliff Kingsbury said at the Combine that he and Kyler “are in a great place.”

If that is true, then Kyler’s contract should be forthcoming.

If, however, Kingsbury said this as a strategy to maximize Kyler’s value in trade talks, then such talks should be forthcoming.

Maybe Kliff was in on Burkhardt’s plan all along to plant the seeds around the league that if the Cardinals’ don’t give Kyler his extension right now, then they will ask the Cardinals to trade him to a team that will.

I can imagine thousands and thousands of fans asking why Kliff would ever in a million years want to trade Kyler? Could it be possible that Kliff is as frustrated with Kyler as anyone? There is the troublesome perception that Kyler is the teacher’s pet and that the organization has rolled out the red carpet for him too soon —- and as a result, Kyler has been spoiled, coddled and enabled to be his moody, stubborn, know-it-all self. And, even worse, to be the prima donna who thinks he is too good to have to walk out of the field with his teammates at the end of an embarrassing playoff loss.

If Kyler has lost the locker room, then he might have lost Kliff too.

It’s hard to think that this is the case.

But to me, it wouldn’t come as a complete surprise.

Kliff prides himself in his ability to bring out the best in his quarterbacks. Look at how ready Colt McCoy was to run Kliff’s offense. Colt’s success, imo, is a major feather in Kliff’s cap. Thus, if there is another QB whom Kliff really likes and could pair with Colt McCoy, then who knows?

If Kyler has indeed lost some of the locker room, then think of how his leery teammates would feel if the Cardinals caved in to Burkhardt’s unprecedented publicly promoted ultimatum and handed over a cool $257M to Kyler on a 6 year deal.

Be honest, how would you feel, to watch Kyler get that deal, based on what you saw the last 6-7 weeks of the season and now that Kyler has made the NFL off-season all about himself?

I will be honest. I have serious reservations about Kyler now. I can’t say that I trust him. He claims “this nonsense is not about who I am and never will be.” Oh, really? After the ransom note, there is no longer any doubt that this nonsense is exactly what Kyler is all about. These desperation tactics have made me wonder whether Kyler’s skittish play down the stretch was because he was obsessing over his contract. That is so Pat P.

In my opinion, Kyler has made an embarrassing spectacle of himself. Kyler says, “anyone who has ever played with me knows how hard I go. “ If Kyler thinks the way he played the last 6-7 weeks was him playing as hard as he could, then once again, he is only fooling himself. I concur with Dan Orlovsky on ESPN’s NFL Live that everything Kyler Murray has done this off-season has reeked of unprofessionalism.

I keep asking myself, would I want coach Kyler?

Like most people, I am in awe of his sheer talent. That’s why I pushed so hard for the Cardinals to draft him. But, I have some growing doubts about his personality. I am not sure that Kyler really wants be coached by anyone other than himself or perhaps his own dad. It feels like he takes a ton of people for granted. Plus, by giving Erik Burkhardt the green light to keep him squarely in the NFL off-season spotlight though dubious means, it makes it clear to me that Kyler is much more of a follower, than a leader.

For all of the years I taught and coached adolescents, Kyler rubs against so many of the principles I tried to impart to my students and players. Here are just a few:

  1. When you talk to someone, give them the courtesy of looking into their eyes.
  2. Whenever you are in a group at school or work or just among friends, be enthusiastic. The worst thing that any person your age (or any age) should become is cynical.
  3. Be a good teammate who is eager to do what’s best for the group.
  4. Under no circumstances should you ever ask for special treatments. For that is the quickest way to alienate yourself from your peers and your employers. If anything, volunteer to do the small tasks that entitled people feel are beneath them to do.

If the Cardinals cave in and acquiesce to Burkhardt’s contract demands, won’t that be perceived, especially by his teammates, as the ultimate example of Kyler getting the red carpet “too much too soon” treatment?

I am having a hard time handling the notion that Kyler is the one most responsible for the team winning. When the chips were down, I saw a number of Kyler’s teammates playing harder than he was. When Kyler was out rehabbing his ankle, I saw an injury depleted team go up to Santa Clara and Seattle and play with superb poise and physical dominance. I saw Colt McCoy at QB outplay Jimmy Garoppolo and Russell Wilson, which felt especially good after watching backup QBs in C.J. Beathard and John Wolford beat Kyler Murray and the Cardinals in must-win games the year before.

Colt McCoy was outstanding. It gives me confidence in knowing how well Kliff Kingsbury prepares his offense. I saw the quality of Kingsbury’s QB preps often while studying Kliff’s Texas Tech games —- I saw his 2nd string QB, Jett Duffey, almost pull off a stunning upset of Kyler Murray and the Sooners, having to sub in for Todd Bowman after Bowman was injured with the Red Raiders up 31-28 right before halftime. Duffey threw for 2 TDs in the 2nd half. And, by the way, Antoine “Tweezy” Wesley caught 12 passes for 199 yards (16.6 ave.) in that 51-46 loss.

I have often wondered what would have happened had Todd Bowman, who was sizzling hot while picking apart the Sooners’ defense, had stayed healthy in that game. Had the Red Raiders upset the Sooners that night tp go 6-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big 12, then it’s possible that Kliff Kingsbury would still be the head coach in Lubbock. It’s also possible that losing to Texas Tech would have cost Kyler Murray the Heisman Trophy and would have cost the Sooners the #4 seed in the BCS playoffs. And if that were the case, it’s possible that Kyler Murray right now would be waiting with his Oakland A’s teammates for the CBA agreement between the players and MLB.

Funny how fate works, isn’t it?

Sometimes fates are dictated by the narrowest of margins.

Thus, I am very happy for Kliff Kingsbury that he has been given a contract extension. I haven’t been this excited about a Cardinals’ head coach since the days of Don Coyell.

I am leery of the Keim extension if the fallout from departing veterans continues to create a poor PR image for the Cardinals. But, I am hopeful that Keim has learned some valuable lessons that this time can help turn the tide. I actually have liked Keim’s draft picks the past three years, including Andy Isabella. What I haven’t liked is the coaches’ dilatory’ handling of a number of those players. I hope that the coaches will be more eager to play and develop all of the present and former draft picks on the roster this year. I hope that the Cardinals’ coaches have assured Keim and Kliff that they will.

Finally, I would not like to see Kyler Murray extended until it becomes clear that he has the full trust of his teammates and coaches in terms of his leadership. It wouldn’t surprise me if Tom Clements “retired” last year because he was fed up with Kyler. Funny how Clements was just hired to rejoin Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. At this point, there is not enough convincing evidence of Kyler’s propensity to lead. I am very hopeful that Kyler will understand how critical it is for him to emerge as the leader that the team needs him to be. But, my fear is that he is too stubborn and too stuck in his ways —- and, worst of all, going back to that list of advice for students and players, I fear that he’s become too cynical. True leaders are relentless anti-cynics.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?