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The Strength of Steve Wilks’ Case

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals have a well documented history of diverse hiring practices. For one, they were the first NFL team to pair a black GM (Rod Graves) with a black head coach (Denny Green).

No one can point the finger at the Cardinals for being averse to hiring people of color. Moreover, Bruce Arians was one of the first head coaches to hire a female assistant. Therefore, the Cardinals’ open-mindedness with regard to their hiring practices should not be a topic for debate.

However, what happened to Steve Wilks, the Cardinals second black head coach, is concerning on a number of different levels, including one salient aspect of Steve Wilks’ recent accusations of racial discrimination.

It is as simple as this —- had Cardinals’ owner Michael Bidwill fired GM Steve Keim along with jettisoning Steve Wilks after one season, the optics would have been markedly different.

One could readily argue that Steve Keim, for a litany of reasons, was the person most heavily responsible for the Cardinals’ rock bottom 3-13 season in 2018.

Keim’s Errors in Judgement

  • Not allowing Steve Wilks to hire his own staff (as Ron Rivera has called to people’s attention in recent weeks) —- any head coach will tell you that hiring your own assistants, as Bruce Arians was allowed to do, ensures a stronger sense of loyalty and buy-in from the staff.
  • Hiring Mike McCoy (who was recently fired as OC in the middle of the 2017 season by the Broncos) as Wilks’ offensive coordinator.
  • Signing a washed-up, oft-injured Sam Bradford to be the team’s starting QB.
  • Not doing everything he could to move up in the 2018 NFL Draft to take QB Josh Allen, whom Steve Wilks had banged the table for —- and subsequently, with a depleted roster, giving up draft picks #15 (1st), #79 (3rd) and #159 (5th) to move up to #10 to pick Josh Rosen.
  • Caving in to David Johnson’s contract demands after Johnson skipped the team’s mandatory mini-camp, giving Johnson (who played in 1 game the previous season) essentially the exact same 3 year $39M contract that backfired when Keim decided to make Tyrann Mathieu, coming off his second ACL injury, the highest paid safety in the NFL a year before Mathieu’s rookie contract was up.
  • Being arrested on July 4th for a DUI, which resulted in a 5 week suspension (virtually the duration of Steve Wilks’ entire first (and only) training camp.
  • Even though Keim was missing from training camp he still retained the final say on the team’s 53 man roster.
  • It seemed evident that Steve Keim and Michael Bidwill were not on the same page with regard to Wilks’ hiring, as Steve Keim wanted Bruce Arians’ top choice, James Bettcher to be Arians’ successor.

The Arians Hangover

  • Michael Bidwill appeared to be an owner “on the rebound” after moving on from Bruce Arians and his “no risk it —- no biscuit”, “cuss the players out and hug ‘em later” and “win or lose, we booze” mantras. Notice how Bidwill did not elect to move Arians up to the front office the way the Bucs just did.
  • Steve Wilks was about as opposite a coach of BA as one could find —- not just in color.
  • Arians had left Arizona with a roster that was void at the QB position and in a number of other position groups. Think then, how in retrospect, how the 2018 NFL Draft could have helped rebuild the Cardinals depleted roster if the Cardinals stayed at #15 and held on to their 3rd and 5th round picks. Here is an example: #15 Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville; #47 Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn; #79 Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma; #97 Josh Sweat, DE, Florida St. #134 Chase Edmonds, RB, Fordham; #152 Tim Settle, DT, Virginia Tech; #182 Sebastian Joseph-Day, DT, Rutgers; #254 Darius Williams, CB, Colorado St.-Pueblo.
  • Even Josh Rosen made the comment early on in his short tenure with the team that “the ghost of Bruce Arians is everywhere in the building.”

The Benefit of Time

There were two significant aspects of Steve Wilks’ hiring that were going to take him time to develop:

  1. Coaching Different Personalities. Steve Wilks made this a focal point of his introductory presser because, after all, this was a priority that Michael Bidwill issued to Wilks upon his hiring —- something that the previous head coach and staff had manifested difficulty in, particularly in how they handled 1st round draft picks T D.J. Humphries and DT Robert Nkemdiche. Anyone who has coached knows how long it takes to discern the best motivational buttons to push for each of 53 players. One can also argue that when a coach is given this kind of directive from his boss, he is going to try to tread lightly so as not to alienate any player (most of which he has never known or worked with before)—- plus, for a first year head coach it can take away from the focus on installing the new offensive, defensive and special teams systems/philosophies. To Wilks’ credit, he was getting good production from LT D.J. Humphries (70.7) before D.J. was lost for the season after 9 games. Plus, all 5 of Robert Nkemdiche’s career sacks came in 2018 with Wilks as his coach. Put it this way —- had Steve Wilks never been tasked for making coaching players with different personalities a top priority, do you think he would have ever inundated the players with brick and hurdle metaphors?
  2. Switching to a 43 base defense. Any coach who installs a new defensive system and philosophy is going to need time and patience, plus a couple of free agencies and drafts to get the right personnel in place. Just the same, despite having the worst offense in the NFL in 2018, Wilks’ defense ranked #12 in defensive efficiency, as outlined very fairly by Kyle Odegard in his excellent article on compare.be yesterday:

Writing on the Wall

Steve Wilks said that early into the season, he got the feeling that he was merely a “bridge coach” who could be one-and-done. Step outside of yourself for just one minute and imagine that you are Steve Wilks and after working 21 years as a coach (12 in the NFL) —- you finally have your chance to be an NFL head coach —- and a couple of weeks after your GM returns from a 5 week suspension, where he was not able to assist you during training camp —- and 2 weeks into the season as the GM’s hand-picked OC , veteran QB and NFL highest paid RB are off to the worst imaginable starts to the season —- suddenly you are getting the distinct vibe from your owner and GM that this season could be all she wrote for you as a head coach. Can you imagine what a nightmare that must have been for Steve Wilks? Which part of any of that did he deserve? You now know why, after three games, he was already feeling like a lame duck.

And this was corroborated by Michael Bidwill at his firing of Wilks presser when he said after two games he and Steve Keim looked at each and knew they had made a serious mistake. Mind you, Keim hadn’t even been back on the job for 20 days.

Wilks also reported how “pissed” Bidwill and Keim were that Wilks’ team upset the Packers and Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field late in the season which could have jeopardized the Cardinals from securing the #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Bidwill said at the firing presser that he asked Steve Wilks late in the season to give him his Year 2 plan —- and Bidwill claimed that what he heard from Wilks was thoroughly unacceptable and not a plan that he was going to endorse. That is one of the many unctuous ways in which Michael Bidwill wanted to convince all Cardinals’ fans that Steve Wilks was the problem —- not the owner, oh no —- not the GM, after all, according to Bidwill, Keim deserved an immediate contract extension at the end of the 3-13 season for the fine work he did back in 2013 - 2015 —- two games in, by his own indication, Bidwill and the GM knew Wilks was done as head coach.

Therefore, what Steve Wilks’ meeting with Michael Bidwill about the coach’s Year 2 year plan at the end of the season was in effect, just another moot, bogus Rooney Rule interview.

Cardinals Fans Taking Bidwill’s Bait

Yesterday on Twitter and throughout all the Cardinals’ fans forums such as ROTB, droves of Cardinals fans reiterated what they have been saying ad nauseum since Steve Wilks was ousted as head coach —- how absolutely horrible he was as a coach —- and how he “deserved” to get fired.

You see —- this is precisely what Michael wanted Cardinals’ fans to believe —- when at that firing presser Bidwill shamefully scapegoated Steve Wilks as being the #1 reason why the Cardinals went 3-13 that season.

Michael Bidwill seemingly could have cared less what Wilks’ firing meant for the rest of his football career.

The thing is —- Bidwill could have taken the high road and put the blame strictly on himself. He could have apologized to Steve Wilks for the mistake that he made. Plus, he could have offered Wilks some credit for some of the good things he did, under such adverse circumstances.

Then, for Bidwill to double down on Steve Keim by lauding him for his past successes, in juxtaposition to scapegoating Wilks, was nothing short of outrageous —- many of us watching Bidwill that day understood of how wrong that was.

The Gist

Steve Wilks wasn’t fired simply because he is black --- but his case in the Flores lawsuit has a fair degree of merit because of how Steve Keim was retained, while Wilks was scapegoated.

The vast majority of black head coaches in the NFL are hired by downtrodden teams like the Cardinals who had no chance to hire the top white candidates, Many times landing with a downtrodden team is the only chance a black coach will get.

Note: to the credit of black head coaches, their combined records and winning percentages are comfortably above .500.

After wishing Bruce Arians a lovely retirement in 2018, the Cardinals wanted Pat Shurmur --- yet, he never even considered Arizona.

Then they wanted Mike Munchak who preferred to stay in PIT as an assistant coach (what does that tell you?) --- Munchak rejected Bidwill’s invitation for a second interview.

Steve Keim wanted BA’s top choice: James Bettcher.

Most of the blame for Wilks’ one season deservedly falls on Steve Keim. This is the strongest of Steve Wilks’ examples --- Wilks got fired, was scapegoated by the white owner who doubled down on his white buddy GM coming off a 5 week DUI suspension, who, of anyone in the Cardinals’ organization, deserved to be fired the most. The racial optics of this are troubling.

Freddie Kitchens was fired after one season in Cleveland. Ironically, Steve Wilks as Kitchen’s DC did far more to try to help him succeed than Mike McCoy ever did for Wilks.

But, not only did the Browns fire Freddie Kitchens at the end of the 2019 season, they fired GM John Dorsey along with him.

Had Michael Bidwill taken the onus of the blame for the 2018 season and had he fired Steve Keim along with Steve Wilks citing the need for a new change at the top of the organization, then Steve Wilks may not have had a strong enough case to add his racial discrimination claims to the Flores lawsuit.

Furthermore, the way in which Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim handled Steve Wilks’ situation is just added proof as to why the Cardinals have never been able to attract the top coaching candidates.

After all, it’s a matter of perception, isn’t it?