The Arizona Cardinals currently sit in third place in the NFC West with a 3-9 record. Arizona started the season hoping to contend for a playoff spot after an 8-8 season in 2017. The Cardinals lost head coach Bruce Arians and starting quarterback Carson Palmer to retirement. However, Arizona would get back starting running back David Johnson after he was injured for the season in the first game of the 2017 season. The idea was for Steve Keim and Michael Bidwell to find a head coach who could take advantage of the talent on defense and find a way to make an offense with a new quarterback and retooled offensive line successful.
A story began to spread around Arizona media of Keim and Steve Wilks meeting on a beach while on vacation. Wilks introduced himself and impressed the general manager. It was that moment when the seed was implanted into the mind of Keim. Steve Wilks was his man. This was a character guy. Players love to play for Wilks. He can keep this ship heading for the horizon. Keim found his guy and it was going to be business as usual for Arizona in the time of Keim.
Wilks was offered the head coaching job in Arizona after an exhaustive search. According to various reports, the Cardinals interviewed as many as 10 different candidates for the position. Wilks spent six season with the Carolina Panthers, first as a defensive backs coach then last season as defensive coordinator. It was his first experience as an NFL coordinator. The hiring of Wilks meant that defensive coordinator James Bettcher would be moving on to another team. Bettcher had coached a defensive unit consistently in the top 10 of the league in DVOA. The former coordinator ended up in New York with the Giants.
Defensive Doomed to Struggle
Wilks brought over Al Holcomb to serve as the Cardinals defensive coordinator. Wilks believed that Holcomb could best implement his version of a 4-3 scheme used in Carolina. The scheme features the use of three safeties in nickel formations who are asked to switch sides often and vary in-depth. Cornerbacks are tethered to their side of the field. It also relies heavily on linebackers who are solid against the run but can play in space. A successful scheme requires athletic linebackers who can stay with receivers and tight ends.
Arizona made a major switch away from a blitzing 3-4 defense, which utilized a special role designed to allow the defender to roam near the line of scrimmage and rush the passer. The role was occupied by Deone Bucannon who is a linebacker/safety hybrid player. Bucannon is smaller than your typical linebacker but is not talented enough in coverage to play the safety position in your typical defense. In Wilks’ scheme, Bucannon was effectively neutralized and asked to play out of position as an outside linebacker.
To make matters worse, 2017 first rounder, Hasson Reddick was asked to move inside to the Mike linebacker spot. In two seasons, Reddick has transitioned from being a defensive end, into an outside linebacker with coverage responsibilities, then into a middle linebacker position. As a result the second-year player has struggled to find consistency. In the end it has been both Reddick and Bucannon battling not just for playing time, but for a spot on the roster in 2019. The defense as a whole has finally begun to gel, but questions continue to linger regarding the linebacker and cornerback positions.
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Offensive Juggernaut…or Not
Joining Wilks and Holcomb in Arizona was Mike McCoy. The offensive coordinator had offensive success in both Denver and San Diego before finding his way to the Cardinals. McCoy has worked with Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning, and Philip Rivers. Arizona’s new offensive coordinator chose to keep quarterback coach Byron Leftwich. Leftwich spent the previous three seasons working under Arians in a variety of roles. Wilks also brought Ray Brown over from Carolina to serve as the offensive line coach.
The preseason saw impressive moments from the offense as the Cardinals had little difficulty moving the football. Arizona’s ground game fired on all cylinders during the preseason with the offensive line opening up holes left and right. However, once the season began it was slow sledding for the ground game. Defenses adjusted and the play calling was nothing to get excited about. McCoy relied heavily on inside runs with both Johnson and rookie Chase Edmonds. The issue was the lack of movement up the middle, primarily from center Mason Cole. The rookie out of Michigan was supposed to serve as the primary backup along the offensive line. However, veteran center A.Q. Shipley was lost during the preseason due to an ACL tear.
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McCoy was finally let go after an embarrassing 45-10 home loss to his former employer, the Denver Broncos, on Thursday night television. Fans and the media wondered why it took so long to get rid of McCoy and why he was hired in the first place. Both Denver and San Diego fired the coach after disappointing stints. As head coach with the Chargers, McCoy’s teams routinely under performed and the offense often relied solely on the skill of Rivers. After being fired, McCoy joined Vance Joseph’s staff in Denver as the offensive coordinator. McCoy was fired midseason last year after the Broncos offense ground to a halt. Rarely do you see a coordinator let go midseason then quickly hired for the same job the following year.
Something could be said about the lack of talent on offense being the reason McCoy struggled to get the unit going. However, since Byron Leftwich has taken over, the Cardinals offense has posted their only two 300+ yard games while averaging 40 more yards per game and an additional three points per game. While the numbers may not jump out, the progress has been consistent, and the offense as a whole has looked much more competent. Add to that the relationship that quarterback and coach are forming and the Cardinals made the mistake of not just hiring McCoy, but taking as long as they did to push him out of the building.
Keim’s Time Running Out
Replacing a beloved head coach and attempting to retool a roster in the same offseason is difficult for any general manager. Adding personal issues, such as a DUI resulting in a short suspension, only makes the job all the more difficult. Keim needed to hit on the coaching hire, free agency, and the draft in order to keep the Cardinals in contention in an ever-changing division and conference. Entering the final four weeks of the regular season it is clear the former Executive of the Year hit on just one of the three tasks.
The 2018 draft has already net the team three starters in Josh Rosen, Christian Kirk, and Cole. Throw in Edmonds and now Korey Cunningham, and the Cardinals have five major contributors from their rookie class. Where Keim hit in the draft, he missed with the free agent class. Keim brought in Bene Benwikere, Brice Butler, Justin Pugh, Andre Smith, Sam Bradford, and quarterback Mike Glennon. Pugh battled injuries before being placed on injured reserve, while Butler, Smith, and Bradford have all been released. Only Glennon remains on the active roster, but he has not moved from the bench this season. It can be argued that none of have met that criteria as Pugh only played in seven games. Keim also failed to make additions via draft or free agency to address concerns at linebacker.
A major personnel miss like Keim’s 2018 free agency class can cause ripples for multiple seasons due to the need to again fill the same hole while remaining on the hook for any guaranteed money. As mentioned earlier, the coaching choice for Arizona has not returned much of a reward this season. A bad hire plus poor roster construction can submarine a franchise for many years. Cleveland has been the poster child for this for the better part of the last 20 years. While Wilks and his staff may yet prove the doubters wrong, the Cardinals are in real danger of becoming the new irrelevant franchise of the NFL. These last four weeks will be telling. Do the Cardinals dig deep and prove, as an organization, that they can turn this ship around? Or does Arizona sink past mediocrity and into the laughingstock of the league?