The 2018 Arizona Cardinals had all the looks of a classic NFL rebuild: highly drafted quarterback prospect, first time head coach with potential and a mix of some young and veteran talent.
Everything was status quo, and then? They threw it all away.
Why? Because the status quo just isn’t good enough in the NFL.
The 2020 Arizona Cardinals didn’t get here by accident. Just two years removed from finishing 3-13, they’re now entering the upper echelon of teams in the NFC. A 5-2 start, wins over the undefeated Seattle Seahawks, the defending NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers and a quarterback in MVP talks, they’re proving they belong.
So what’s the difference between the Cardinals and teams who just can’t get their rebuilds right? (Looking at you, New York). They took risks. They threw the rule book out the window and did everything different. General Manager Steve Keim said to hell with how things are supposed to be done, and guess what, it worked.
Originally, Keim made a bevy of mistakes at his first attempt to rebuild his team.
First, he hired Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks. Wilks may be a highly respected coordinator, but was an uninspiring head coach, to say the least.
He drafted UCLA’s Josh Rosen in the first round in 2018. Rosen was a highly regarded prospect, but right now he looks like one of the biggest quarterback busts ever. He’s currently a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad.
In the NFL, if you have the wrong coach or quarterback, you have nothing. If you miss on both, you usually don’t get another chance to fix it.
In 2019, Keim decided to throw away the rule book and change everything. He risked his job, his reputation and everything in between when he decided to burn his first attempt at a rebuild to his ground.
Instead of taking the safe route this time, he would take the road less traveled. He would take risk after risk, every decision being torn to shreds by the media and fans alike.
First, he replaced Wilks with former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury was coming off of losing his job as the head coach in Lubbock, but was ready to accept the position of offensive coordinator at USC. Keim saw the NFL changing around him into an offensive driven league, and his team needed a coach who could help his team do the same. Kingsbury was his guy.
The move was panned by almost everybody who covered the NFL and fans alike. Stephen A. Smith, of ESPN’s First Take, still stands firm in his stance to this day, stating that Kingsbury didn’t deserve the job.
Second, instead of sticking with his first round quarterback from 2018 in Rosen, he went out and drafted the Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma, Kyler Murray, in 2019. His detractors said he was too small, that he wouldn’t even be able to see over his offensive line – Keim still didn’t care. It was another risk he was willing to take. He was all in.
The Cardinals could’ve played it safe and stuck with their mistakes, like most teams do. They could’ve kept Wilks and Rosen together for another year, drafted Nick Bosa and tried to let them gel together.
The Cardinals would still be in the NFC’s cellar if they did that.
Teams like the New York Giants, New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars have been stuck in what seems like a forever rebuild because they stick with their mistakes for too long. Dave Gettleman, Adam Gase and Doug Marrone should’ve been unemployed a long time ago.
The NFL is a results driven business – if you can’t prove your worth, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first or tenth year, you can be replaced. The Cardinals didn’t get lucky during their rebuild, they were cognizant of their mistakes and wasted no time in fixing them.
The bottom line? No risk, no reward. The Arizona Cardinals are a playoff team in contention to win their division. Teams that have played it safe? Only 185 days until the draft.