Cardinals’ Methods of Getting to 4-0 Start Critiqued by NFL Analyst

Getty Images General manager of the Cardinals Steve Keim looks on prior to the game against the Ravens in 2019.

While it’s just four games, the Arizona Cardinals have exceeded expectations so far and then some, outscoring opponents by 55, which is the best margin in the NFC.

But their path to success could be scrutinized by some. Football Outsiders senior NFL analyst and writer for the New York Times Mike Tanier wrote on the Cardinals’ journey to fortune.

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This was his first sentence.

“The Arizona Cardinals are a nearly textbook example of how not to build a successful NFL team.”

Pretty strong words. General Manager Steve Keim has been with the team since 2013 and is one of the longest-tenured GM’s in the NFL.

So what is Tanier talking about?

Cardinals’ Recent Bold Decision-Making

Keim’s team has missed the playoffs every year since getting to the NFC Championship Game in 2015. Tanier mentions how unusual the Cardinals were for drafting a quarterback in back-to-back years in the first round in 2018 and 2019.

Using conventional wisdom, the Cardinals were not supposed to risk the first pick in the 2019 draft on the 5-foot-10 Kyler Murray, the type of undersized scrambler who gives old-school football types the willies. Instead, they should have been patient with Josh Rosen after selecting him 10th overall in the 2018 draft, despite his nearly disastrous rookie season.

The process of wasting draft capital on a failed QB prospect on top of drafting the same position the next year was easily lambasted. While Rosen was horrific in his rookie year with a first-year defensive head coach in Steve Wilks, the offensive line ranked 32nd in the league.  Rosen had no help and no leadership to coach him.

Fast forward to one year, the Cardinals fired Wilks after one season and drafted 5’10 QB Kyler Murray out of Oklahoma. Tanier then talks about how the Cards hired a young offensive-minded college coach with NFL inexperience.

And Coach Kliff Kingsbury, the bonny prince plucked from Texas Tech in 2019, was scheduled to receive his comeuppance by now. For evidence of what happens when college-to-N.F.L. coaching transitions go awry (as they nearly always do), witness Jacksonville Jaguars Coach Urban Meyer’s effort to cram all seven deadly sins into his first four weeks of the season.

College coaches making the transition to the NFL can be tricky. Nick Saban, Chip Kelly, Steve Spurrier, Bobby Petrino, the list goes on. But, two examples in the NFL already in 2021 are getting the hang of it. Second-year coach Matt Rhule in Carolina and of course, Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona. Let’s not talk about Urban Meyer’s start though.

So much risk was put into these decisions by Keim. Risks that had to undo the errors he’s made in the past. Tanier discusses how this offseason for the Cards was the opposite of the norm.

Rebuilding teams are supposed to focus their resources upon the offensive line. The Cardinals prefer to use their top draft picks on skill-position weapons and speedy defenders who lack natural positions. The Cardinals were expected to commit to the development of their youthful nucleus after finishing 8-8 in 2020. Instead, they signed defensive lineman J.J. Watt, 32, and wide receiver A.J. Green, 33, aging stars of the kind usually courted by teams on the verge of reaching the Super Bowl.

Keim was confident in the leap Murray was capable of. He was also confident in meshing young talent with a great veteran culture. Sure, Watt and Green aren’t the same players as in the past. But having Chandler Jones and DeAndre Hopkins in their same respective positions, it made sense to experiment. And so far, it’s paying off.

Are The Cardinals Legit?

Tanier still needs time before anointing them as an NFC contender.

With their lack of playoff pedigree and a roster and coaching staff that do not quite fit the mold, the Cardinals still look like shaggy misfits among the top N.F.C. contenders,” said Tanier. “Oddsmakers give them steep +1600 odds to win the Super Bowl, while the Rams team they just beat are at +800 and the Buccaneers, who barely escaped Brady’s return to New England with their dignity intact, are at +500.”

Since Tanier works for Football Outsiders, he admits their analytics favors the Cardinals.

Analytics, on the other hand, are blind to such preconceptions. Football Outsiders’ simulation-based playoff odds give the Cardinals a 43.7 percent chance of winning the tightly contested N.F.C. West, while the Rams’ chances stand at just 24.7 percent. (The Buccaneers have the best Super Bowl odds among N.F.C. teams because even the laws of mathematics grovel before Brady).

Tanier does compare the 2021 Cardinals to a familiar foe.

“In many ways, the 2021 Cardinals resemble the early 2010s Seahawks,” said Tenier. “Those Seahawks won one Super Bowl, reached another and settled in as perennial contenders. After a false start in 2020, the Cardinals may be following the same path.”

If you win, it shouldn’t matter how you got there. The Cardinals are sitting pretty at the moment in a stacked NFC West. And Tenier does think this team is different than last year’s, who started 6-2 and finished 8-8. But what could you also take out of Tenier’s observations? If you’re an NFL GM, don’t try Keim’s formulas at home.

Follow @sanudo_ry and @JaredZona on Twitter for all the latest Arizona Cardinals breaking news, rumors, roster moves and more!

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