Arizona’s boon under Bruce Arians always felt weighed down by the inevitable grip of time.
Carson Palmer was 34 years old, Arians was 60 and Larry Fitzgerald was creeping into his thirties when the party started in 2013. Without the selection of an heir-apparent quarterback or an on-staff coach who could reasonably take the reins from Arians when he retired, it was only a matter of months before nature took its course and the Cardinals would return to flat ground in the identity department. Fitzgerald, who will turn 35 just before opening day this year, is the only one left.
On Wednesday, the team cut 25-year-old superstar safety Tyrann Mathieu after he refused to take a pay cut. Once the proof that Arians’s tough-but-cool mentoring program worked wonders at the NFL level, Mathieu is moving on from his role as the team’s emotional nerve center. There will be no short list of suitors.
While it all felt expected, there must be some Cardinals fans wondering why the current version of their roster feels so slapped together, right down to the high-money, short-term deal for Sam Bradford to be their prospective starting quarterback in 2018. When the signs of a short-term dynasty were so obvious, why were there not more measures in place to protect them from this?
Maybe it was a combination of Arians’s heath and his general dislike of rookie quarterbacks. In his book, The Quarterback Whisperer, Arians talked about his initial steak dinner with the Cardinals and why he told them he’d prefer a veteran signal-caller to someone who would come in and require a significant amount of hand-holding; someone who would make too many mistakes. As Palmer got older, hoisting him into the Hall of Fame realm even after a torn ACL in his mid-thirties still probably felt more attractive than gambling on someone fresh out of college who wasn’t used to Arians’s full-court press style.
Maybe they were truly stunned by how the 2017 draft turned out. In a radio interview after last year’s draft, Arians said: “We thought last year sitting there [with the No. 13 pick] we were going to have a shot at Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, I loved both of them.” Remember that both the Chiefs and Texans conveniently traded up for their young franchise quarterbacks that year—and right in front of the Cardinals at No. 13. Maybe they won’t make that mistake again in 2018, and they’ll enter the summer with someone like Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson as the future at the position.
Maybe general manager Steve Keim is being smart and we’re simply not giving him enough credit. Good general managers empower their head coaches, and letting go of someone like Mathieu because new head coach Steve Wilks comes from an organization that values the front seven more (and, just my theory: Wilks, a long, long, long-time defensive backs coach believes in himself and his system to elevate that position) is really just a tremendous vote of confidence. If that kind of trust can be established between a coach and general manager that quickly, a rebuild won’t take as long as expected.
These are the tea leaves Cardinals fans would prefer to follow because, right now, the optics of a Bradford/Mike Glennon quarterback duo behind a struggling offensive line is not quite as appetizing. Pro Football Focus graded just one of the Cardinals’ front five, D.J. Humphries, as an “average” player last year. The other four regular starters all fell into the “poor” category. Palmer, Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton were sacked more than 50 times in 2017.
This time of year, we often depict general managers who were inactive or not on the front lines of free agency as stunned or surprised. Keim has earned enough equity from the fan base to stiff-arm that perception for at least a little while. That doesn’t mean there won’t be an intense spotlight on what his next move might be.