For the first time since Chip Kelly was axed by San Francisco after the 2016 season, an NFL team has fired a head coach after just one season in the job.
On Monday, Arizona handed Steve Wilks his walking papers, following through on a firing that has been anticipated for the past month. The 3–13 Cardinals finished with their worst record since 2000 and came in dead-last in the league in total offense and scoring offense.
But this is more than just a coach having a losing record in his first season—this firing had everything. Team president Michael Bidwill is considered to be easily swayed by fan reaction. General manager Steve Keim, who had overseen three bad-to-mediocre drafts before hitting in 2018 and who was absent all training camp after pleading guilty to an extreme DUI, put together an uncompetitive roster. Yet of the three, only Wilks is the one without a job.
A defensive backs coach in the NFL for more than a decade before serving as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator for just one season, Wilks led a Cardinals’ team that was never able to find its identity. The secondary he came to tallied just six interceptions all season while rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, the team’s top pick in April’s draft, looked like a rookie quarterback in 2018 behind an unreliable offensive line. David Johnson failed to regain his pre-injury form from 2016 and, for the first time since 2014, the Cardinals failed to field a 1,000-yard receiver, despite having future NFL Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald on the roster.
These Cardinals struggled to be competitive most of the season. Take away the surprise Week 13 win in Green Bay that sunk the Packers’ playoff hopes and you’re left with two wins against the 49ers. Nine of their losses came by margins greater than eight points. They lost three games by more than 20 points.
Wilks will be a coveted defensive coordinator hire around the league, and he may even reunite with Ron Rivera in Carolina. The Cardinals are sure to look for an offensive mind to pair with Rosen and try to reclaim the magic that Carson Palmer had with Bruce Arians in 2015. Strapped with the worst roster in the NFC West, the Cardinals will hope to simulate what the Rams did in Jared Goff’s second season with Sean McVay heading into 2019.
It’s difficult to assess this firing without addressing the inherent unfairness in firing a coach after his first year. First of all, the Cardinals had no issue leaking all December that Wilks may not have this job in 2019, so he got to coach with that hanging over his head in the final quarter of a difficult season. He was given an injury-prone quarterback in Sam Bradford to start the year before transitioning to Rosen after Bradford sat on the ground showing every body-language sign of defeat against Chicago. His veteran offensive coordinator who was forced on him by the general manager wasn’t getting the job done, and so Wilks replaced him with first-year play-caller Byron Leftwich. That happened while the defense was led by first-year coordinator Al Holcomb, who dealt with an offense that was last in the league in time of possession. Patrick Peterson was forced to hold down a secondary as Chandler Jones finished as the only Cardinal with five or more sacks.
This was far from the obvious abject failure that was Jim Tomsula’s 2015 season in San Francisco. Wilks was laying the groundwork in what was known going in as a difficult 2018, and Arizona could hardly wait to pull the rug out from under him.