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The Cardinals’ Coaching Search Moved Fast—Really, Really Fast

Kliff Kingsbury might end up being the right man for the job in Arizona, but it’s hard to imagine the team was able to figure that out during the very small window of time they had to hire their new head coach.

Just eight days ago, Cardinals team president Michael Bidwill promised to keep his coaching search close to the vest and follow the same thorough process that brought the Arizona franchise its two most successful coaches in Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians.

On Tuesday afternoon, hours after interviewing him for the first time, the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury as their new head coach.

To be clear, this is far from a commentary or projection on how Kingsbury will do as an NFL head coach. He literally has no NFL coaching experience to extrapolate from. He went 35-40 at Texas Tech while overseeing Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes and Davis Webb, getting fired after he missed securing a bowl appearance for the third time in six years.

No, this is more about the bizarre and remarkably fast process the Cardinals took in the past week-plus that rid themselves of one first-year head coach and got them another. Go back to Friday, Dec. 28, as the 3-12 Cardinals were readying to face the Seahawks in the season finale. Head coach Steve Wilks was asked whether he had discussed the future of the Cardinals with Bidwill. “Everything right now is on this season and try to finish out on a positive note,” Wilks said, “and that conversation will take care of itself.”

Sunday after the game, Wilks said he expected to talk with Bidwill on Monday about the future and said it hadn’t been difficult to focus while lacking clarity on his future. “It’s about focusing on the task at hand,” Wilks said. “And before it was bout trying to win football games. The season’s over now so now we’re trying to find some direction and clarity.”

By 7 a.m. local time, Wilks was telling his coaching staff he wouldn’t return as head coach, an inevitability for at least the previous two weeks when the Cardinals, via anonymous leaks, made no secret about their intention to move on from Wilks.

“This morning I met with Coach Wilks and let him know we were going to go in a different direction,” Bidwill said after the firing. “It was a tough decision. But I met with Coach this morning and had a very cordial meeting, shook his hand and wished him well.”

Bidwill said he didn’t like Wilks’s plan for 2019 and beyond. “Looking at his plan for 2019 I just didn’t feel like it was a plan that I wanted to get behind,” Bidwill said. But considering the timeline, it’s extremely difficult to figure out when Bidwill would have found the time to thoroughly discuss the plan (like, presumably, who would be Wilks’s offensive coordinator and how the team would transition back to a 3-4 defense) before he decided he didn’t like it and would move in another direction at the head coaching position.

Nevertheless, the coach of the Cardinals’ future was employed by the University of Southern California at the time and was not allowed to talk with NFL teams about any future employment. Athletic director Lynn Swann told NFL teams they could not interview his football team’s offensive coordinator, and NFL teams were forced to respect that or be in violation of the league’s conduct rules as late as Saturday evening. By Monday, that appeared to be cleared up when Kingsbury was meeting with Jets officials for their vacant position and lining up an interview with the Cardinals the following day. (Kingsbury’s USC buyout is a mere $150,000, and the Cardinals will take care of that, according to NFL Network.)

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Kingsbury was in Arizona by early Tuesday morning, and by 1 p.m. local time he was finalizing his four-year deal with an option for a fifth year. It was an objectively fast process, and as one NFL executive told us last year, “people are making decisions in 24-48 hours, and if you don’t take someone, someone else will.”

A take on the joke across NFL media this week—and seriously, everyone has said this joke and it’s old now—is that every team with a coaching vacancy is interested in someone who one time stood in a Starbucks line with Sean McVay. Indeed, the Cardinals’ team website linked Kingsbury to McVay in what served as the de facto news release of Kingsbury’s hiring, calling the coaches friends.

While a good joke, it ignores how hard McVay works and his incredible football intelligence. Secondarily, it ignores how much work the Rams did in hiring McVay, work that involved famously “kidnapping” him and not letting him go back to Washington.

A quick refresher on the Rams’ 2017 pursuit of McVay, via the Orange County Register: After firing Jeff Fisher on Dec. 12, 2016, the Rams put together a list of candidates that included McVay. Washington finished its season on Jan. 1 and the Rams flew McVay out to L.A. on Jan. 4 for dinner and a formal interview the following day, where he also watched film with quarterback Jared Goff. Five days later, the Rams flew McVay back to L.A. He had dinner with owner Stan Kroenke and Rams legend Marshall Faulk. The next day he was back in the building meeting with Aaron Donald and others.

In the span of nearly a week, after two dinners, two formal interviews, meetings with every shot-caller in the organization and the most important members on both sides of the ball, McVay finally had the job. It’s unclear what Kingsbury did or who he met with Tuesday morning, but it can be stated with no real objection that the Cardinals know far less about their new head coach than the Rams did about theirs two years ago.

In fact, the Cardinals may know even less about Kingsbury than they did about Wilks, who a year ago interviewed twice with Arizona before getting the job.

In both college and the NFL, decision-makers rely heavily on outside recommendations and coaching agents for information. That system clearly needs to be reworked, though. If one-fourth of the NFL’s teams fired their head coaches after following this approach wasn’t enough evidence, the bizarre logic of having multi-billion dollar franchises relying on third parties with clear biases as the major source of information on the second-most important person in the building (first being the quarterback) should be enough for teams to reevaluate the process.

But thus concludes the Arizona Cardinals’ coaching search. If a brief morning meeting was enough for Bidwill to decide he didn’t like the direction of the old coach, a slightly-longer-but-still-relatively-brief morning meeting should be enough for him to decide on his head coach of the future.

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