How the Cards Got Kliff, Kyler and Hopkins—and Came Back From the Brink

GM Steve Keim looks back at the three bold moves that turned a struggling franchise around, as the Cardinals prepare for Thursday’s game in Seattle. Plus, the 2021 QB draft class gets deeper, what it means for the league to be in COVID intensive protocols, the Giants’ O-line coach drama, the five best teams in football and more.
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The play wasn’t final confirmation that the DeAndre Hopkins trade was a home run for the Cardinals, nor was it full affirmation that Arizona got it right in hiring Kliff Kingsbury as head coach, then taking Kyler Murray with the first overall pick in 2019.

But you can excuse Steve Keim if Sunday’s Hail Mary felt that way, at least for a few ticks after Hopkins skied over Bills defensive backs Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and Tre’Davious White to snatch Arizona’s sixth win of the season out of thin air. Because, for Arizona’s eighth-year GM, looking out on the field and seeing those guys make a miracle happen wasn’t something that could just be isolated as a singular moment.

“Well, it’s crazy to think about it,” Keim said from his office the other day. “You really do look back, and you say to yourself now, You fired a coach after one year, you drafted a kid in the first round and moved on from him, you hired a fired college coach, and you drafted a 5' 10" quarterback with the first pick … But it was one of those things—[owner] Michael Bidwill, it starts with him, he supported me, and we together made the decisions.

“I just felt like, where we were as an organization, we had to do something, maybe for lack of a better term, drastic. The Rams were getting better fast, the Seahawks are always a good team, the Niners were doing the same thing as the Rams, getting better fast, making some great moves. And I respect all those GMs greatly, so it was like, ‘We have got to propel this organization forward, how do we do it?’ Sometimes, you gotta think outside the box.”

Outside the box wasn’t winning Keim any popularity contests in early 2019. Outside the box now has the Cardinals at 6-3.

And beyond just that, 18 months or so after many were questioning Keim’s place as a general manager, the arrow is pointing up on Arizona’s entire operation. Tonight, they’ll be in Seattle with a shot at breaking a tie with the Seahawks and Rams atop the division and moving into sole possession of first place for the first time since 2015, the peak of the Carson Palmer/Bruce Arians Era.

Now, as we talked, as much as Keim glowed over Kingsbury and Murray and Hopkins, he was just as quick to tap the brakes on the idea anyone’s arrived yet—“Fact of the matter is, it looks good now, we haven’t accomplished anything.” But the reality is Arizona’s come a long way in a very short time. Drastic changes in personnel have, indeed, led to a drastic change in results.

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Week 11 is here, and we’ve got a lot to dig into in this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, we’ll explain …

• What the league going into COVID-19 intensive protocol means.

• How the 2021 draft’s quarterback class is getting deeper.

• Who the best teams in the league are … in the power rankings!

But we’re starting with the biggest play of Week 10, and how the Cardinals came to be in a position to make it.

* * *

You can’t start the story of how the Cardinals got here without explaining how far things had gone afield a couple years back. At one point, Keim had hoped to hire a bright young Washington assistant to succeed Bruce Arians, whenever that time came. But the timing on that one didn’t work out—Sean McVay was plucked by the Rams a year before Arians retired—and Arizona swung its search for a coach and QB wide open in 2018. That led them to Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen as cornerstones heading into that fall.

Long story short, it didn’t work. Arizona finished 3-13. Wilks had to make staff changes a month into the season. The team finished with four straight losses, part of a 1-7 stretch after the bye that made clear the status quo wasn’t going to be good enough. The question, then, became how deep the changes needed to cut, and Bidwill and Keim ultimately came to the conclusion that they couldn’t just be cosmetic ones.

And that sounds good, but it also required a lot of self-evaluation on Keim’s part. Firing Wilks, and later moving on from Rosen, meant admitting a couple huge swings and misses.

“These positions, they’re tough, it’s stressful, you take a lot of criticism,” Keim says. “And there are times where rightfully so, you take criticism. You make mistakes. And to me, I’ve just always been this way, you have to be a big enough person to admit your mistakes and to grow from them. A lot of times we don’t want to admit our mistakes. It’s natural to protect yourself and make excuses. To me, the only way we can grow in our careers is to truly admit mistakes and move on if, in your heart, you can trust your instincts to move on.

“In those situations, Michael and I both talked about it, and trusted our instincts, and felt like it was what was best for the organization moving forward. Those are hard decisions because you love Steve Wilks, good guy, you get emotionally attached to people. I felt like Josh had a chance to be a good player in this league, we’ll see where that goes with him, but he was a good young man, smart. But when you have a chance to move forward and get better as an organization, I think you have to be unselfish enough to make those decisions.”

Here, then, is how they came to them.

January 8, 2019: Cardinals hire Kliff Kingsbury as head coach.

NFL teams don’t dip in the college ranks looking for head coaches much, and, before all this, it was downright unprecedented to hire one who’d just been fired to run your show. But Keim was familiar with unpopular hires, having made one in bringing Arians to Arizona right after he was hired as GM in 2013.

And that experience was significant in looking past Kingsbury’s 35-40 mark at his alma mater, Texas Tech. Word at the time, in league circles, was that Keim saw in Kingsbury what he’d previously coveted in McVay—and the truth was that Keim’s conviction in the coach having those traits might’ve been tempered by Tech’s win-loss record from 2013-18, but it wasn’t going to be killed all together. He saw what he saw in Kliff over time scouting on the road. That wouldn’t be shaken.

“I got to know Kliff pretty well through the years, really enjoyed talking to him about quarterback play, admired him as a playcaller,” Keim said. “And I always thought to myself, Here he is at Texas Tech, and even though they didn’t have a great record, he’s putting up 48, 50 points a game on Texas and Oklahoma, and he’s getting 2-star recruits and he’s facing 4- and 5-star recruits. So he’s going with less, he’s dynamic as a playcaller, he’s innovative, and he has great track record for developing quarterbacks.

“And it’s not just one type. Everybody says, Oh, you’re gonna have this Air Raid offense. That’s not it. He’s coached Baker Mayfield to Mahomes to Case Keenum, Johnny Manziel, all different styles, and he had success with all of them. He was able to cater to the players’ strengths, which to me is so important and it’s something that I felt like we had with Bruce Arians, who, again, wasn’t a popular hire when we made it. We just believed in Kliff.”

Also, whether it was Rosen or someone else at quarterback, he knew by pairing a young offensive play-calling head coach with a young signal-caller, sustainability was possible—“You can tie a quarterback to an offensive playcaller for years. If you’re an offensive play-caller and you’re not the head coach, you’re gonna get hired away quickly. … [It was important] having a quarterback and a head coach that were tied at the hip.”

As a result, the Cardinals have a coach and GM tied at the hip, too. In fact, a few weeks ago, Kingsbury said to me, “I’m forever indebted to Steve Keim, because he saved my career, really.” I mentioned that to Keim. His response: “Well, he might’ve saved mine.”

April 25, 2019: Cardinals draft Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray first overall.

Keim had seen the video of Kingsbury from October 2018—“I don’t have enough good things to say about him, he’s phenomenal. I’ve never seen him have a poor outing, not one, which at quarterback it’s impossible to do, but he’s done it. … I’d take him with the first pick of the draft if I could.”

The then-Tech coach had known Murray since he was 15 years old, and it was pretty easy to put the pieces together, when, two months after saying that, Kingsbury did, in fact, have the first pick in the draft. But Keim swears to this day that Kingsbury was brought into work with Rosen, and the noise annoyed him to the point where the GM didn’t even study Murray until after that February’s combine.

“I did not want to like him. I didn’t even wanna look at him,” Keim said. “I was focused on [Nick] Bosa and Quinnen Williams. I knew what Kliff said, because it was on TV all the time, he made the comment about taking him with the first overall pick. But to Kilff’s credit, not one time did he ever come in my office and lobby for the guy. He truly trusted the process, and understood the big picture. I obviously knew how he felt. But if we felt like Bosa was gonna be best for the organization in the long term, we would’ve taken Bosa.

“There was a point in time after the combine where I said, O.K., I’m gonna sit down and watch this guy, and I have to be honest with the process, I can’t look at this player and be selfish and make it about me, and that it’s gonna make me look bad if take another quarterback with a first-round pick, or it’s an indictment of the job I’m doing.”

The turn happened quickly that March—with Keim’s first real look being that year’s Oklahoma/Alabama national semifinal. Murray got knocked around a bunch in the first half, and the Sooners fell behind 28-0 within 17 minutes of game action. But Murray kept swinging, and eventually Keim found a Eureka moment.

“He made a throw from the 50, he sort of scrambled, and then eluded the rush, and then he launched the ball off one foot and jumped in the air to throw it,” Keim said. “It was, I don’t know, 54, 55 yards, and just a drop-in-the-bucket touchdown. And I’m like, How did he do that? When I watched Mahomes, with some of throws he made from different platforms, and arm angles, and you saw some baseball stuff where he flicked it, and it looked different.

“[Murray] just looks different from other quarterbacks you evaluate. And his ability to throw from different angles and it doesn’t have to be perfect with his feet, it’s just phenomenal. And obviously his ability to elude the rush and all those things we see on a weekly basis is what I saw.”

From there, Murray kept checking boxes. And when it came to the one he couldn’t check—in how high he stands off the ground—Keim had gotten a pretty good reminder in-division not to overthink it. After all, he’d passed repeatedly on a shorter quarterback who’d spent four years at his alma mater in 2012, and that quarterback grew up to be Russell Wilson.

March 20, 2020: Cardinals trade RB David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and 2021 fourth-round pick to Houston for WR DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick.

This one, looking back, appears to be the easiest of all these calls. But at the time, the Cardinals had Larry Fitzgerald, a promising young receiver in Christian Kirk, and had drafted three receivers after taking Murray in 2019. And there were whispers about Hopkins’s practice habits, his health, his fit, his off-field activities and his contract demands (with three years left on his existing deal) coming out of Houston.

So by trading for Hopkins, there was risk—and at a position where Arizona didn’t necessarily have a crying need. But there was also a player that Keim saw as special, and potentially too good to pass on, leading the GM to put his scouting hat on and do some background work. Lucky for him, his college position coach, Robbie Caldwell, has been at Clemson for a decade, and was with Hopkins for two full years.

Caldwell’s report came back like this: Fierce competitor … Loves the game … Tough as they come… you will not regret doing it.

This work is, of course, the kind that any GM would do on any trade. But having the background from a guy he’d been around since he was a teenager didn’t heard to cement the idea that Hopkins would fit in. “When you have people like that, that had the background with somebody and they can attest to their character … it certainly gives you confidence.”

That left the financials as the final piece to the puzzle. Hopkins had $39 million left from 2020-22 on his Texans deal, and wanted a raise. As it stood, Arizona would need salary-cap help from somewhere to make it happen. And they got that help.

“We had to dump some money, and figure out where to move some money, so the fact that they took on David Johnson’s entire contract was certainly helpful. That helped quite a bit,” Keim said. “And we just felt like the compensation was just … we didn’t have to give up too much, and felt like we were acquiring a guy for years. Now, I don’t know how long Larry’s going to play. But you’re talking about a true No. 1 receiver in his prime that you can pair with the quarterback for the next four or five years, at least.”

* * *

And so it was that Kingsbury called the play on Sunday, and that Murray was able to make the throw without his feet planted (like he had against Alabama), and that Murray’s first read was gone—because he’d been flushed to the boundary, one of those 2019 picks, Andy Isabella, hadn’t gotten over yet into Murray’s field of vision—which led the QB to launch a moonshot 55 yards in the air with the hope that Hopkins would do something ridiculous. And so it was that Hopkins did the kind of ridiculous thing Keim acquired him to do.

“I was sitting around thinking about it [Sunday] night, and even [Monday] just seeing all the replays, almost like it’s a weird dream,” Keim said. “Like, we were so crazy to think about hiring a coach from college, and then this quarterback, and this trade during a pandemic—you’re like, man, this trade, did it really happen? And then for a game to finish like that, it truly is almost like a dream.

“You’re just like, is somebody gonna wake me up and tell me whether this is real? It’s fun, man. And it’s truly one of those things—the highs and the lows of being in this position, this job, it’s so rewarding and, at times, it can be so difficult and so stressful. I hope everybody is this lifetime gets a chance to truly enjoy and feel some of the things I’ve felt.”

Sunday night was one of the highs for sure. But it’s all the more meaningful for Keim and his organization, because the lows have stayed so close. And the lessons from dealing with them should continue to reverberate in Arizona for a long time to come.

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POWER RANKINGS

1) Pittsburgh Steelers (9-0): I firmly believe the Steelers have another gear. Learning to win without Ben Roethlisberger last year has served them well this year, to where Roethlisberger doesn’t need to be Superman week-to-week. But it sure would be nice if they could pull that lever from time-to-time, and the emergence of their crew of young receivers, with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool out there joining Juju Smith-Schuster, is helping them get to where they’ll be able to.

2) Kansas City Chiefs (8-1): Assuming the Raiders’ COVID-19 issue is manageable over the weekend, KC gets a shot to avenge its only loss this year. And a shot to notch their seventh win by two or more possessions, which is a pretty nice illustration of how easy all this usually looks for the Chiefs.

3) New Orleans Saints (7-2): It’s going to be fascinating to see how different the Saints offense looks with Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill at quarterback—opening up the downfield element that’s suffered a little of late, but having to make up for the encyclopedia of institutional knowledge Drew Brees brings to the table. The good news is the team around the quarterback is so good, any difference might not show up in the standings.

4) Green Bay Packers (7-2): The team is a pretty remarkable 20-5 in Matt LaFleur’s first 25 games as coach (21-6 including playoffs), and yet there’s still some doubt, like there was last year, over the legitimacy of their record. Struggling with the Jaguars last week didn’t help. So a trip to Indianapolis this weekend is a nice opportunity for the Packers to show who they are.

5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3): Glass half-empty: The Bucs defense has slumped a bit of late, with the loss to the Saints. Glass half-full: The Tampa run game is becoming a force. And status quo: Tom Brady and the passing game is pretty damn healthy. Glass all the way full: We get to check in on all that, with Tampa hosting the Rams on Monday night.

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THE BIG QUESTION

How is the NFL going to change going forward, with intensive protocol in place for all 32 teams starting on Saturday?

So in case you missed it, a memo went out from commissioner Roger Goodell to team presidents, executive, GMs and head coaches on Tuesday announcing this change—and the news probably washed over most of who’ve been numbed by the amount of COVID-19-related content all of us in the football media have given you.

But if you dig through the intensive protocol itself, you’ll see this is going to be a pretty significant thing for the teams you root. We’re here to boil that down for you, and what it’ll mean as a practical matter for all the coaches, players and staffers in those buildings.

No more indoor, in-person meetings. Yup, that’s right—all meetings have to be either outdoors, in a practice bubble or virtually. And that includes staff meetings, not just meetings with players. This one made me think of the advantage that teams in warm-weather cities could have. The Rams, for example, have created a ton of outdoor meeting space already at their Thousand Oaks, Calif. practice facility, so they can proceed pretty uninterrupted. It’ll be tougher for, say, the Packers or Vikings (although those teams do have massive indoor practice areas they could use).

Practice and walkthroughs have to be masked. And specifically, the intensive protocol calls for masks or Oakley faceshields, not the neck gaiters that we’ve seen coaches wearing on the sidelines this fall.

Getting a lift in will be tougher. The intensive protocol reads that no more than 10 players and five staff can be in the weight room at once, with all required to wear masks at all times. The provision is in there that teams can set up multiple weight rooms to mitigate what’s going to be a scheduling juggling act for the NFL’s strength coaches.

Players can enter the physical facility, but need a reason to do it. Among those listed: Medical treatment, physical therapy and rehab. And even in those situations, players have to wear a surgical-grade mask and face-shield, as do staff working in those areas. (Staff has to wear gloves, too.)

Testing results have to be processed before players can come it. This probably won’t create too much of an issue—teams typically get results from the previous day’s PCR testing overnight (at the crack of dawn at the latest)—but it still creates a significant checkpoint that teams have to cross before letting guys in the building. And it’ll likely create some inequity across the league, too, since some teams (based on geography) get results back before others.

No seating permitted in cafeterias—grab-and-go only. I’ve heard stories of players having to eat lunch in the cars at points over the last few weeks. That’ll be everyone starting on Saturday.

No in-person contact among players/staff outside the facility. This is pretty significant, too. Some teams have been advising their players to stay away from each other outside the building, anyway. But this formalizes it.

So, of course, those rules look draconian. But the goal here hasn’t changed—the NFL’s trying to give itself the best chance to finish the season, which gives the owners their best chance to make their money, and the players their best chance to get paid. What’s happening in the country now, COVID-wise, has made that task tougher, which is why the rules are being tightened up.

All of it is aimed at knocking down the number of close contacts in each facility, and the league sent along a chart to teams that illustrated the NFL’s success in implementing intensive protocol to do that. In fact, last week, teams following the regular protocol averaged 98 close contacts, while teams in intensive protocol averaged 48, which shows pretty vividly that the new rules going in work (28 teams have been in intensive protocol at some point this season, while 16 have been it more than once).

And all this said, in this particular memo, Goodell was actually pretty effusive in his praise of what the teams have accomplished to this point.

Here’s how he finished the Wednesday memo: “It has been said many times that our 2020 season cannot be ‘normal’ because nothing about this year is normal. Flexibility and adaptability have been critical to our success to date and we must continue with that approach. I am convinced that if we remain focused and committed to adhering to our protocols, and to adjusting them as experience requires, we can play a full 2020 season that is not simply normal, but extraordinary. Thank you for your continued cooperation and support.”

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Alabama QB Mac Jones signals to a teammate before a play

Alabama's Mac Jones

WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The rise of the 2021 Quarterback Class.

I had a veteran evaluator brings this up to me on Wednesday—Florida’s Kyle Trask’s 2020 season is starting to resemble Joe Burrow’s 2019, and Alabama’s Mac Jones has the Tide offense pacing like Tua Tagovailoa had it rolling last year. Which, of course, sent me to the numbers to see how they matched up.

Burrow, 2019 (15 games): 402-527 (76.3%), 5,671 yards, 60 TDs, 6 INTs
Trask, 2020 (projected over 15 games): 370-528 (70.1%), 5,427 yards, 70 TDs, 8 INTs

Tagovailoa, 2019 (9 games): 180-252 (71.4%), 2,840 yards, 33 TDs, 3 INTs
Jones, 2019 (projected over 9 games): 209-266 (78.5%), 3,294 yards, 24 TDs, 3 INTs

Statistically, really, the comps aren’t far off-base. Also, it’s fair to say that Florida’s offense isn’t quite as loaded as LSU’s was last year, and fair to point out that Jones doesn’t have Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs this year (though Alabama’s skill talent is still very, very good). Which leads you to this question: Are these guys as good?

The short answer: No, they aren’t. I asked one NFC exec on Wednesday if those two are anywhere close to Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and got a one-word answer: “No.” But could they sneak in the first round? “It’s possible, for sure.”

“They’re not ‘wow’ players,” said the first evaluator, who raised the comps to me in the first place. “But they’re good decision-makers, they’re accurate, and you can put it this way—Trask is doing some stuff that Burrow wasn’t, and Bama’s more explosive than they were with Jeudy and Ruggs. These guys are good players.”

As for what it means draft-wise, it gives depth to a group that we’ve known was going to be really strong at the top. Lawrence is a generational prospect. Fields would probably go first overall in plenty of drafts, and only won’t in this one because of Lawrence. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance is a top-half-of-the-first-round talent, and BYU’s Zach Wilson burst on to the scene this year and is in the first-round discussion as well.

Having Trask and Jones in the mix gives you six guys who teams could view as starters. I’m not ready to call either a first-round guy (it seems to me that Jones has a better shot than Trask, who’s a little stiff as an athlete). But that it’s even a discussion point is good news for where all this is headed over the next six months.

It also should give some hope to teams like Chicago, Indianapolis, New England, and Pittsburgh, who’ll be in the market for young quarterbacks but won’t be in position to get a Lawrence or a Fields. Because it certainly looks possible now that they’ll have some guys to choose from after the dust on the top guys settles.

And it’ll give the rest of us some pretty fun storylines to track as we get closer to April.

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THE FINAL WORD

With all the noise coming out of the Giants’ building on Wednesday, here’s one thing that shouldn’t be missed—their new head coach, Joe Judge, has and will continue to prioritize everyone in the organization being on the same page. This week’s problems were sparked by Judge bringing long-time NFL line coach Dave DeGuglielmo in to help with an up-and-down position group, which set sitting line coach Marc Colombo off.

While it wasn’t physical, it was heated, and it wasn’t the first time there’d been an issue with Colombo. And it only reinforced that Colombo wasn’t lining up with the rest of the staff. That (combined with some colorful language) was enough for Colombo to be shown the door.

Conversely, Judge knows what he’s getting with DeGuglielmo coming aboard full-time now to replace Colombo, and coming into a critical time for that position group—with three rookies (Andrew Thomas, Matt Peart, Shane Lemieux) the team has big plans for—since the two worked together in New England in 2014 and ’15. And so the Giants will move forward with him.

In the end, my guess is this will be seen as a blip in Judge’s first campaign in Jersey. But it does provide some pretty nice insight into who he is as a head coach.