The Cardinals hired a fired Big 12 coach and drafted a 5' 10" quarterback.
Those were the headlines in early 2019, and only sharpening the swords was the fact that all this happened just a year after Arizona went in on a longtime NFL assistant, in Steve Wilks, who’d paid his dues and earned the right to replace Bruce Arians, and drafted a well-pedigreed quarterback in Josh Rosen, whom they’d traded up to get in the first round. This, too, was after a year in which the Cardinals' talent level in certain spots looked XFL-worthy, and the team crumbled, falling all the way to the very bottom of the league at 3–13.
Bottom line, you could count on one hand the number of people who were convinced this newfangled plan of Arizona’s would actually work. And most of them were working down the hall from Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray at the Cardinals’ headquarters in Tempe.
“I just felt like the decisions …” Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said Thursday, carefully choosing his words. “... if you just stick with the principles, and that’s whatever’s best for the team is the right direction to go, that part made it easy. I knew there was going to be criticism. But in football, you gotta be willing to accept criticism. I knew it was coming. That wasn’t going to stop me from making the right decisions.”
Long story short, that exiled Big 12 coach is now the front-runner for NFL Coach of the Year. And that tree stump of a quarterback? He’s squarely in the race for league MVP.
This week, I did my annual poll of general managers and scouting directors, to gather who those inside the league see as most worthy of winning midseason awards, and you’re going to get those results a little later in the column. What I can tell you now, without revealing all the winners quite yet, is simple: The Cardinals’ decisions weren’t so wild after all.
Sure enough, Kingsbury was the clear choice of the execs for Coach of the Year. And Murray was neck-and-neck with Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson for MVP. Meanwhile, Rosen is a backup in Atlanta and Wilks is defensive coordinator at the University of Missouri.
It’s safe now to say that the tough calls of three years ago in Arizona were the right ones.
We’re officially halfway through the season and, like I said, that means it’s awards time. But there’s more than just that in this week’s GamePlan. We’re also going to get to …
• The best of the Week 10 slate, with a matchup of returning star QBs topping the list.
• Some more on Thursday’s headliners—Odell Beckham Jr. and Cam Newton.
• My consistently bad gambling advice.
• Some numbers on the emerging trend of four-down offense in the NFL.
And with that, we can get back to Arizona, and how the Cardinals got to a place where a couple of unpopular changes have completely changed the face of a franchise.
The criticism of Bidwill and his holdover general manager, Steve Keim, wasn’t just about the dice-roll hire and draft pick. It started, of course, with the decision to so quickly pull the plug on Wilks and then Rosen. How was anyone to trust the Cardinals, the logic went, with moves so outside the box after the plug was pulled so quickly on the last set of calls made at head coach and quarterback?
Bidwill, now three years removed, with his team sitting atop the NFL at 8–1, understands how it looked at the time. But as I brought it up, he countered with what he was looking at, over a year in which there was a midseason offensive coordinator change and not a whole lot for anyone to hang their hat on.
“As the season progressed in 2018, it just seemed like things weren’t working,” Bidwill said. “I don’t want to belabor the point too much, but we were last in almost every category. And we weren’t getting better. I just didn’t believe in the plan going forward, and when things aren’t going well, you look in the mirror. That’s the first place you ought to look—right in the mirror. Did we make the right decision?
“And so we decide to make the change and move on and start a coaching search.”
Which is where one set of bold moves begot another.
Bidwill and Keim had turned their focus to finding a coach who could develop Rosen better, and through some happenstance, there were connections to Kingsbury. Keim had gotten to know him from the scouting trail, and kept an eye on him the same way he years earlier was monitoring a young Washington coordinator named Sean McVay as a potential successor to Bruce Arians. And it was on that trail, as part of a trip to work out Kingsbury’s quarterback at Texas Tech, Patrick Mahomes, that Bidwill first met the coach in 2017.
From there, once Wilks was ousted, and independent of their own previous relationships, Kingsbury’s name had a way of continually crossing Bidwill’s desk.
“The name that kept popping up, when you get some of the background, who people were thinking about having their coordinators be, it was Kliff Kingsbury,” the owner said. “His name kept coming up as a coordinator candidate. But he also had head-coaching experience, considerable head-coaching experience, in addition to running offenses. Now, it was all at the college level. But that still counts for something.”
At the time, and after the Rams and Patriots had made overtures about hiring Kingsbury, and the aforementioned coordinator interest, Kingsbury had actually accepted an OC job at USC, but did so under a contract that made it relatively easy for him to get out if an NFL head-coaching job became available to him—with both the Cardinals and Jets calling.
Keim got a promise from Kingsbury’s agent, Erik Burkhardt, before Kingsbury took the Jets interview that he wouldn’t sign anything. And the Cardinals had Bidwill’s plane sitting in Teterboro, just up the interstate from the Jets’ facility in North Jersey, to take him west.
The promise was kept, and after Kingsbury hit it off with interim Jets owner Christopher Johnson, he hopped on the plane to take his second interview in as many days. What he didn’t know at the time was there’d be no going back. Burkhardt told Kingsbury how much he respected Keim and how well he thought they’d work together. And after Kingsbury and Bidwill met, and took the owner’s helicopter from Tempe over to the stadium in Glendale, Kingsbury shot a text back to his agent.
I love this owner, Kingbury wrote. The feeling was mutual.
“There were a few things that struck me,” Bidwill explained. “First of all, he’s a very thoughtful person; he was thoughtful with all his responses. And he is a football junky—that becomes pretty clear when you speak to him. He was raised by one; his father was a football coach and a Marine. And that comes across, he’s a very disciplined person. And it was just more and more impressive the more time we spent together.”
Funny thing is, part of Kingsbury’s sales pitch—I’m gonna turn Rosen into a dude—would wind up being irrelevant to his future in Arizona.
At the time, of course, none of those involved really knew it. The Cardinals interviewed and hired Kingsbury on the Tuesday after Wild-Card Weekend, Jan. 8. Three weeks later, during Super Bowl week, Murray’s indecision over whether to play football or baseball (the Oakland A’s took Murray ninth overall in the 2018 MLB draft) was a big story. And it wasn’t until two weeks after that, that Murray announced he’d enter the NFL draft.
So even though Kingsbury had made a comment about Murray (whom he’d recruited through high school, starting when Murray was a 15-year-old sophomore) being a guy he’d draft first if he had the chance when he was still the Tech coach, and even though he by freakish coincidence wound up holding the first pick months later, the fix wasn’t in here. It couldn’t be, given that Murray wasn’t near a decision when Kingsbury was hired.
And because of that relationship, Kingsbury mostly recused himself from the evaluation that Keim was working through, wanting him to make his own decision (though Burkhardt did at one point text Keim, “Don’t pass on LeBron James”). Eventually, he trusted, Keim and Bidwill would get there on their own.
It took some time. But they did.
“We flew out to the University of Oklahoma and met with him, and had a great discussion and watched him throw and work out, and it was pretty clear then that he had all the leadership skills and football skills,” Bidwill said. “We wanted to do the full evaluation. By the time I’d flown out to do the workout and did the interview, it was really clear, after spending the time with him that he’s a leader and a football player that added different dimensions.
“And that the best thing we could do for the Cardinals was draft him No. 1 overall, knowing there was gonna be a lot of criticism, and that we were going to believe in our plan and do what’s best.”
Was it awkward? Sure, Bidwill concedes now, “It was a bit awkward, that we were not making any pronouncements, or ruling anybody out, on who we might draft, while we had Josh here for minicamp.”
But at that point, he’d already stuck his neck out for Kingsbury, and in a certain way, going in on Murray, for Keim and Bidwill, was just a way of going in even further on the coach.
And three years later, what was outrageous has become outstanding. Murray, through eight games in 2021, has thrown for 2,276 yards and 17 touchdowns, with the biggest question remaining being how many zeros there’ll be on his next contract. Alongside him, Kingsbury has built a program strong enough not just to go 8–1, but also score one of those wins without Murray (due to injury), and another without the coach himself (due to COVID-19 protocols).
There’s a lesson in all of it, too.
“Don’t be afraid to make bold moves,” said Bidwill. “We did our homework; we felt like there was a real rationale. We’ve made terrific progress, and we’re obviously still in midseason and have a long way to go, but I think it’s, Don’t be afraid to make bold moves and, Admit when you’ve made errors or mistakes and move on from them. Fixing a mistake fast is a good thing. That’s really all we did.”
To this point in 2021, it’s taken them a long way.
So here, then, is where Kingsbury, Murray and everyone else stacked up in our 2021 midseason awards—as voted on by 32 NFL executives.
1. Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers: 10 votes
2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens: 8 votes
3. Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals: 7 votes
4. Matthew Stafford, QB, Rams: 4 votes
5. Derrick Henry, RB, Titans: 3 votes
The voting here reflects how wide-open this is, and there certainly could be a candidate outside these five (like the reigning MVP) who emerges down the stretch. But with the acknowledgment that Henry is going to miss too much time to win, the four atop this list are squarely in it. Brady gets points for basically changing who the Bucs are—Tampa Bay is now 14–2 in its last 16 games. Jackson, as one exec put it, “has saved [the Ravens’] season, with the offensive injuries they’ve had.” And Murray and Stafford have exceeded the high expectations their teams set for them coming into the year. This race will be fun to watch.
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams: 13 votes
2. Derrick Henry, RB, Titans: 7 votes
3. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Colts: 3 votes
T-4. Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens: 2 votes
T-4. Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals: 2 votes
T-6. Davante Adams, WR, Packers: 1 vote
T-6. Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers: 1 vote
T-6. Justin Herbert, QB, Chargers: 1 vote
T-6. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers: 1 vote
T-6. Matthew Stafford, QB, Rams: 1 vote
Ten (!) players got votes—which I think is more of a result of the way the interpretation of this award gets clouded. Because the MVP is almost always an offensive player, we’ve seen flexible definitions for this one. Some just vote for the best nonquarterback. Others include quarterbacks, and judge them simply on individual performance for this award. Regardless, Kupp is a deserving winner, without question. He’s already over 1,000 yards, and is pacing for a 140-catch, 1,925-yard, 19-touchdown season, which puts him in striking distance for the NFL record in each of those categories (with the caveat that he’d be doing it over 17 games, and not 16).
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Myles Garrett, DE, Browns: 15 votes
2. T.J. Watt, OLB, Steelers: 6.5 votes
3. Trevon Diggs, CB, Cowboys: 5.5 votes
4. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams: 2 votes
T-5. Maxx Crosby, DE, Raiders: 1 vote
T-5. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Rams: 1 vote
T-5. Jeffery Simmons, DT, Titans: 1 vote
Both Garrett and Watt have been in the running in this category the last few years—and essentially blocked by an all-time great in Donald. Maybe that’ll happen again, if the Rams catch fire over the next couple of months. But Garrett’s got a good shot at making a run at Michael Strahan’s sacks record (he’s at 12 already), and Watt seems to make an impact play every week, so this year could be different. Diggs’s making it into that top group (and Ramsey’s getting mention) is fun, too. And interesting because just two corners (Stephon Gilmore in 2019, Charles Woodson in ’09) have won it over the last 26 years, going back to when Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders won in back-to-back in ’93 and ’94.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals: 26.5 votes
2. Rashawn Slater, OT, Chargers: 3 votes
3. Mac Jones, QB, Patriots: 2 votes
4. Javonte Williams, RB, Broncos: 0.5 votes
This one is pretty straightforward: Chase is pacing toward having one of the best rookie seasons ever by a receiver. Through nine games, he has 44 catches for 835 yards and seven touchdowns, and that’s even though he’s been slowed a little the last two weeks. So that he’s the overwhelming pick here is expected. Though quarterbacks are graded on a curve, so no one should rule out Jones, or even Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence, making a second-half run at the award.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Micah Parsons, LB, Cowboys: 27 votes
2. Azeez Ojulari, DE, Giants: 3 votes
3. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Broncos: 2 votes
Parsons called himself a unicorn. Rightfully so. Recruited by a bunch of college bluebloods as an edge rusher before being deployed by Penn State as an off-ball linebacker, Parsons has shown the ability to do all kinds of different things at a very high level. He leads Dallas in solo tackles (38) and sacks (5.0), is second in total tackles (52), and has two passes defensed. He’s made an impact everywhere, and that’s why he got more votes for this award than anyone else got for any of our midseason awards. And from here? There’s so much room for Parsons to grow.
Coach of the Year
1. Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals: 18 votes
2. Mike Vrabel, Titans: 9 votes
T-3. Bill Belichick, Patriots: 1 vote
T-3. Rich Bisaccia, Raiders: 1 vote
T-3. Sean Payton, Saints: 1 vote
T-3. Zac Taylor, Bengals: 1 vote
T-3. Mike Tomlin, Steelers: 1 vote
Per usual, the voting on this one is fluid—I was surprised that John Harbaugh didn’t get any mention, given where the Ravens are—but the cases Kingsbury and Vrabel bring, I’d agree, are really strong. The former has essentially resurrected a franchise that was mired somewhere below mediocrity. The latter has created a program with a very strong identity, one that’s held up through his four years, and did again Sunday even without Henry in the lineup. So it makes sense that the former Patriots teammates are the leaders here.
FIVE STAR MATCHUPS
1) Seahawks at Packers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): This game has the return of Russell Wilson, the presumed return of Aaron Rodgers, the long-term implications of this season on the future of both, and current-year implications for each team (Green Bay is fighting for seeding; Seattle now just to get in). So there’s a lot more here than what you’d normally find in a game between 7–2 and 3–5 teams.
2) Rams at 49ers (Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET): Another 7–2 vs. 3–5 matchup? Yup, and for similar reasons: The 7–2 team is coming off a loss and battling for playoff seeding in the ultracompetitive NFC, and the 3–5 team is trying to pull itself off the canvas and get back into the race. Plus, the Sean McVay vs. Kyle Shanahan coaching matchup is always a good one, especially in a year like this, when both guys have a lot of intrigue at the most important position on the field.
3) Browns at Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Of late, as the Patriots have ascended, the Browns have hit a rut. On Sunday against the Bengals, it looked like the departure of Odell Beckham Jr. sparked something in Cleveland—and being able to sustain it in Foxboro would certainly make a statement. Meanwhile, New England seems to be just hitting its stride with a heavily reworked roster. And the result of this one could wind up producing an important playoff tiebreaker for someone. One thing to keep an eye on heading into the weekend: the availability of each team’s running backs.
4) Saints at Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): The Saints are without Jameis Winston. The Titans are without Derrick Henry. Both teams have already showed resilience in the face of those losses, and this one should be as physical as any game on the schedule. The battles in the trenches across the board here should be really, really good. Both teams can bring it on the lines of scrimmage.
5) Chiefs at Raiders (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET): The previously invincible Chiefs offense is struggling. The Raiders have had a season that’s been incomprehensible for nonfootball reasons. And both are square in the AFC playoff chase, two of the 11 teams in the conference that are heading into Week 10 with five wins.
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FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW
If Odell Beckham Jr. plays, how does he fit in? I think there’s a fair question here to be asked: Was that really a broken situation that Beckham escaped from? In a lot of cases like this, you can look at a player’s surroundings, identify all the things that are sideways around him and gain belief that the issue was more the environment than the individual. Is that the case here? These aren’t the 2017 Browns. Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry have stabilized Cleveland’s football operation. The offense there, with a heavy Shanahan influence (Stefanski learned it from Gary Kubiak), is the scheme everyone seems to want to play in, one that’s been pretty good for prominent receivers like Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel and A.J. Brown. The Browns did stumble a little last month, but they’re still in the thick of the AFC race. Beckham’s best friend, Jarvis Landry, is on the roster. The team’s bent over backward to make things comfortable for Beckham. And if you look at all that, the only place left to point to as a problem might be quarterback. But Baker Mayfield’s hardly been bad, and Beckham had a pre-existing relationship with him. Now, Beckham’s a Ram, and I actually love the fit. I think he needed to be with a veteran quarterback, and he gets that with Stafford. And if Stafford can get him on board with not needing the ball every three plays, then playing alongside Kupp and Robert Woods should be great for him. He also has a feel for the offense since it’s the one he played in as a Brown. So now, I think, we get to see. There aren’t any excuses left. Sean McVay runs a meritocracy out there. If he’s still the player he’s been made out to be, it should show with how he fits in within an offense that has plenty of mouths to feed.
If Cam Newton plays, how does he look? Newton’s Carolina reunion is a great story. He didn’t get the chance to put a bow on his nine-year run as a Panther, largely because of injuries and a coaching change, and now he’ll get that chance. He’s had time to get healthy. He actually did show improvement in the passing game this summer in New England. And the Panthers have the best set of skill players he’s played with in a long time. He knows, of course, his career is on the line here. So it’ll be interesting to see how this goes, how Joe Brady adapts his offense for Newton and how Newton looks with so much on the line for him personally. I, for one, hope we get to see it this week (even if it’s more likely that he’ll make his debut not this Sunday against the Cardinals, but next week against Washington and his old friend Ron Rivera).
Can the Bills turn it around? Buffalo’s been a little sluggish for a month now. Since falling just short against the Titans on Oct. 18, letting a fourth-quarter lead slip away before getting stoned at the goal line at the wire, the Bills had their bye, struggled for three quarters before pulling away from a one-win Dolphins team, and lost in Jacksonville. The running game has effectively vanished, and those inside the organization acknowledge the lack of balance has led to Josh Allen’s getting hit and reverting to playing hero ball too often. On the flip side, the defense, for the most part, has been fine, maintaining the strong start it had after Buffalo focused time and resources this offseason on fixing the pass rush. So really, this comes down to whether the offense can get its act together and develop an identity that isn’t reliant on Allen’s starring in broken-play situations. The good news is the Bills get to try to build some momentum in playing the Jets this week. The bad news is the schedule is far less forgiving thereafter—with the Colts, Saints, Patriots and Buccaneers looming between now and the first week of December.
And a bonus fifth thing, because I wrote it before I knew a certain MVP was returning to his former team …
Is there something real brewing in Jacksonville? I don’t want to overreact to a single week. But there were some things in that Bills-Jaguars game that make you wonder whether the Jags might be a little better than anticipated over the back half of the season. For all the fun we had with the Josh Allen(s) story line last week, Jacksonville’s version is a former top-10 pick with a boatload of talent, and he, Taven Bryan and Dawuane Smoot terrorized Buffalo on Sunday. Myles Jack played well, too, and it’s fair to expect young guys like Tyson Campbell to ascend in the back half of the season. So if Trevor Lawrence and the offense can improve (and a healthy James Robinson would help, too) … maybe this is more than a speedbump for the Colts this week.
TWO BEST BETS
Season record: 5–13 (It’s at the point where 1–1 weeks are huge wins, so last week was a huge win).
Buccaneers (-9.5) at Washington. It’s a big number for a road team, but I’m banking on Tampa coming out of the bye on fire, like the Bucs did last year.
Packers (-3.5) vs. Seahawks. I’d think Rodgers is in a better spot to come out of his absence than Wilson is to come out of his. And right now, Green Bay’s a significantly better team.
ONE BIG QUESTION
Is there a big trend to take from the first half of the season?
I asked this question of all the execs that I sent award ballots to over the last couple of days, and I got a variety of answers. Some answered that they’d noticed more competitive defenses across the league, or renewed emphasis on the run game. Others brought up injuries. “The effect of reduced offseasons and training camps is having a massive impact on players’ not being conditioned to play and withstand the rigors of the game. It’s a league-wide issue,” texted one exec. Another yet is the continued college influence in the pro game.
But maybe the overriding trend that came up was what one pro scouting director termed succinctly as “offenses playing four-down football.” And to bolster the point, I had one exec pass along these numbers, which are each at a high point for the last 30 years (1991 to 2021).
• Teams are throwing on first and second down 54% of the time.
• The league-wide passer rating is 93.4.
• There are 2.9 fourth-down attempts per game.
• There are 0.28 two-point attempts per game.
• 54.5% of two-point attempts have been converted.
It’s interesting, too, because it’s at the point now where coaches are criticized for not taking more calculated risks on decisions where conventional wisdom has long held they should play it safe—like going for it on fourth down in minus territory, or going for two after a touchdown cuts a deficit to eight.
Now, to be sure, there are still traditional game-management elements that play into these calls for coaches, and just who the players are that you’re putting out there remains a big factor as well. But there’s no question that a shift has happened, and teams’ having built out analytics departments over the last decade has played a major part in it.
More NFL Coverage:
• The Lions Are 0–8. Dan Campbell Can Work With That.
• Six Teams That Should Be Better in the NFL’s Second Half
• Midseason Review: Surprises, Second-Half Stories, Predictions
• With Cam Newton Back, What Exactly Is Carolina’s Long-Term Plan?
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