Who Deserves the Blame for the Arizona Cardinals Weaknesses?
The Arizona Cardinals have made vast improvements since last year’s 3-13 showing, but no 3-5-1 team is devoid of critics. Fans and analysts can be notoriously harsh when things aren’t going perfectly. So, I thought it would be good to go through the most heavily criticized Arizona Cardinals in 2019 and say my peace as to whether those criticisms are valid or not.
Johnson has been a confusing player to watch this year. In the receiving game he has been as electric as ever, showcasing some of the trademark highlights that made him an All-Pro in 2016. But he has also struggled to have the impact in the running game that led to his 1239 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in 2016. To top that off, the effectiveness of Chase Edmonds and Kenyan Drake make it even more difficult to absolve him of his struggles this year.
Edmonds ran all over the Giants for 126 yards and 3 TDs, and Kenyan Drake went for 110 rushing yards on an eye-popping 7.3 YPC against the vaunted 49ers defense. David Johnson has failed to rush for 100 yards in a game all year, and even his most adamant supporters are running out of excuses for the lovable running back. All of this being said, Johnson is an uber-talented player with the work ethic and candor of a superstar. As he returns from injury, I wouldn’t bet against him bouncing back and proving once again why he is one of the highest-paid backs in the league.
Patrick Peterson has been one of the most consistently underrated players in football, alongside defensive co-star Chandler Jones. While he is a household name and has garnered Pro Bµ1 towl recognition in every year of his career, Peterson has inexplicably never gotten the attention that guys like Jalen Ramsey, Richard Sherman, and even Josh Norman got during their best seasons- despite the fact that he has been more consistent than every one of those guys. Perhaps he’s been too good for his own sake, with lockdown games resulting in quarterbacks staying away from him altogether, hurting his ability to pad his stats with interceptions. Upon his return from suspension, Peterson has not been quite the same lockdown corner we all remember.
Against New Orleans, Peterson struggled against arguably the best wide receiver in football, Micheal Thomas. On Thursday night Peterson was on the bad side of some inexcusable defensive breakdowns. According to PFF, Peterson allowed six catches for 118 yards and a touchdown on seven targets, which is a perfect passer rating. While that looks ugly, perspective is important. This was the first time since 2014 that Peterson has allowed over 100 yards in coverage. Despite this, Peterson has forced two turnovers this year, including the game sealing strip sack against the Giants, and an interception against the Saints.
Apparently, the past nine years haven’t been enough, as fans were quick to get on Peterson’s case for his performance against the 49ers. Many expressed distaste with the team for not trading Peterson while his bidding price was high. I even saw people accusing him of intentionally lacking effort in order to get revenge on the Cardinals for failing to trade him. I don’t think I need to explain how ridiculous that is, but in case there are any doubters out there, Peterson said of the Thursday night game that the loss was, “on him,” embracing his critics and saying, “That’s what the Cardinals drafted me for. I’ve been doing it for a very long time, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.” For an All-Pro level player to willingly shoulder the blame after a loss shows character, commitment to the team, and leadership that young players will learn from. Peterson has earned the right to have one misstep without fans kicking him out the door.
Keim is probably the most heavily criticized person in all of Arizona right now, with fans even clamoring for his firing before the abysmal 3-13 finish last year. But in order to properly weigh his success as a GM, we have to look at the good and the bad. In his early tenure in Arizona, Keim was lauded as one of the best executives in football. Under his stewardship, the Cardinals quickly soared to a franchise best era from 2013 to 2015. He brought in a litany of aging veterans over the years, all of whom proved they had a lot left in the tank. These included Carson Palmer, Dwight Freeney, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Frostee Rucker, Antoine Bethea, Karlos Dansby, Antonio Cromartie, Tre Boston, and John Abraham.
In addition, Keim brought in plenty of players in free agency who had their best years in Arizona, including Jared Veldeheer, AQ Shipley, Mike Iupati, and Jerraud Powers. Keim has faced his fair share of criticisms for his draft history, but he made solid selections in David Johnson, Deone Buccanon, Markus Golden, John Brown, Christian Kirk, Tyrann Mathieu, Andre Ellington, Budda Baker, Chase Edmonds and of course star newcomers Kyler Murray and Byron Murphy. Keim has also made his share of savvy trades, most notably his move to acquire star defensive superstar Chandler Jones, and most recently acquiring running back Kenyan Drake.
Despite all of this, I can’t ignore Keim’s transgressions over the years. Questionable draft picks include Kevin Minter, Troy Niklas, Jonathan Cooper, Logan Thomas, Robert Nkemdiche, Brandon Williams, and Chad Williams. Current starters Haason Redick and D.J. Humphries have shown flashes but have not lived up to their first round billing. He also has a series of questionable free agency moves, including singing Michael Crabtree for only a few weeks before cutting him, signing Tedd Ginn, and the forgettable acquisitions of Yeremiah Bell, Jasper Brinkley, and Tyvon Branch. But every GM goes through their series of hits and misses, that’s just the nature of the games. None of these moves can be surpassed by Keim’s decision to hire head coach Steve Wilks, along with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. This pair took a decent NFL team and turned them into a dumpster fire within a year. The roster downgraded significantly from 2017 to 2018, but much of the blame still rested on the ineptitude of the coaching staff that Keim hired. But as much blame as he deserves for that move, Keim also deserves credit for hitting the nail on the head in his first coaching hire of Bruce Arians.
This mix of good and bad brings us all to where we are now: to what I believe will serve as the defining moment of Keim’s tenure as a Cardinal. He had the guts to trade away first round quarterback Josh Rosen just a year after taking him, and recentered the rebuild around new head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray, and so far, that decision has paid off. Murray has looked the part of a number 1 pick, and Kliff has shown an ability to adjust his gameplan and fool defenses that has been non-existent in Arizona since Arians left. All in all, Keim has overseen an era of Cardinals football that has greatly outperformed the previous decades of misery, and has earned the right to try to steer the ship back on course. That being said, his doubters have a strong case against him, and he will have to earn back their faith by helping to bring this team back to the playoffs.
The Offensive Line
The Cardinals offensive line has gained a reputation as being one of the worst in the league, especially after the dismal season they had last year. All over social media, fans and so-called analysts who don’t watch the team have echoed the same talking points, saying that Arizona will only have a chance to contend once they improve their offensive line. It is a narrative that Cardinals guard Justin Pugh is sick of, “Everyone wants to blame the offensive line and it's really 11 guys out there playing football,” he told azcardinals.com reporter Darren Urban, "I've been in the NFL for seven years and every year the offensive line is always the problem.
I read things online, thinking what qualifies (this person)? Anyone in here know a lot about offensive line? Could you sit in an offensive line room and have a legitimate conversation about offensive line play?” Pugh’s rant should resonate with Cardinals fans, who are often the most critical of the offensive line.
Take the week three game against Carolina, for example. Fans were quick to point out that Murray was sacked eight times, and fans and analysts were quick to jump on the offensive line’s case. But how much of that is due to poor play calling? How many people were willing to heave blame on Kyler Murray for holding on to the ball too long, or for moving outside the pocket and giving blitzers free shots at him? Furthermore, how much credit goes to the blocking when the team’s running backs have found a wealth of success throughout the year? You’d be hard pressed to find anyone talking more about the Cardinals offensive line after the beating they gave the Giants.
Instead the focus shifted to Chase Edmonds who had a stellar game running behind the forgotten five. In fact, Football Outsiders ranks the Cardinals as the 12th best run blocking offensive line in the league, a ranking that runs opposite of the mainstream media narrative but is much more merit-based, using the Adjusted Line Yards formula to measure running back carries and assign responsibility to the offensive line.
For as much love as rookie Kyler Murray has gotten from the media, Kingsbury has gotten quite the opposite. Analysts like Brian Baldinger and Pete Schrager have given positive reviews to Kingsbury on his rookie campaign, offering patience and actual analysis of game film to back up their case. Meanwhile, analysts like Stephen A Smith and Skip Bayless, who are better known for their theatrics than they are for insightful analysis, have been scathingly critical of Kingsbury. Most fans have followed suit, blasting him on social media repeatedly during the Cardinals Thursday night game, which I’ll get to in a bit. After the week one tie, Kingsbury was quick to take the blame for the Cardinals getting in a hole early, something he’s done repeatedly throughout the year after losses.
That is a leadership quality that was nonexistent in Steve Wilks, who would’ve been content to preach about “gap integrity” and “execution” until his mouth fell off. Kingsbury has also proven that he can adjust his game plan on the fly, finding ways to turn stagnating offenses into scoring machines, and communicating with his rookie quarterback on how to best ease him into the NFL.
Most recently, Kingsbury made his primetime coaching debut, which put him under a microscope for the first time in his young career. He set social media ablaze with his decision to ice the 49ers with a timeout just before they got a play off at the end of the 2nd quarter, and the Cardinals actually got a defensive stop on 4th down that would’ve kept the score at 14-7. The 49ers used the timeout to their advantage, scoring a touchdown and pushing the lead to 21-7 instead. With the final score at 28-25, many have been quick to blame Kliff Kingsbury for the loss.
Watching that entire sequence unfold had to be excruciating for Cardinals fans everywhere, but it’s important to note that Kingsbury’s decision wasn’t without explanation. Had the strategy worked, Kingsbury likely would have been lauded for his brilliance. But since it didn’t, talking heads on Twitter were quick to form an online mob. Kingsbury explained that he wanted an opportunity to force Kyle Shannahan to show his hand on the final play of the half, and when it backfired he was quick to take blame.
Another decision that Kingsbury caught heat for was a questionable challenge of 49ers running back Tevin Coleman picking up a first down with 2:21 left in the game and two timeouts left. This one is indefensible as far as timeout management goes, but the Cardinals defense couldn’t get a stop regardless, and ended up letting Garropolo and the Niners waltz all over them for third down conversions to seal the game. At the end of the day, this is the first taste of Kingsbury’s coaching that non-Cardinals fans have gotten and of course the miscues stick out like sore thumbs. Never mind the fact that his offensive play calling helped the Cardinals score the most points the 49ers have allowed all year, all anyone will bother to remember are the mistakes.
I’ve found that each of my pieces has boiled down to a simple philosophy: us average fans doesn’t have a firm grasp on who deserves the blame for failure in the NFL season. The two Cardinals whose critiques I deemed valid aren’t ones that I believe should be kicked out the door, rather David Johnson and Steve Keim have both proven that they can be successful and thus I hold them to a higher standard.
Peterson, meanwhile, shouldn’t be criticized to the extent that he has been due to one bad performance, when consistency has been his middle name for almost a decade in the desert. Finally, the head coach and the offensive line are two aspects of football that are so difficult for the average fan to give informed analysis on, so I prefer to reserve judgment on those fronts until I’m proven otherwise.