TAMPA, Fla. – The short, scrappy guard from North Carolina State had big NFL dreams, and most of the league's top talent-evaluators were quick to dismiss them as fantasy. Steve Keim, the Arizona Cardinals' prescient player personnel director, can remember the prospect's deficiencies with vivid clarity.
"He was 6-2½, 290, with short arms – a guy who has to sit down to get change out of his pocket," Keim recalls. "Good effort guy, but you've got to have a few athletic attributes going for you, and he didn't … the kind of guy I don't want, even as a [rookie] free agent."
The player in question was, in fact, Steve Keim, whose pro football career consisted of a training camp stint with the Miami Dolphins in 1996 and a few games with the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos in '97. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in Canada pushed him into scouting, a career redirection that has a lot to do with the Cardinals' arrival Monday in Tampa in advance of the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance for Sunday's tilt against the Steelers.
"Steve has been an absolutely key component to our success," says Arizona general manager Rod Graves, who has spent the last six years methodically reshaping one of the NFL's more underrated player-evaluation operations. "We've worked together very closely to develop the system that we have in place, and I can't say enough about his contribution to what we've built."
Quietly, the Cards have enjoyed as much drafting success in recent years as any team in the league. Before last April's draft, Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune did a study on draft success which found that over the previous five years – since Graves had taken charge of Arizona's draft – 18 of 33 players picked by the Cardinals had become NFL starters, a league high.
In '08 the Cardinals had another banner draft, scoring a shutdown corner in Tennessee State's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (first round), a promising defensive end in Miami's Calais Campbell (second) and a powerful halfback in Richmond's Tim Hightower (fifth round), who started seven games in '08 and scored the winning touchdown in Arizona's NFC championship game victory over the Eagles.
Among the picks since '03 who have become prominent players: Pro Bowl wideouts Anquan Boldin (second round, '03) and Larry Fitzgerald (first round, '04); defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (third round, '04), who made the Pro Bowl last season; wideout Steve Breaston (fifth round, '07), who joined Boldin and Fitzgerald with a 1,000-yard receiving season in '08; stalwart left guard Reggie Wells (sixth round, '03); and playmaking linebackers Karlos Dansby (second round, '04) and Gerald Hayes (third round, '03).
As Keim is quick to point out, Graves has the final say in the draft room and thus deserves much of the credit for the team's high success rate. Graves makes a point of praising the Cardinals' area scouts, as well as second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt and his assistants, all of whose views are solicited during the evaluation process.
But Keim, a native of Harrisburg, Pa., who's about as subtle as a Rage Against The Machine guitar riff, is the man who solicits the strong opinions that are key to the process while formulating a bunch of his own.
"This is my ninth NFL team, and my father ran drafts for the Browns and Eagles, so I've been in a lot of meetings," says Arizona linebackers coach Billy Davis. "Sometimes the head guy can bully you and make you feel like you're not a part of it. Steve does a nice job of pulling out people's opinions while remaining true to his beliefs.
"He has a great commanding presence in those draft rooms. He knows what he wants, and he runs a real organized meeting. We're here [at the Super Bowl] in large part because of Steve Keim and the personnel department."
Fittingly, it was a current Cardinals scout, Jerry Hardaway, whose eye for talent made Keim's ascent possible. After tearing up his knee with the Eskimos, Keim returned to his alma mater and took a job as North Carolina State's assistant strength and conditioning coach, where he bonded with Wolfpack safety Adrian Wilson. Actively seeking a career in player-evaluation, Keim made a point of expressing his interest to the NFL scouts who would visit campus to acquire information on N.C. State prospects, and he and Hardaway developed a rapport.
Graves, too, had met Keim during a campus visit, adding him to the lengthy list of job-seekers. "But," Graves says, "I get those kinds of introductions all the time. When we had an opening, I basically went on Jerry's recommendation. One thing I recognized was that Steve had a great passion for football and for doing the work. I knew that if he could take that energy and channel it, we'd have something."
Keim joined the Cardinals as an eastern regional scout in 1999, and Graves promoted him to college scouting director in '06 and to his current title (which also has him coordinating the team's pro scouting department) last May. With his thick build and clean-shaven head, Keim is an animated figure in pre-draft meetings and in the war room, never more so than when Wilson – the former Wolfpack safety to whom he had remained close, and now an established NFL star – slipped into the third round in 2001.
"We had such a high grade on him, and we never anticipated he'd be there," Keim recalls. "Some of us had recommended taking him in the second round, and when he was still there in the third my anxiety level was going through the roof. My bald head was turning the shade of an apple, and I'm thinking, 'There's no way this big, fast, explosive safety is gonna be there with the 64th pick.' I couldn't even think straight, and when our turn came, we couldn't hand in the card fast enough."
The Wilson pick was governed by one of the philosophical tenets of the approach favored by Graves and Keim: Don't let need govern your decisions. "The year we took Adrian, we didn't really need a safety," Keim says. "We had Kwamie Lassiter and Pat Tillman, who were solid NFL starters. But Adrian was sticking out like a sore thumb.
"So many of our mistakes in the past had been when we reached for need, and we learned from that. You can fill your needs in free agency, but in the draft take the best players. Really, I've tried to emulate Rod Graves in every way, from the way he conducted draft meetings to his draft philosophy. He's a proponent of giving players the benefit of the doubt – 'Find out what they can do, not what they can't do.' And his No. 1 attribute is his patience, being able to hear several sides of an argument and, after everyone's been beating on you, make a logical decision."
Despite Keim's assertive personality and affinity for unleashing his emotions – "I've seen him turn blue a number or times, and I've seen him turn red," Graves says – he has learned to stay cool while stating his case.
"He's so confident in his opinions, and he makes clear and precise arguments," says Cardinals regional scout David Razzano, a highly regarded talent evaluator who previously worked for the Rams and 49ers. "He's got like a photographic memory when it comes to recalling players, and he has a knack for getting you to buy into what he thinks. Yet he's not offensive – he listens to everybody and takes it all in, and when it's time to make a decision nobody's arguing at the end."
With success comes the end of anonymity, and Keim, like Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley, could become a hot commodity for future job openings, in his case as a general manager. "We understand that when you win, that's what people do," Graves says.
In the meantime, Keim remains a huge presence in an organization basking in its greatest success in 61 years. And if he has a hard time staying grounded, Graves can always pull out the college scouting report he wrote on the former Wolfpack guard back in the mid-90s.
"I gave him a free-agent grade," Graves says, laughing. "He was a high-effort guy, but he was not very good. I often say to him, 'Don't give the impression that you walked on water all along,' and I threaten to pull out the report. Let's just say he's in his proper career path."