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When the Arizona Cardinals hired Steve Wilks last January, team owner Michael Bidwill touted Wilks’ defensive acumen and leadership, even noting that his new hire had made such a “strong impression” on him during the search process that he didn’t need to interview any of the coaching prospects who were about to take part in the Super Bowl. That group included Frank Reich, John DeFilippo and Jim Schwartz of Philadelphia, and Brian Flores of New England.
And now that the Cardinals have fired Wilks not even 12 months later — a move the club announced Monday as part of the NFL’s annual “Black Monday” blood-letting — I have one simple question for them:
What could have changed in 11 months?
Despite what the Cardinals and even Wilks maintained at the time of his hiring — that this was a retool, not a rebuild — if Bidwill was honest with himself about the state of his football team, he would know the truth, which is that the Cardinals’ roster stinks.
Goals sometimes change when reality strikes, and the reality was, what the hell was Wilks supposed to do in 2018 with a talented (but non-mobile) rookie quarterback, a horrific offensive line that couldn’t protect the QB (which is a non-starter for a pocket passer like Josh Rosen) and an aging defense, all while trying to compete in a division with two playoff teams that went a combined 23-9 this season?
It is through that prism that I feel comfortable saying the Cardinals’ decision to can Wilks is one of the most unfair, outrageous firings the NFL has seen in years, despite the fact the Cardinals own the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft.
If Bidwill really wanted to hold someone accountable for this 3-13 season, he should have started with Steve Keim, the general manager who just completed his sixth season in his current position. Even that would have been short-sighted, too — every team that doesn’t have a franchise quarterback experiences some valleys — but if the bar for the Cardinals this season was the 8-8 record that the last coach, Bruce Arians, posted in 2017, how do you punish the coach who has been on the job for less than 12 months but not the man who, you know, put the roster together?
And don’t tell me it’s because Wilks didn’t get the most out of the roster. Arians managed to be .500 last season — and he even went an impressive 5-4 down the stretch with Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton at quarterback — but unlike Wilks, he wasn’t starting a rookie QB, which has historically meant lots of losing unless he’s propped up by an excellent running game and defense, like the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson.
Despite owning one of the league’s worst rosters, the Cardinals fired their coach anyway, as Bidwill scapegoated Wilks — who became only the 10th coach to be fired after only one season since 2000 — for the franchise’s failures.
“When you look at not only the record, but the lack of competitiveness — the fact we went backwards on offense and defense — looking at his plan for 2019,” Bidwill explained, “I just didn’t feel like it was a plan that I wanted to get behind, that would turn us around and get us back to the type of football that we expect and that our fans deserve.”
Wilks isn’t a perfect coach. Bidwill even has a point, as Arizona lost by double digits nine times, including three defeats by at least 34 points. But to give Keim — and not Wilks — a year to fix it is absurd.
Even Keim admitted Monday that he shares blame.
“I think there is a great deal of it,” Keim said, when asked about his culpability in the Cardinals’ miserable season. “We have to look at this roster … and see the holes, not the strengths. Not only am I humbled enough to realize there are improvements to be made, but at the end of the day, I have the utmost confidence in myself we will get this turned around.”
I’m sure a big part of the latter will be pairing Rosen with a young, offensive-minded head coach (the next Sean McVay or Matt Nagy). And while I believe that’s harder to do than these teams — who all seem to want that — think, the Cardinals appear to at least be interested in the right kind of coach, as sources tell Yahoo Sports that the Cardinals are one of several teams that have requested an interview with Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
Along with head coach Andy Reid, Bieniemy has shepherded one of the league’s most dynamic offenses this season, led by the league’s most talented young quarterback and should-be MVP Patrick Mahomes. He would be a great hire, as Bieniemy is a bright offensive mind who demands a lot from his players but is beloved, which is a difficult line to walk. (The New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins have also requested interviews with Bieniemy.)
That could be bad for the Cardinals, who — if they were intent on getting an offensive-minded head coach — probably should have explored this option, I don’t know, a year ago? Remember, Arians retired on Jan. 1 of 2018, while quarterback Carson Palmer did the same the next day. The Cardinals traded up five spots to No. 10 in one of the deepest quarterback drafts of the past 20 years. When they made the decision to go with Wilks — over the likes of Reich, for instance — they did it because of Wilks’ leadership and defensive acumen over the possibility of tethering whichever young quarterback they’d draft to an offensive-minded head coach. With the roster he was armed with, Wilks needed more than a year to show whether that was the right decision. A season wasn’t enough time to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3, which is Wilks’ defensive specialty.
So yes, of the Black Monday firings that involved African-American coaches, Wilks’ is the least defensible, and that’s saying something. In Denver, Vance Joseph didn’t have a quarterback in 2017 and Case Keenum was marginal this past season. Meanwhile in New York, Todd Bowles has been saddled with one of the NFL’s worst rosters for two-plus years, but at least he was given four years to steward the Jets’ ship. And finally, in Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis … well, Lewis definitely deserved to be fired after 16 seasons and zero playoff wins. But you get the point.
As a person of color, the thing I’m most concerned about – a worry shared by numerous African-American coaches, executives and scouts I talk to throughout the league – is how the NFL seems to be taking a step back as it relates to diversity in leadership positions. Ten years ago, there were seven minority coaches, a number that’s dropped to three (only the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn and the Panthers’ Ron Rivera remain) in a 70-percent black league. That’s embarrassing, and so is the fact that with Ozzie Newsome’s pending retirement in Baltimore, it took Miami elevating Chris Grier to general manager on Monday to prevent the NFL from having zero black general managers in position of power following the ouster of Reggie McKenzie in Oakland (thanks to Jon Gruden’s power grab) last month.
Look, it’s true the NFL indeed stands for “Not For Long,” no matter what color you are. Professional football is a hard business to make a living in, and the league is cutthroat. But for all of its efforts to improve diversity in leadership positions via the Rooney Rule, the league is still found wanting in that area.
And whether the Cardinals replace Steve Wilks with a person of color or not, his unfair firing — which came less than a year after his hiring — is a bad look, both for the Cardinals and the league, and the latest rough blow to those diversity efforts.
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