The Arizona Cardinals jumped into NFC West relevance in 2013 with the hiring of Bruce Arians and the trade for Carson Palmer. That season they improved from 5-11 to 10-6, narrowly missing the playoffs for what would have been the seventh time in the Super Bowl era. The next year, they won 11 games for the first time since 1975, losing in the wild card round because of injuries to Palmer and Drew Stanton. Then they won 13 games, a franchise record, but got roasted in the NFC Championship by the Carolina Panthers.
That was just two years ago, but somehow their 8-8 record in 2017, just a game back of the Seattle Seahawks, feels like 0-16. That’s because major transitions are coming.
Arians and Palmer both announced their retirement last week, leaving vacant two of the four most important positions in an organization (owner, GM, head coach, quarterback) as the Cardinals head into an offseason where most people will project them as the fourth-best team in a four-team division. That probably would have been the case regardless of the status of Arians and Palmer, but without knowing who will replace them, it’s not hard to envision Arizona getting worse from .500 rather than making the necessary steps to get better.
As we’ve seen with the LA Rams and the San Francisco 49ers this season, head coach/GM replacements can make you better. Immediately.
The desired favorite for the head coaching job might be be John DeFilippo, the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Though he’s only 40, DeFilippo already has a QBs resume of working with Eli Manning, Mark Sanchez, Derek Carr, Carson Wentz, Carson Palmer, Johnny Manziel, and JaMarcus Russell.
“And JaMarcus Russell.”
Despite JMR and JFM and the fact that he only worked with Palmer late in his career (with the Oakland Raiders) (DeFilippo also worked with Terrelle Pryor at QB, Matt Flynn, Matt McGloin, Matt Schaub, all your basic Matts), DeFilippo can just point to his recent job of developing Wentz from a franchise pick to an MVP candidate in only two seasons. For a team looking to draft a franchise quarterback, it makes some sense. Just as it will make sense for the New York Giants (for whom he worked for two years) to give him a long look, but as far as I can tell they haven’t interviewed him. And the Chicago Bears, who already have Mitch Trubisky and are said by some to be a favorite for his services.
But it’s not as though we can guarantee that Arizona is missing out if they don’t land DeFilippo; he’s only had one season as an offensive coordinator, in 2015 with the Cleveland Browns. That team went 3-13 under Mike Pettine and ranked 30th in points, 25th in yards, 29th in net yards per pass attempt, and 16th in yards per carry.
The Cardinals are also going to interview Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz while they are in Philly. Schwartz coached the Detroit Lions for five seasons, posting four losing records, including 2-14 and 4-12. In his best season, they went 10-6 and got bounced in the wild card round 45-28. He spent one years as a defensive coordinator in Buffalo under Doug Marrone (and they were actually very good on that side of the ball, ranking fourth in points and yards) but after that staff was fired, he took 2015 to stop coaching and consult with NFL referees instead.
And in his second season with the Eagles, he has his defense fourth in points and fourth in yards once again. But is he just a coordinator, or can he be a head coach? It’s said that he’s the favorite to land with the Giants, so it may be a moot point and the Cards might not hire either of these guys, even if they’re the first and second choice.
Arizona is also interviewing Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and linebackers coach Brian Flores. New England finished 31st in defensive DVOA -- 21st against the pass and 30th against the run. Schwartz and DeFilippo appear to be targeted for performance, while Patricia and Flores perhaps more for being associated with Bill Belichick. Patricia has been with the Patriots since 2004, the last six years as defensive coordinator. Flores has been with New England for the same amount of time, starting as a 23-year-old in the scouting department, becoming an assistant on the field in 2008, and spending the last two years working with linebackers.
Though not as young as Rams head coach Sean McVay, Flores is just 36 and would be a shocking hire.
The Cardinals also interviewed their own defensive coordinator, James Bettcher. Like Ben McAdoo and Dirk Koetter recently were by their respective teams (or former teams in the case of McAdoo), Bettcher would be a “change, but not too much of a change” move from the Cards. I think an issue with that, at least for them, is that Arizona needs some change and Bettcher has spent his entire NFL career working for Arians, first as an assistant in Indy in 2012, then for five years with the Cardinals. He’s got experience with their important defensive players, like Chandler Jones, Budda Baker, Patrick Peterson, and Tyrann Mathieu, and the Cardinals finished fourth in DVOA on defense, including first against the run.
The last of Arizona’s defensive coordinators to get a promotion was his predecessor Todd Bowles, who is 10-22 over the last two seasons with the New York Jets. And yes, the Jets team that Bowles took over may have been even more talented than the one the Cards are handing over to the next head coach: Darrelle Revis, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams, Damon Harrison, and some high draft picks that didn’t work out.
Arizona’s candidates also include Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, and Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who went 9-23 in two seasons as head coach of the Browns. Shurmur doesn’t feel like an exciting hire for literally any reason, but Minnesota managed to rank 10th in points with Case Keenum, Latavius Murray, and Jerick McKinnon in the backfield and a UDFA as their star receiver.
He spent three years working for Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, orchestrating a similarly surprising stat line from Nick Foles. (And we know how that ended up turning out.)
Bettcher, Patricia, and Shurmur seem like favorites, but Arizona isn’t expected to make a quick decision on this. Bettcher would signal an intention to stay similar to how they were in the best years under Arians; Patricia would seem to be an organizational shift in philosophy to try and be “the Patriots of the West” which has never really worked (Josh McDaniels, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien) before; while Shurmur seems like an acknowledgement that they’re going to need to get creative on offense knowing that it is going to be very hard to find a quality starting quarterback again.
Though 2018 seems like it will be one of the most interesting years ever for the quarterback carousel.
The Cardinals are slated to pick 15th overall in a draft that could have as many as five first round QBs: Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson, and Baker Mayfield. Four teams in the top six need a QB: Browns, Giants, Broncos, and Jets. After that is the Dolphins at 11, the Bengals at 12, and maybe some surprises with Washington at 13 and the Packers at 14. (Not that Aaron Rodgers won’t have another five great seasons, but as we keep seeing, Green Bay is so dependent on quality QB play that they might want to consider drafting a high-end backup. Ted Thompson was a new GM when he drafted Rodgers to backup Brett Favre, and Green Bay just hired Brian Gutekunst to be their GM.)
There’s a good chance that a QB will fall to 15, but also a chance that one won’t or that Arizona won’t get the QB that they want. Someone like Jackson, Mayfield, or Allen may be so specific to a certain type of offense that the next head coach of the Cardinals could scratch one or all of them off of the board. But options are available — which rarely happens — outside of the draft.
Alex Smith is said to be on the trade market and he most likely will not be on the Chiefs in 2018. The Cardinals were said to be interested when Smith was last dealt, so it makes sense that they’d be looking that way again if Arizona doesn’t want to be considered the basement team of the NFC West. The bad news, if you’re a Seahawks fan, is that Smith is good -- he led the NFL in passer rating and adjusted y/a in 2017. The good news is that he’s not great.
Smith’s had 12 NFL seasons, been to the playoffs five times, and gone 2-5 in postseason games. Not that he hasn’t played well in those games, but a franchise quarterback should elevate a “good” roster to being a “great” one, and a “great” roster into a “championship” one. Smith takes a good roster and continues to make them good. Good teams simply don’t win Super Bowls very often.
The Cardinals have a good roster, so Smith would likely maintain the status quo and still only 33, probably has another four or five “good” seasons ahead of him. The Chiefs got tired of “good” and are taking their chances with Patrick Mahomes. There’s probably something to be said about Arizona if they decide to go for “good” at QB or if they take their shots at “great.”
Other potentially available quarterbacks via trade or release are A.J. McCarron, Tyrod Taylor, Eli Manning, Paxton Lynch, Mike Glennon, and Foles. McCarron, Taylor, and Lynch may have ceilings slightly above what we’ve seen so far, while Manning, Glennon, and Foles could be transition quarterbacks to someone they draft. How they choose a coach will of course have serious implications to how they choose a quarterback.
If they hire Shurmur, it could be a pairing with either Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford - all of whom are free agents, who he is currently working with in Minnesota, or Foles, who he had previous experience with.
DeFilippo seems like a guy you pair with a rookie, and perhaps also Foles in the meantime.
Bettcher may want to target a veteran like Smith who will keep Arizona perhaps as competitive as they were with Palmer.
Patricia may advise them to take a quarterback in the sixth round and then have him go on to win five Super Bowls.
Overall, the Cardinals can offer an enticing opportunity for both a head coach and a GM. There are worse teams to take over than ones that are 8-8 and two years removed from a conference championship game. But looking around at the Seahawks with Russell Wilson, Rams with McVay and young Pro Bowl-caliber players all over the roster, and the 49ers with the surely-not-overrated-after-five-starts-and-early-entry-into-the-hall-of-fame Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s also not going to be easy.
Arizona made a quick turnaround with Arians and Palmer, and this wouldn’t even have to be much of a “turnaround” at all. They could get better. They could also get worse.
It all depends on what happens next.