Kliff Kingsbury had just made the jump from college to the NFL, to an improbable head coaching job with the Cardinals.
It was an unlikely move, and for a team that had tumbled to the NFL’s worst record in the season just completed. But it made sense to General Manager Steve Keim, and Keim’s message to Kingsbury was a simple one.
“He wants to get it right, and I think that was the overall thing,” Kingsbury said. “Whatever we have to do to get it right, let’s get it right.”
Keim has seen “right” with the Cardinals under his tenure. There were three double-digit win seasons, there was a trip to the NFC Championship game. But those years are fading in the rear view, and the move to Kingsbury and the decision to draft quarterback Kyler Murray first overall are part of the plan for the Cards to return to “right.”
Thursday night’s preseason opener at State Farm Stadium is the first game-action glance at what these decisions will mean, although everyone knows it won’t be until the games that count where results truly matter.
Few predict a playoff push in Year One of the Kingsbury-Kyler pairing. But the Cardinals need to show significant improvement, not just in the 3-13 record but in the way the team is competitive – which it was not in 2018. No one understands that better than Keim.
“The 3-13 is unacceptable in every way,” Keim said during a recent training camp practice. “There were a number of things that went into it, and instead of pointing the blame somewhere else, we identified some of the issues in our mind and moved on.
“This offseason, we vowed to be aggressive. But in the NFL, to be successful, sometimes you have to be willing to think outside the box. Even though some of these moves have been outside the box, we have put an awful lot of time and consideration into them as well. Not only the change at quarterback and head coach, but with every coach on the staff.”
With Kingsbury coming from college, it was Keim that led the hiring for the vast majority of assistant coaches (although Kingsbury did interview each candidate and had the final say.) Keim has collected the players and was ultimately the one who pulled the trigger on Murray, trading 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen in the process.
There are a multitude of ways to evaluate Murray at this point – Keim hopes there will be patience with his growth, but at the same time understands too the hype – but with the GM, Murray is the latest first-round pick of a series that has not turned out well.
In some ways, it’s been the camp of Keim first-round picks. Murray is the star, tackle D.J. Humphries the enigma, linebacker Haason Reddick the injured, and former defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche the released. Murray’s success is crucial, given that Humphries and Reddick haven’t played their way into their draft status and all of Keim’s other first-round picks are no longer on the roster.
“To look back and see a number of these guys didn’t pan out, it’s frustrating,” Keim said. “It’s frustrating in a number of ways. I can look at it two ways. I can say, ‘You know what, I missed on that guy’ and make some excuses and not take the humble route. Or you can truly use it to make yourself better and evolve and grow in this business.
“It comes back to the basics. Why did you miss, what are some of the things we didn’t see, why did I take that route instead of another route? It comes back to passion for the game or the ability to learn and process information. When I talk to the scouts, that’s how I shape my view of the years. You have to get back to hitting on the guys who love the game, the guys who are passionate. There are always red flags on a lot of the prospects, and you can’t get consumed with their physical traits.”
Keim compared scouting to golf – you can be good at it, but you can never perfect it. There will always be a human element.
“I know this – I am extremely excited about this first-round pick,” Keim added.
Ultimately, that No. 1 overall pick, and the coach who was hired to unleash him, will be the linchpins of the franchise, one way or the other. Keim acknowledged it can be difficult this time of year because as GM, he isn’t as hands-on as he was on the offseason.
Still,Keim and Kingsbury talk daily about trying to adjust the roster.
“(Keim) is highly motivated,” Kingsbury said. “He’s a guy who has been GM of the year twice.”
Keim has now pushed his chips in with a coach-QB duo he expects to have a dynamic impact on the franchise.
“Thinking outside the box can get you outside your comfort zone,” Keim said. “The mindset as a GM or head coach or president and owner, sometimes it’s the easiest to be conservative. Do what the norm is or sort of play it safe. Being in this position, I feel we have to go for it every year, and when I say go for it, do your due diligence and make sound decisions, but at the same time, not be scared to make mistakes. Because when you are scared to make mistakes, now you start to get tentative and you are leaving a lot of stones unturned.”
Images from Tuesday afternoon's practice at State Farm Stadium