There was plenty of speculation about Vance Joseph's job status with the Cardinals, especially following a shellacking by the Rams in Week 13.
But the defense played better down the stretch, and Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury confirmed on Monday that his defensive coordinator will be back in 2020.
"I never wavered in that," Kingsbury said. "His approach, knowing what I know of him and watching him work, things I saw from the first day I was with him, I knew I wanted him to be here."
The Cardinals finished last in total defense in 2019, allowing 402 yards per game, and were 28th in points allowed at 27.6. However, they only gave up 22.8 points per game in the final four compared to 29.3 in the first 12.
There was a noticeable youth movement as the season went along, as veteran safety D.J. Swearinger, cornerback Tramaine Brock and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs were released. The growth of the young replacements, combined with a return to form of Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson, were among the reasons why Kingsbury is confident the late-season progress is sustainable.
"I was really impressed with the effort and improvement we showed in that last quarter," Kingsbury said.
This is the first time since 2017 that the same defensive coordinator will be in place for a second straight year. Linebacker Jordan Hicks said that stability will be a sizable benefit.
"To go into the offseason with a foundation to build on, it makes all the difference," Hicks said. "I don't think that's been the case around here for a few years. It's huge for young guys. It's huge for all of us. We've got something to build on moving forward."
Despite the on-field hiccups, Joseph never seemed to lose control of the group, and to a man on Monday, Cardinals defenders said they were happy to hear the news of his return.
"I think we're trending in the right direction," defensive tackle Corey Peters said. "I'm happy with that decision."
KEY CARDINALS PLAY IN ALL 16 GAMES
After some injury-marred campaigns in the past, Hicks, left tackle D.J. Humphries and left guard Justin Pugh each logged full seasons in 2019. Hicks was on the field for every one of the Cardinals' 1,133 defensive snaps, which was more than any other defender in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
"Huge achievement for me, especially with my history and all the chatter about my health," Hicks said. "I think that was able to shut some of that noise up."
Pugh heard the critics, too, after playing in 15 games total the past two seasons.
"This is why I stay off social media for the most part," Pugh said. "Every time: 'You can't stay healthy. You can't do this. You cant do that.' Well, I played 16 games, and I played pretty well for 16 games. I'm excited about my future here and being able to help this team win a lot of ballgames moving forward."
JONES COULD NEED THUMB SURGERY, KIRK TO REST ANKLE
Outside linebacker Chandler Jones may need a minor procedure on a thumb injury he played through in Sunday's season finale against the Rams. Kingsbury said there are some ligaments that may need to be fixed.
Jones finished the season second in the NFL with 19 sacks and tied for first with eight forced fumbles.
Wide receiver Christian Kirk won't need surgery on the ankle he injured early in the season against the Seahawks, but said the ailment hindered him following is return.
"It's not a fun deal, but I didn't want to miss any more games," Kirk said. "If I can get out there and contribute and help the team, I'm going to do it. But to get to the offseason and get healthy and get it 100 percent, I can't wait to get it right."
Kirk, who finished the season with 68 receptions for 709 yards and three touchdowns, said the ankle was rolled up on several times in the final few games. He finally started feeling better in the season finale against Los Angeles.
"The previous couple of weeks, it just didn't feel like I had anything after the catch," Kirk said.
Images from the regular season finale in Los Angeles