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You've Got Mail: Steelers Week

Topics include draft thoughts, coin tosses, and lots of Kyler

Celly mailbag 112823

One game left before the bye, and it's a trip to Pittsburgh for the first time since 2015. There will be a bye week mailbag, but first, a Steelers week mailbag. It's long, so make sure you have time to get through it all. Questions have been edited for length and clarity. Don't forget to send a question for a future mailbag.

From Jamie C:

"Hi Darren, If Kyler has always thrown right foot forward, with great accuracy, can you explain why it is so important to the coaches to have him change his footwork and start throwing with his left foot forward now? His throws were definitely less accurate in Houston and I've got to wonder if that could have been the reason, not rust. Would love if you can explain this change in mechanics for us. Thanks."

Let's make clear something here -- the footwork change when they are saying left or right foot forward isn't on the throw. A right-handed passer is always throwing pushing off his right foot and his left foot in front. The change the coaches and Kyler refer to is when he is awaiting the snap and begins his drop/gets to his drop, and it's based on the timing of the plays in the playbook. They are built around having that foot forward, so that the play comes together as it is supposed to come together. 

From Jason B.

"Why is it that our offense can't score points? Is it the play-calling or is it the execution? Do we not have the right weapons to throw and run the ball? There are so many excuses floating around along with the lack of discipline and technique of our offensive line. All of these issues are not because we did not have K1, because Josh Dobbs is winning in Minnesota and he beat the Cowboys, but yet even with him our issue was scoring points. This is the same issue we had with Kingsbury and everyone was blaming the defense. This offense doesn't even look like they are trying and as an outsider looking in there seems to be no leader galvanizing the troops, why is that?"

I'm not sure what you are talking about with Kingsbury and the defense; Kingsbury and the offense got plenty of blame when he was here. And it's tough when you ask questions as broad as "why can't the offense score points." It's a lot of things. If there was just one, you'd change it and move on. Kyler Murray will need to play better, I think they probably are going to need to add another high-end receiver, they probably will upgrade the offensive line. (Going into next season I' saying; at this point, it is difficult to get a serious sea change.) 

From Ross Wylie:

"Is Kyler our franchise QB? Not his paycheck, I mean his performance. It really doesn't feel like it. Where's the spark? Is it not his job to get us going? When we are lagging, he is engine that brings us together? I don't see it. One hand, people blame rust from the injury. But in truth Im seeing the same Kyler Murray that we've seen the last three years. I'm willing to consider that my expectations are too much? Maybe he truly doesn't have the help he needs? All I know is it's been three years, different coaches, different teammates, but his performance has not improved."

OK, so he's played three games with the different coaches. I do think your expectations are too high right now. I think it's fair to hope that he plays better, but I do agree with him that this is a process coming off the ACL injury and trying to learn the new offense. This team isn't going to the playoffs. To me, you play Murray those eight games he'll get and then figure out where you are. He started hot and yes, the last two games have been steps back, seemingly. Like I mentioned before, there will be upgrades on the offense in the offseason, and that will matter. 

From Pete Sandles:

"Kei'Trel Clark back in the starting lineup, and not surprisingly, he played well. Puka and Kupp were largely irrelevant, mostly because our run D was a sieve, but that's beside the point. Clark needs to be our starting cornerback, written in pen, the rest of the year. He and Garrett Williams are long-termers for our secondary depth; albeit neither are No. 1 CBs. My question is if we've transitioned into the 'see what we got' phase of the season?"

Jonathan Gannon won't call it that; he will say any lineup decisions are about giving the Cardinals the best chance to win. But the Cardinals started six rookies against the Rams and all four cornerbacks used in the game were rookies. I do think Clark is in the lineup for the balance of the season; depending on the injuries to Antonio Hamilton and rookie Starling Thomas, Marco Wilson might find his way back. But that's in question. It'll be interesting to see if they use rookie practice-squad cornerback Divaad Wilson. But you look at the draft class, other than injured center Jon Gaines and QB Clayton Tune, everyone else is going to end up seeing significant snaps in their first year. So they have already been "seeing what they got."

From Victor Mialdea:

"Hi Darren, love the mailbag. I want to highlight and at the same time get your opinion on Jalen Thompson. He's my favorite Arizona Cardinal of all time. Super humble and low-key, always gives his 100 percent, hardly ever misses a game and never gets his flowers. I think he's our most consistent defender since coming into the league. Others have higher peaks but I can't remember a bad JT game, honestly. Do you think he's thought of highly by the new regime? Why do you think Budda Baker has gotten so much more national recognition?"

I do think Baker has done more over the course of his career to warrant the recognition he gets. I do think they think highly of him and they like his coverage skills. He doesn't say a lot even when we talk to him, and the Cardinals need to win for people to notice him more. That's always been the case. 

From Matthew Stroh:

"Hey Darren, hope you and your family had a great Thanksgiving. Sunday was rough. I believe and want to give Monti Ossenfort at least three years to see his vision for the team. But I believe we need to keep Kyler Murray this offense because we need to get the offense and defense of line better. I think he knows that. But if we just spend the next draft on a QB I feel we will be like Carolina this year. Not fair to any QB. Do you think we will draft more OL or DL in the next draft? Also do you believe Ossenfort will trade Kyler or keep him?"

Right now I think the Cardinals plan on Kyler as the QB next year. Things can always change. As far as OL and DL, I think you'll see plenty of both. They definitely need help on the defensive line; so much of it has to do with what happens in free agency. Both lines will be in the crosshairs in both FA and the draft.

From Luke Strauss:

"Hi Darren. Unlike some other fans, I'm not going to be too harsh on this team and Kyler. The fact is that it's a bottom of the league team in terms of roster talent and will take 3-to-4 years of good drafting to get us to being competitive again. Gannon and Co. won't embrace the tank because ultimately tanking costs coaches jobs, but for the long term success of this team, having high draft picks and plenty of capital is the right way to go at the moment (see Detroit). Agree or disagree?"

I don't think any team has "3-to-4" years to be competitive. Three years to have a chance to win some playoff games from this spot? OK. But, while I have not asked this specifically, I am betting that Michael Bidwill, Monti Ossenfort and Jonathan Gannon fully expect to be competitive next season. The fan base is going to want that too. And the reality is you have to be trending up quickly in order to be a longer-term coach. This group needs a little time. Judgement can't be now. But the NFL timeline always moves quicker than real life. 

From Joy Brooks:

"I saw an interview with Sean Payton. They asked why Russell Wilson was so bad for five or six games and now he's the old Russell Wilson. His answer was Russell had to learn a totally new system and game plan, techniques, etc. Doesn't the same apply to Kyler? Get him some lineman to protect him, get Michael Wilson back on the field, draft another tall receiver (maybe Marvin Harrison Jr.) and make him comfortable under center where he seems to actually be doing his best."

You raise a fair point. I don't think you can draw a direct parallel between Wilson and Murray because they are two separate situations, but Kyler is learning and yes, it figured to take more than three games for Murray to have a grasp. That's why, as I mentioned higher in this column, these eight games as a group is a starting point to figuring out the offseason. What we don't know is why he's not under center more right now, and yes, they need to upgrade spots on the offense.

From Joe Cardea:

"Darren, I think you have to play a pro-style offense to win in this league. Running QBs will get hurt and you have to pass. Do you think Kyler can do it? I'd get rid of him and start over."

I hate to break this to you, but all the best QBs in college are guys that have run in their game. You can't be run-first, but I agree with Gannon, I think your QB has to have that element in his game these days. You have to be able to pass, of course. As I noted, I think the plan is to have Kyler around, but I don't think it is his running style or ability that would be a negative. To the contrary, that part of his game is an important feature. 

From Kacey Henning:

"Hey Darren. You made a comment last week about the Cardinals coaching staff 'changing Kylers mechanics.' Um WHAT?!!! Kyler mechanics got him to be one of the most dominant QBs in college history, the Heisman winner, the No. 1 overall pick, and a long-ago rookie of the year award. What we have seen the last three weeks is an inaccurate, indecisive, and rudderless QB which I am giving every benefit of the doubt to. You saying they are changing his mechanics might be the exact thing we need to be talking about with great intensity. I wouldn't say his mechanics were broke prior, but they sure as hell now."

One, I mentioned the specifics of what footwork they are working on earlier in this mailbag. Winning the Heisman means nothing to me on this level; plenty of Heisman QBs have done nothing in the NFL. Obviously, Kyler is very talented. You are assuming that those things you are seeing are a result of the footwork? What about just trying to learn a new offense on the fly when games count (and you missed nearly a year?)

From Bob Kitsos:

"On the Rams' second touchdown, a five-yard pass to Tyler Higbee, it appeared the Cards had three defensive backs within arm's length of Higbee and yet no effort was made by any of the backs to knock the pass down. If you watch the replay, it looks like they were surprised to find him in that area. Am I misreading the play? Also, with the game well out-of-hand midway through the fourth quarter, why not some playing time for Tune?"

I'll be honest, I'm not sure what you were seeing. On replay, linebacker Dennis Gardeck takes a false step forward at first which costs him the depth it would have taken to be in position to reach the pass. Jalen Thompson is too far behind with where the pass is, and Budda Baker, while in the vicinity, was nowhere near being able to get a hand in the mix. It was a nice play and a perfect throw by Stafford. As for Tune, Gannon said Murray wanted to keep playing, and frankly, if I am Gannon, I want to see as much of Murray the rest of the season that I can. 

From Tom Cowley:

"Hi Darren. We really need your personal reaction regarding what is going on with this team. No excuses -- injuries, rookies, tough schedule, etc. The performances I saw are unacceptable from a professional team. Fans are entitled to know what's what here with no BS."

I'm confused. You sound as if you have made up your mind. I'm not sure what you are expecting me to say. You are correct. That wasn't a performance worthy of a pro team. It also happens sometimes (ask the Broncos about their game with the Dolphins.) My personal reaction doesn't mean much, but if you insist -- this always felt like it could be a rough year as the Cardinals reset the organization and the roster. They have had two terrible games: Cleveland, in which Clayton Tune faced a hell of defense (not a good combo) and the clunker Sunday. Mostly, they have battled, and battled with a roster that will be upgraded as Monti Ossenfort goes forward. I (and I have made this point before) am not a fan and have a different perspective a lot of the time. But I get why fans are mad and why they have the right to be after a game like that.

From Ted Beck:

"Last week you said the Cardinals have lost every coin toss since Week 1. That made me wonder, when the Cardinals are the visiting team, do the coaches always make the same call, either always heads or always tails? Because if they do, and it's not working, then maybe they need to do a George Costanza and do the opposite?"

Two things: One, they did win the toss against the Rams, so the streak is over. And two, you do realize the flip of the coin is pure chance and literally a 50/50 proposition, so doing the opposite doesn't mean anything. It's luck either way. 

From Gary Law:

"Hi Darren. Yay, draft questions. Your favorite! I'm taking QB off the table since apparently it's heresy to question Kyler's future here. Your exercise here is to play GM. Assuming we draft No. 2 (a QB went No. 1) do you:

  1. take Marvin Harrison Jr.
  2. take Olu Fanashu (supposedly the best OT prospect since Trent Williams)
  3. trade out for a boatload of picks. 1s, 2s, maybe some players too.

What say you?"

If you are picking two (and, say, the Patriots are 3 and want a QB) there is no reason why you can't do both 2 and 3 on your list. That said, and I have said this multiple times, if the Cardinals stick with Murray, I absolutely think Monti will look to trade that pick to a QB-needy team and help build the roster that way. And as great as Harrison is -- he's a player I would love to have -- I believe this draft will be mega-deep in very good wideouts and the Cardinals will want to focus on DL/OL/CB/Edge. 

From Andy Wren:

"Hi Urbz. It's been a bad season and will continue to be straight til the end most likely. But in searching for optimism, a lot of fans have been really excited by Michael Wilson and Trey McBride contributions and bright futures with the team. I really think we need to start talking about Dante Stills. Based on his PFF grade (which is mercurial to say the least) he's one of the best rookies in all of the NFL. Every week the guy is terrific. Even if he doesn't fill the stat sheet, hes consistently doing his job at a high level. I would argue he's our best draft pick based on performance. For a team that's struggling with our DL talent, he's an absolute home-run pick by Monti and I think he's very much a cornerstone going forward."

I would agree that Stills has been a solid contributor and a little bit of a surprise given his draft status. I like how he carries himself and how he works. He is exactly the kind of player you hope to find on Day 3 of the draft when you are building a roster.

From Glen C:

"Hi Darren. Do you think there's any chance we see coaching changes as we near the end of the season? Let me clarify: I'm not advocating for it. What I am acknowledging is the business of the NFL, where during a putrid season (such as this) an assistant coach is often sacrificed. We just saw it in Washington with DC Jack Del Rio. We saw it in Pittsburgh earlier with OC Matt Canada. As it appears we are destined for a top 2 pick, could you see it happen with any of our assistant coaches?"

No, I do not.

(And to make clear, the Del Rio move came ahead of what seems certain to be a head coaching change in Washington; in Pittsburgh, the Canada move was a long time coming.)

From John Turilli:

"Do you think the NFL way is to kick extra points and field goals? Our coach decided to go for two instead of one and to go on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal in Houston. We lost by five and could have and should have been down by one on our last drive. Our kicker is on fire and could have brought us a victory against the Texans. Gannon is doing this way too often and the announcers call this 'Metrics.' Maybe for the Niners, Eagles and Chiefs but for us? The Texans were no good at this either."

We are in the far rear view for the Texans now but the conversion didn't matter. Wouldn't have mattered if they were down one or two at the end. The going instead of the field goal, yes, that can be debated especially in hindsight. But in the moment, with the first one early in the fourth, it looked like the Texans would probably score again and render a field goal moot. 

Also, there is this:

From Ian McMechan:

"Hello from Dubai. The more closely you look at it, the more it seems like the draft is pretty much a lottery. Who has been the best talent evaluator working for the Cardinals during the time you have covered them? Thanks."

In the end that is impossible to know because a) every evaluator has hits and misses and b) there might've been a lower-level scout who nailed it all the time and we will never know because they didn't pick his guys for whatever reason and we won't know he was high on this dude or that dude. I know I didn't answer the question, but I don't know if it can be answered.

From Rod Remy:

"This is more of a statement than a question. More playing time for Greg Dortch. I believe he's done enough to push for more time on the field. What do you think, Urb?"

I think it's fair to suggest. Dortch certainly made a nice one-handed TD catch against the Rams (I don't know if I would be doing celebrations when I'm down 20, but that's me.) I agree Dortch seems to make plays when he has a chance. Again, though, if all the receivers are healthy, I'm not sure the depth chart changes. 

From Mike Ligo:

"Here's a left-field complaint few will raise: I think we should move on from Budda Baker. Love him as a player, a person, his energy and leadership, everything. But he's a bit of a throwback-type safety. A box linebacker moreso than that centerfield ballhawk Ed Reed. I strongly believe both safeties need to be coverage specialists, first and foremost. Linemen and linebackers are responsible for the run defense. If the run offense is reaching the safety, you have a personnel problem. The armchair GM that I am, safeties basically need to be zone corners. Jalen Thompson is great in his role. I'm not going to belabor the point about our abysmal corners, but I think having true safety help from a coverage standpoint is critical."

From Ron N:

"Despite his INT Sunday, I just feel like Jalen Thompson and Budda are liabilities in coverage. I wouldn't mind moving on from both and getting some actual coverage-oriented safeties in here. Also, do you think a pass rusher is going to be a top target this offseason or do you think they are satisfied with Ojulari and Zaven going forward?"

Counterpoint: Upgrade the cornerback position, rather than get rid of one of your best players and leaders in Baker. (Also, if I am running nickel out there, I don't need all five guys to be coverage specialists. I want a guy like Budda.) Thompson has already impressed coaches with his coverage abilities. 

As for pass rush, I would think they would still love to have a blue-chip edge guy.

From Jimmy Anderson:

"Hi Darren, thanks for taking the time with the mailbag. It's very interesting to hear how other fans are thinking about things. I have a question about penalties. I have a very hard time understanding the pass Interference and the roughing the passer calls (you could throw holding in there too). I heard Paul say a few times 'thou shalt not hit the QB too hard.' I remember a few years ago when they tried to include DPI as a challengeable play. I remember it didn't go very well, but can't remember why. I think the league needs to have some consistency on these plays because it feels so arbitrary. I'm not a sports gambler, but I'm guessing those that do are really suspicious. Why couldn't we have those types of calls automatically reviewable by the league or something like that? As a fan, it makes it very hard to watch these calls especially when they can affect outcomes of games."

I sometimes wish the roughing calls were reviewable. You are right, PI was a disaster. And here is why -- PI and roughing in the end are opinions. There are parameters officials have in the rule book, but there is no way to say (even in review) that this play is definitely a penalty and this one isn't. There are some examples of blown calls, but again, blown is in the eye of the beholder. Let's say PI is auto reviewed. OK, but all you are doing is asking another person for his/her opinion on the play. Doesn't mean it's going to be "right."

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