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Cardinals OC Byron Leftwich key to Josh Rosen’s development

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

Josh Rosen is a young quarterback by NFL standards.

At 21, he’s got seemingly all the time in the world to develop and fulfill his potential. Plus he’s already starting earlier than the Arizona Cardinals originally intended, and he doesn’t look out of place at all. If anything, he’s ahead of schedule.

Meanwhile, Byron Leftwich is pretty young by offensive coordinator standards. He won’t turn 39 until the season is over, and many insiders around the league see him as an up-and-comer who could turn into a head coach someday.

So, like Rosen, he’s ahead of the game.

Which is great… for them. But the Cardinals as a team are definitely not ahead of the game. At 1-6, they’re slogging through one of their most frustrating seasons in recent memory — so much so that the captain of their defense even pushed for a trade three days ago. Things aren’t going well at all, and the organization could use a few wins right about now.

So there’s going to be pressure on both Rosen and Leftwich. It’s inevitable. Especially for Leftwich, who has no guarantee he’ll even be the OC in 2019 if he can’t show noticeable improvements over the offense that Mike McCoy was running out there for the first seven weeks. But there’s a fine line to walk here, given the external pressure to be more competitive right away and the internal pressure to make sure Rosen and the other rookies on offense evolve at the right pace.

“I think it’s going to be a slow, gradual process,” Rosen explained. “I think he’s got a really good plan over the next couple weeks. I think we’re going to have a great gameplan going into this week. Definitely change some things to, like I said, do what we do well. Refine the gameplan so we think less and play faster. But at the same time, not change too much and slow everyone down like that.”

Getting the entire offense on the same page is vital, and it’s something they clearly haven’t been able to pull off yet in 2018. Finding a way to play with decisiveness and confidence would go a long way towards making it happen though.

“A lot of it’s like, no matter how good of a player you are, if you’re not really sure exactly what you’re going to do, you play a little physically slower,” Rosen said. “So I think what we’re trying to do is just basically get all 11 guys playing at full speed and fully confident with what we’re doing.

“It might not be the best call because we could have five alerts and pick the best play, but I think we’d rather have, maybe not the perfect play, but everyone going full speed a hundred percent.”

That starts with Rosen, who had to adjust to a number of different OCs in college, and is being forced to do it again now.

And it’s why Leftwich is suddenly so important.

If he can stabilize the situation and show the front office that he’s the guy going forward, it would finally given Rosen some consistency around him. That in turn would give the young signal caller a more solid foundation to build from. As Rosen himself pointed out on Wednesday, the fact that Leftwich — a former quarterback himself — has experienced the challenges at this level that the rookie is facing now can only help.

“When I think less, I get to play a little quicker, play more efficient,” Rosen noted. “And I think he’s pretty good at understanding what it’s like to be in an offense that might be a little too complicated or might be a little too simple, so we’re working together to find that sweet spot.”

Ultimately, the goal here is to help Rosen realize his full potential for the long term. Any and all optimism surrounding the Cardinals right now revolves around a future where Rosen is the franchise quarterback.

But the present still matters too.

Sure, Rosen is locked in, but other jobs are at stake. If they keep losing and do start trading big names, that leads to a full blown rebuild that sets the entire process back a couple years. We’ve already seen how well the thought of that is sitting with one major player and he’s probably not the only one.

There’s a domino effect that comes with a rebuild as well. Most coaches and general managers don’t typically survive those, if they last longer than a year or two. So there’s incentive for everybody involved to start turning this around as soon as possible. This isn’t Oakland, where Jon Gruden can just gut the roster without any worry of repercussions because he signed a contract that runs through forever.

The biggest reason to find some wins right now comes back to Rosen though. Sure, there’s always going to be that portion of the fan base that wants to see their favorite team lose, because that somehow promises a better future. And that strategy at least holds more water in the NFL, where teams are actually slotted in the draft based on their final record, not a random lottery.

That plan doesn’t make as much sense for Arizona as it would for, say, New York though. The Giants desperately need a high pick so they can draft their next quarterback. The Cardinals already have Rosen, so what’s the value in putting him in a losing culture just to pick third instead of fifth? Yes, at the end of the day, the higher pick is better to have on paper. But not if you’re stunting your young quarterback’s development to do it.

To that end, Sunday’s matchup with the 49ers represents one of the few remaining games on the schedule where the Cardinals might actually be considered favorites. And the fact that they haven’t played since last Thursday’s forgettable effort against the Broncos could be an advantage.

“It definitely helps,” Rosen acknowledged. “I think it helps Byron a lot too. Gives him a couple days with all the coaches. I think all of our assistant coaches are stepping up to the plate as well, and helping Byron out.

“I think we’re going to sort of come closer together and rally as best as we can. I think we’re going to reel in our focus on the season and just go week-by-week and day-by-day and just try to get better.”

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