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Cardinals players laud fired coach Steve Wilks’ leadership

Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks, center, huddles up his team during practice at the NFL football team's training camp, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The players who didn’t filter into the Arizona Cardinals locker room on the NFL’s Black Monday either didn’t want to be hounded by TV cameras and reporters, or didn’t want to share their feelings about the reported firing of head coach Steve Wilks.

The small handful who happened to waltz in were either unaware of Wilks’ impending dismissal or were ready to stand up for a man they respected for his leadership. They were complementary of their now-former head coach, who was later officially fired after leading the Cardinals to a 3-13 season.

Rookie running back Chase Edmonds said he entered a Week 17 game against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday fighting for two people, Wilks and receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

“I know I was playing my (expletive) off for Steve Wilks,” Edmonds said, “because Steve Wilks deserved better and he deserved better than what we gave him this year.”

Arizona linebacker Josh Bynes was one of few defensive players who thrived under Wilks, recording 72 tackles with 2.0 sacks in 11 games before being put on injured reserve with a season-ending thumb injury. He found out about the decision regarding Wilks’ future Monday morning when reporters surrounded him.

“It’s unfortunate,” Bynes said. “It’s nothing we can control, it’s nothing we can do other than we wished we couldn’t played better this year as a team. We had numerous opportunities and times to win football games and we lost those. It’s just an unfortunate part of the business.

“Obviously when you get a new coach, new defense, new offense, stuff like that, you got to acclimate yourself. You’ve got to get better with the scheme and stuff like that, but I feel like we started off bad from the beginning in all phases of the game. You start off bad and then all of a sudden you start doing things to make up for those bad things. It just turned into that kind of year where it started adding up.”

Neither Bynes nor defensive end Markus Golden, the only defensive starters who spoke to the media on Monday, blamed any schematic changes for the struggles this season.

Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb brought in a 4-3 defense to replace the 3-4 directed by former coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher.

The defense, which under Wilks helped take the Carolina Panthers to a 2016 Super Bowl, never clicked for more than game-long stretches.

“I don’t care what the scheme is, man. It’s about the players,” Golden said.

The Cardinals gave up the seventh-most points per game (26.6). Mind you, that should be weighed a great deal alongside the turnover margin.

Arizona only forced 16 takeaways all year, fourth-worst in the league. The offense turned it over 26 times, sixth-most in the NFL.

“I was able to work with Coach Wilks, man, and he came to work every day, went hard, did his job, tried to get everybody going, tried to get everyone motivated. So I respect the man,” Golden said. “I’m glad I got to play for him.”

Offensively, the Cardinals didn’t find answers early on under offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who was fired after a Week 7 game against the Denver Broncos that dropped Arizona to 1-6.

Quarterbacks coach Byron Leftwich, who had just two years of NFL coaching experience, took over with limited success while deploying rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, who completed 55 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns to 14 interceptions.

Rosen played behind an offensive line riddled with injuries as seven players ended up on the IR by the end of the year.

For the year, Arizona finished with the second-worst passer rating for a team. And despite having running back David Johnson healthy all year, the Cardinals closed 2018 dead last in yards per rushing attempt (3.8) and rushing yards per game (83.9).

“We had constant change, constant players going in and out,” Edmonds said. “That’s not an excuse — obviously you have the next-man-up mentality. But with that being said, it’s also kind of hard finding a rhythm with this offense, finding a rhythm of just, how can we sustain drives? How can we continue to improve week in and week out?

“I know some locker rooms, it would’ve been a disaster,” the rookie added. “It speaks a lot to the leaders in this locker room that guys were still competing and guys were still trying to win football games.”

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