After more arrests, questions about Cardinals’ culture begin to swirl
The Cardinals are not Barry Switzer’s Cowboys. They’re no longer the Good Ship Lollipop. But they’re fast gaining a reputation in the NFL.
This offseason, three players of relative importance and questionable character have been arrested and released: former first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche, offensive lineman Desmond Harrison and defensive lineman Darius Philon.
Meanwhile, another high-ranking member of the front office was arrested on DUI charges. Last year, it was general manager Steve Keim. This time, it was Ron Minegar, the team’s top business executive, his sodden mugshot splattered across the internet.
Maybe there is a fraying strand connecting all of these incidents: A GM desperate to repair breached trenches on both sides of the ball, taking chances on red-flag talent; while working next to a NFL owner in charge of the player conduct policy, a former federal prosecutor with no room to play around. Something has to give.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury downplayed any such concerns on Monday.
“My experience here has been incredible,” he said. “I show up every day honored and inspired to be here.”
Not that long ago, a loose, boozy culture existed under the “No Risk it, No Biscuit” philosophy of Bruce Arians. Keim’s subsequent arrest for DUI signaled the end of an era, challenging Michael Bidwill to punish Keim without having to fire Keim. And now Minegar has resuscitated a bad look, that Arizona’s front office is asleep at the wheel. Or worse.
As for the players?
Nkemdiche was a risk from the moment he was drafted, back when the Cardinals were at peak arrogance, when they believed they could absorb a problem child in a locker room. They had Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson and a culture that had already helped reform Tyrann Mathieu.
While Philon didn’t have a rap sheet, Harrison was another tangible, obvious gamble. The Cardinals snagged him off the waiver wire, after the second-year tackle missed meetings and other various commitments in Cleveland. They gambled on an erratic player who went undrafted because of multiple suspensions at the University of Texas. But the risks and the losses are mounting.
The Cardinals have handled all of these incidents with swiftness and severity. Their admonishment of Minegar was astounding, given his tenure and status in the organization. But the Cardinals are in a difficult position. They can’t cut players who are first-time offenders while issuing second chances for team executives.
This is dangerous stuff, and how perceptions can tear apart a team trying to fly under a rookie quarterback and a first-year head coach.
The loss of Philon hurts the team on the field, as well. The Cardinals were gashed by opposing running backs in 2018, a trend that continued in the first preseason game. There is an internal belief that the defensive coaching has greatly improved from top to bottom. An incoming surge of new players will be claimed off waivers, where the Cardinals are ready to poach the best of any and all NFL leftovers.
There is no reason to fear that the talent level has been compromised beyond repair. Not yet anyway.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” defensive back D.J. Swearinger said Monday of his team’s struggles upfront. “But we’re working. We’re grinding. And we will stop the run this year.”
Still, there are potential problems inside the locker room, where the lines of authority have been blurred and muted. The head coach is more like an offensive coordinator, always deferring to Keim and the organization. He did it again when asked about Philon on Monday. He just doesn’t carry the voice or power base that most NFL head coaches enjoy and abuse. Mostly because Kingsbury won’t pretend or power trip on and among players old enough to be his peers.
Most players seem to cherish Kingsbury’s chill demeanor, but there is no commanding voice like Arians leading the way. And you wonder what that might mean to the future of this football team in 2019.
Not if things go well. When things get sticky.
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Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.