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Dan Bickley

Vance Joseph’s defense continues to cost Cardinals in win column

Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph of the Arizona Cardinals watches from the sidelines during the NFL preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargersat State Farm Stadium on August 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Chargers 17-13. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Criticism is nothing new to Vance Joseph. He heard it all in Denver, where he was fired after two years as head coach, a failure and convenient scapegoat for a general manager who had left team precariously short on talent.

And here we go again.

Joseph is back on a hot seat after the Cardinals’ 36-26 loss to the 49ers Sunday in Santa Clara, the third time this season that his defense has coughed up a fourth-quarter lead. Had Joseph’s unit succeeded in closing down the Lions, Buccaneers and 49ers, the Cardinals would be 6-5 at the moment, in playoff contention.

Instead, Cardinals fans are wondering if Joseph is the encore to Mike McCoy, an underwhelming coordinator hired by Steve Keim to help out his rookie head coach on the other side of the ball. The comparisons are frightening.

Joseph’s secondary is too often out of place, looking for help, lost in the throes of confusion. His defense can’t stop tight ends or get off the field on third down. On a pivotal play against the 49ers, Cardinals fans watched in horror as Chandler Jones fell down trying to cover a streaking running back while teammates blitzed the 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Let’s pause for a moment.

The result of the play would’ve been exactly the same had Jones rushed the quarterback or dropped back in coverage. Either way, it would’ve been a touchdown, 49ers. It was the perfect play against a defense that had nobody protecting the middle of the field.

But the problem is philosophical. Jones is one of the best sack specialists in the NFL. Wasting him in pass coverage is not worth the deception or surprise. It’s derelict strategy, especially with the game on the line. And it speaks to a larger problem.

Professional coaches lose their authority and their impact in the locker room for two major reasons. They advocate a dead-end strategy that yields little success and inspires no one. Or they ask players to do things that put them at a disadvantage. Or ask for things a player can’t do.

That will cause eyes to roll behind a coach’s head. Eventually, that will turn to silent mutiny and half-baked effort. And any defensive coordinator that deploys Jones in high-leverage pass coverage assignments deserves to be criticized.

There are five games remaining in 2019, and it’s clear that Kingsbury is getting his first real taste of NFL injustice. He was effectively robbed by officials in that loss to Tampa. Another victory was squandered in northern California, and Kingsbury has been victimized by his defense on multiple occasions, a defense he’s delegated completely to Joseph.

In some ways, the defensive coordinator will be a test of new-regime loyalty. There was a time when Kingsbury seemed deeply appreciative of Joseph, who is affable, a strong communicator and posed no threat of dissent or undermining to the head coach.

Kingsbury has publicly thanked Joseph for serving as a sounding board early in his Arizona tenure, for answering the dumb questions that any first-year NFL head coach might have behind closed doors. Meanwhile, as late as mid-October, Joseph described his relationship with Kingsbury as “the perfect marriage.”

That was before the four-game losing streak. Before late touchdowns from the Buccaneers and the 49ers darkened the season and the narrative, overshadowing Kingsbury’s headset contributions in the past two games.

Remember, it was Kingsbury who was questioned for his strategy following earlier losses against the Saints and 49ers. The head coach responded brilliantly, with fire and innovation, only to have his defense fail him.

We’ll see what it means in the offseason. The more Kingsbury succeeds, the more power he attains, the more he will begin to bring in his own guys, handcrafting his own coaching staff. He might have that chance with his defensive coordinator in the offseason, if he pushes the issue.

After all, Kingsbury deserves better. He’s earning more autonomy. And chances are, the general manager who could use a scapegoat on defense. Along with a lot more talent.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier