Malcolm Butler’s absence adds more doubt around Cardinals defense
In Arizona, we deem the following unacceptable in the upcoming NFL season: Bubble screens. Missing the playoffs. Stagnant offense. Bad body language. Pre-snap penalties. Kliff Kingsbury praising the other team’s gameplan. The sound of Patrick Peterson gloating all the way from Minnesota.
The latter is a very recent concern.
The Cardinals officially placed Malcolm Butler on the retired list on Tuesday. Details are scant. Those who know are extremely tight-lipped. The consequences are obvious.
For years, our NFL franchise scoured for a quality cornerback opposite Peterson. Now, they have neither and are dangerously thin at the position, in quality and quantity.
Butler was a household name, a former Super Bowl hero who produced one of the greatest clutch plays in NFL history. He intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line with a championship hanging in the balance. The game was held in our backyard, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. Butler felt very familiar, right down to the No. 21 he briefly wore in his chest. No player has ever inflicted more pain on Seahawks fans, partly why we all felt so reassured when he signed with the Cardinals.
The developments are shocking, but they only feel swift. Truth is, Butler has been gone from the team for over a week. His retirement is just another unexpected development on a defense full of preseason weirdness. To wit:
General manager Steve Keim told returning captain Jordan Hicks he could not compete for a starting job, instead awarding it to rookie Zaven Collins. Can you imagine how many eyes will roll inside the locker room when Hicks is asked to play a huge role in 2021?
Isaiah Simmons continued to struggle mightily at inside linebacker only to be working with the safeties during a recent practice. Chandler Jones requested a trade, returned to camp, was injured during practice and has yet to return. J.J. Watt seemed to scoff at the bubble wrap treatment surrounding his hamstring injury, but the Valley has yet to see him play a snap of competitive football with the Cardinals.
As for the depleted cornerback room? Surely, additional players will be arriving in Arizona. They will hail from a giant pile of leftovers, players who were recently cut by their previous teams. None will be capable of playing shutdown cornerback in the NFL.
That leaves Byron Murphy Jr., one of the most improved players on the team. But can he really defend elite NFL receivers?
Fourth-round pick Marco Wilson has shined in two preseason games, and is playing a position made for instant impact, where a young buck can be assigned to cover a certain wide receiver, taking all mental calculus out of the equation. But can you really trust the limited snaps Wilson has played in the preseason? Can he hold up for the duration of a real NFL game?
Meanwhile, Robert Alford’s next regular season will be his first in three seasons with the Cardinals while Tay Gowan seemed relieved just to make the roster.
Butler’s retirement is the first groundswell of real adversity in Arizona. There will be plenty more. The defense might feature a rookie middle linebacker, a rookie cornerback and a former No. 8 overall pick who played in only 34% of the defensive snaps in 2020.
They will face four elite wide receivers and two top-shelf running backs in the first two weeks of the regular season. Against the Titans and Vikings, they will encounter Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, A.J. Brown, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, in a year when non-divisional wins are paramount.
What could possibly go wrong?
In the end, Butler’s retirement underscores the high-stakes tightrope act facing the 2021 Cardinals, an entire team on the hot seat. Where few have a clue how they will actually look when the lights go on, enemies abound and stuff gets real in a hurry.