Cardinals will have to prove a young NFL coaching staff works

Aug 2, 2023, 4:35 PM | Updated: Aug 3, 2023, 9:34 am

There seems to be a new trend in America. Our political leaders are getting older while our football coaches are getting younger.

We are at the epicenter of the latter trend, a state where youth is not wasted on the young.

To wit:

Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham was 32 when he became the youngest head coach at a Power 5 conference. That’s only two years more than Nick Saban’s collective tenure as a head coach.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have impossibly young leadership.

Jonathan Gannon had just turned 40 when he was named head coach for the first time in his career. Defensive coordinator Nick Rallis was 29 when he got the job, the youngest man to ever hold a coordinator’s position in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing is 36, six months younger than veteran quarterback Colt McCoy.

Arizona’s top three coaches are a combined 106 years old. That’s an astonishing number given the pecking order, experience required, pay-your-dues mentality that once permeated the NFL. Together, Gannon and Rallis are younger (69) than Pete Carroll (71) and Bill Belichick (71).

By contrast, Bruce Arians was 60 when he became a first-time head coach in Arizona. And he brought along 74-year-old Tom Moore as a comfort hire, to cover for his own inexperience.

There are obvious pitfalls and potholes ahead. Rookie head coaches and young coordinators will make their share of rookie mistakes, ranging from clock management to timeouts to the lack of clarity/mental acuity in times of extreme duress. This impossibly young staff will likely cost the Cardinals a game or two in 2023, the collateral damage of growing pains.

But early returns are extremely promising. Petzing has been in the league 10 years now, and unlike the previous play caller, he knows an NFL offense is powerless without constant evolution and unpredictability.

Gannon has worked in the NFL since 2007, serving six different franchises. His energy and communication skills have been one of the early storylines of training camp, where accountability and professionalism are demanded, where practices seem to be serious business and not casual workouts. He seems very well prepared and aware of what this franchise and the moment require. He might be better suited for the big chair than he ever was as a defensive coordinator.

Granted, it’s also impossibly early. Training camp is full of windbag optimism, and we were all saying the same things about former head coach Steve Wilks during his first and only training camp in Arizona. His team was outscored 58-6 in the first two weeks of the 2018 season.

But those who know Rallis aren’t at all surprised by his meteoric rise, a young man who seemed destined to scale the ladder quickly, the guy who always takes two steps at once. Like Gannon, he is also full of energy and an excellent communicator.

Internally, he said there is no skepticism over the collective ages of the Cardinals’ top coaches because “there’s no one out of alignment.” The players seem to be enjoying the sudden presence of real structure and discipline. There is also a refreshing brand of transparency, which was a terrible flaw of the previous regime. On Wednesday, Rallis openly admitted that he and Budda Baker are “still developing a relationship.”

Rallis also acknowledged the external pressure that will follow this team when the season begins, when the games count and the results matter. He knows the good ol’ boy fraternity of NFL coaches would love to expose this trio and their collective inexperience, effectively putting whippersnappers in their place.

“We’re going to have to earn it,” Rallis said.

The hard way.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM.

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Cardinals will have to prove a young NFL coaching staff works