Can the Cardinals tank and build culture at the same time?

Sep 1, 2023, 12:26 PM

Kyler Murray, Jonathan Gannon introductory press conference...

Quarterback Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals leaves a press conference introducing Jonathan Gannon as the new head coach at Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center on February 16, 2023 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

Projections do not favor the Arizona Cardinals as they enter a new leadership era.

Some sportsbooks have the Cardinals as underdogs in every one of their games on the 2023 schedule. The on-paper roster talent left in the wake of the Steve Keim-Kliff Kingsbury era and the lack of upgrades this summer do not provide many reasons for optimism about a turnaround, even if Jonathan Gannon’s coaching chops shine.

Arizona is trying to thread a dangerous needle of resetting the culture while simultaneously re-arming their barren cupboard with assets: draft picks chief among them.

It was clear in general manager Monti Ossenfort’s first NFL Draft that he’s not swinging for the fences right now. Everything points to the 2024 draft and the top quarterback prospect in a decade being part of it as the key moment to begin turning the franchise’s fortunes.

How do you point to next year’s offseason while laying out a roster that because of past malpractice doesn’t appear to be competitive beyond a few quality starters?

Let’s see if Arizona Sports’ Cardinals reporter Tyler Drake and editor Kevin Zimmerman can talk this out.

Are the Arizona Cardinals tanking?

Kevin Zimmerman: Alright, so let’s first ask this basic and fundamental question, Tyler: Are the Cardinals tanking?

Mina Kimes on the Pablo Torre Finds Out podcast said “this might be one of the most egregious tanks I’ve ever seen.” There is evidence because of how Ossenfort attacked his first draft, going for volume over potential win-now star players with the No. 3 pick. There are questions of if it will work, for sure.

To be clear: I think whatever the Cardinals are doing right now is absolutely needed. Tear the thing down.

But how does head coach Jonathan Gannon sell his locker room on tanking not being the case? Name me one offseason signing that is decent money spent to upgrade the talent outside of linebacker Kyzir White.

NFL players are smart and can judge the talent of their peers every practice. Sure they will buy in now. But what about six rough games in? Ten? Seventeen?

Can you tell me the team isn’t tanking? The only way you can’t is if the Cardinals are piling up quality wins early on this season. Injuries are going to hit, and that’s where the depth-less roster will take a tailspin in a hurry.

Drake: It certainly appears that way, KZ.

And that’s OK given how this roster is currently constructed and where this team needs to get to.

From a roster standpoint, this team is filled with young players looking to make a name for themselves or veterans trying to turn their careers around. Obviously, everyone plays to win the game. It’s never fun to lose — and potentially lose a lot. But just because wins might be at a premium, doesn’t mean players can’t put something worthwhile on the tape.

Now for the other side of things.

Ex-GM Steve Keim did a number on this team before his departure for health-related reasons in a disaster of a season. Former head coach Kliff Kingsbury deserves a lot of blame for what happened in 2022, but for the sake of the tanking argument, let’s keep it front office only for now.

Instead of taking a step back and re-evaluating the problems, Keim opted for patchwork solutions roster-wise, selling off picks in the process.

A majority of those said moves did little to move the needle then and offer nothing in the future for the franchise.

Ossenfort has been left to pick up the pieces of the old regime, and like it or not, it starts with tearing down what’s leftover and clean-slating things.

There’s still plenty of work to be done, too, which is why I think the GM isn’t done wheeling and dealing. For example, tight end Zach Ertz as a potential trade deadline casualty would not surprise me at this point.

What kind of moves could you see coming down the wire moving forward?

Zimmerman: I’m seeing two types of moves right now. The first are moves to build draft picks, even late ones. That’s obvious.

A few options: Even with Josh Jones traded, there is offensive tackle depth with D.J. Humphries, Kelvin Beachum and Paris Johnson Jr. There is quality depth in the tight end room, too.

The other type of moves — trades or straight cuts — are about culture. The Colt McCoy decision I don’t think was anything about McCoy not buying in. Gannon and Ossenfort need to be ice-cold about letting go of players if they aren’t buying in and working hard. But they also have to move on from guys like McCoy, who maybe wasn’t performing well. That’s the nature of this.

Related to McCoy, the Josh Dobbs acquisition is indeed a roster upgrade with a younger quarterback. That is not tanking, but it’s also not costly in picks or money terms. Roster turnover to a McCoy-for-Dobbs degree isn’t going to be program-altering.

One thing I will say is the trading to acquire the Houston Texans’ 2024 first-round pick was massively, massively important to thread this needle of preparing for the next draft while also trying to win.

Because if Dobbs or Clayton Tune really do surprise, or if Kyler Murray rushes back with an attempt at pulling this squad out of the mud, the Cardinals might as well have a backup option (Houston being very bad) to land a high pick.

Speaking of which: How do you see Murray’s potential return fitting into this tanking versus culture-building thing?

Drake: Here is my overarching thought when it comes to Murray and 2023: He has to play.

Regardless of potentially adding a few extra wins in a season of resetting, Arizona has to see what the QB has to offer on the football field following his season-ending knee injury. And I’m sure Murray would like to prove doubters wrong sooner rather than later.

The Cardinals have two first-round picks in a draft that will likely feature projected No. 1 prospect and USC signal caller Caleb Williams, causing a whole lot of speculation as to whether or not Arizona is headed toward more QB turnover.

Ossenfort would be negligent not to at least look at the idea of adding what many believe is a generational-tyle talent, so every piece of information and game tape is going to valuable moving forward.

Zimmerman: I 100% co-sign that Murray should play as soon as the Cardinals are sure that knee is 120% recovered. Whether you’re trading him or keeping him.

And here’s a few crazy hot takes: It would be fantastic if Murray returned, played like the No. 1 pick he was and puts the Cardinals in a position where his stock as a top-15 QB is back.

It would be even more fantastic if the Cardinals lost during that time and had a chance to draft Williams out of USC. If they get a historically incredible haul for Williams, I am absolutely all for keeping Murray and working with the tons of draft capital they could receive for Williams.

Here’s a kicker that I’m guessing will get me some explicit replies: I’m not sure it’d be so bad if Arizona drafted Williams alongside Murray to take their time in making a decision about which one is their franchise quarterback. Options are good.

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Can the Cardinals tank and build culture at the same time?