Brandon Williams’ situation is impossible, but unavoidable
TEMPE, Ariz. — Brandon Williams never should have been in this position: a rookie cornerback starting on Week 1 of the NFL season. That’s not a knock on Williams; it’s a logical conclusion.
You don’t throw a rookie with less than one year of experience at the position into such a critical role. Not on this otherwise (supposedly) Super-Bowl ready team. Not against a Bill Belichick coached offense. It’s too much to ask and it doesn’t put the player in the best position to succeed — a mantra coaches always repeat when discussing player usage.
Williams was out there anyway on Sunday against the New England Patriots, but that’s not a knock on Cardinals coach Bruce Arians either — or defensive coordinator James Bettcher and secondary assistants Nick Rapone, Kevin Ross and Mike Chiurco. The Cardinals simply don’t have a choice.
When Arizona signed Justin Bethel to a three-year, $15 million extension in December that included $9 million in guaranteed money, they did so with purpose. Bethel was expected to start opposite Patrick Peterson (especially after Jerraud Powers departed in free agency).
Bethel was supposed to be ready for the start of training camp following offseason foot surgery, but a setback landed him on the PUP list and slowed his progress. He was still hurt on Sunday, and it showed in his subpar special teams play.
“Justin has to decide he’s going to play with that foot,” Arians said Monday. “He was just an average spectator on special teams; missed two tackles. If he’s going to play he needs to play better or he shouldn’t play.”
Nobody can predict injuries, but in the event that Bethel didn’t progress as much as expected at playing the position, the Cardinals thought they had signed insurance policies in veterans Alan Ball and Mike Jenkins. Instead, Ball sustained a quadriceps injury a few days after signing with the club on Aug. 4 and the Cardinals reached an injury settlement with him at the end of August. Two days before that settlement, Arians announced that Jenkins was lost for the season with a torn right ACL suffered in a preseason game against the Texans.
In a perfect world, Williams would be a rotation player sitting in the No. 4 or No. 5 cornerback position, but the injury-ravaged NFL is far from perfect, and so was Williams on Sunday.
Both of New England’s touchdowns came as a direct result of Williams’ mistakes. Patriots receiver Chris Hogan beat Williams off the line of scrimmage and Williams appeared to look back for help from a safety that never came. Hogan caught the ball and ran into the end zone uncontested for a 37-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
“Totally busted coverage,” Arians said. “The guy didn’t beat him for a touchdown. He beat himself because he missed the check. He was in roll coverage, they went in motion, he had him man to man and he stayed in roll coverage. That was an easy one to correct.”
On the first drive of the third quarter, Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo hooked up with receiver Malcolm Mitchell on a 28-yard pass play on third-and-7 that set up first-and-goal from the Arizona 8-yard line and led to New England’s other TD.
“You can play well, as Brandon played well a majority of the plays, but there were two or three plays that he made critical errors,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said on the Doug and Wolf show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM on Monday morning. “There were some mistakes that he made that were very, very critical to the game that he’s got to clean up and improve on.”
Neither Bethel nor Williams were available in the Cardinals locker room on Monday, but if Bethel returns to health and re-earns his coach’s trust, Williams may be able to slide into a more suitable No. 3 role. There is also the chance that newly acquired Marcus Cooper could play a role when he picks up the defense.
In the meantime, Arians insists he isn’t worried about Williams’ mental state.
“Brandon, other than probably three plays, played pretty solid,” Arians said. “I don’t think you have to worry about Brandon’s confidence.”