TEMPE, Ariz. — Regardless of whether Steve Wilks can lead the Arizona Cardinals to a win in their season finale at Seattle, which would prevent tying the team’s worst record for the second time since 1959, the organization will have a decision to make on Sunday night or Monday morning.
Should it fire Wilks?
According to sources for ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Cardinals are planning to part ways with him.
There are more than enough reasons to support the case to move on from Wilks after one disastrous season, but there are also plenty of reasons to keep him.
One major factor in the Cardinals’ decision will be quarterback Josh Rosen; Arizona traded up five spots to draft him 10th overall this year. There’s no more valuable player on the roster than Rosen, and his progress will be vital to the team’s improvement and long-term success. Any move Arizona makes will have to be made with Rosen at the forefront of its thinking.
With that in mind, let’s look at the case for and against firing the Cardinals’ first-year coach:
Fire him: This one is easy. The Cardinals are expected to finish 3-13, which would tie their worst record since 1959.
Their offense is ranked last in yards per game and points per game.
Wilks let the offense continue down a path of no return. He allowed former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to join his staff, a decision that cost the Cardinals dearly in the first seven games before Wilks fired McCoy and promoted Byron Leftwich.
Firing Wilks could be a signal that the Cardinals aren’t pleased with the progress Rosen has made under Wilks’ guidance. Rosen has not thrown for more than 252 yards in a game, has once completed more than 65 percent of his passes and has been sacked 39 times. While he hasn’t shown noticeable signs of growth, Rosen also hasn’t regressed. He has basically just tried to stay healthy behind a patchwork offensive line that has forced him to run for his safety often.
The defense, of which Wilks is supposed to be a master, is ranked in the bottom half in yards allowed per game and in the bottom third of points allowed per game. The run defense has given up more than 100 yards in 13 of 15 games and more than 200 in the past two. At one point, defensive players openly complained that their teammates weren’t doing what they were coached to do in games.
Wilks was responsible for his staff, so when the season went south, issues with the assistants fell on Wilks. In the “buck stops here” nature of the NFL, there’s ultimately one person upon whom the results rest: the head coach. If the Cardinals feel like the future can’t be turned around quickly, then Wilks’ time in Arizona will end after one season.
Keep him: While this season was a disaster nearly from the start, plenty went wrong that Wilks can’t be faulted for. Sure, if a repeat of 2018 happens in 2019, the Cardinals should fire him midseason.
But there are several reasons why he should get a chance to start fresh next year.
First, general manager Steve Keim was suspended for five weeks after being charged with extreme DUI, and his suspension came during training camp. Training camp is one of the most crucial times for a coach, especially a first-year head coach, to have his GM. That meant the two weren’t able to have daily discussions about the roster, which meant they weren’t necessarily able to form the roster to Wilks’ tendencies. That wasn’t Wilks’ fault. It takes more than one offseason for a new head coach, especially one who’s transitioning a defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3, to build the roster he wants. And there’s no better time to do it than in training camp.
McCoy’s playcalling was predictable and boring, two of the main reasons for the lack of offensive success in the Cardinals’ first seven games. The Cardinals fired McCoy after a 45-10 Week 7 blowout loss to the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football. McCoy, whom the Cardinals interviewed for the head-coaching position in 2013, might not have been Wilks’ No. 1 choice to be his offensive coordinator. After shrinking a significant portion of the playbook following McCoy’s departure, the Cardinals’ offense found a brief rebirth with Leftwich, who has been coaching and mentoring Rosen since he was drafted in April. It’d be intriguing to see what kind of offensive scheme and how much progress Leftwich can make with Rosen and an entire offseason to work at it. Remember, Leftwich comes from the Bruce Arians’ school of playcalling.
Giving Rosen stability with a coaching staff could be critical for his immediate success. Keeping him with Leftwich for another season will give Rosen a chance to spend the offseason learning Leftwich’s system and working with a single voice. Having Leftwich continue to coach him through the ups and downs of an NFL defense, as opposed to having a new coach come in and have to start from scratch, could be the difference between Rosen making that expected improvement between his rookie season and Year 2, and not.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Cardinals suffered a number of injuries this season, including to four of their five projected starting offensive linemen. The fifth, right tackle Andre Smith, was released in Week 12. Heading into the final week of the season, several Cardinals are on injured reserve, including wide receiver Christian Kirk, defensive linemen Robert Nkemdiche and Olsen Pierre and starting linebacker Josh Bynes. Not having the proper depth isn’t necessarily on Wilks. That’s a front-office issue, which falls on Keim. Heading into the regular season, the Cardinals had noticeable depth issues on both the offensive line and at wide receiver.
And then there’s this: It will cost team president Michael Bidwill a significant amount of money to clean house and rehire a new coach and a new staff. Since coaches’ contracts are guaranteed, paying out their salaries for their two-, three- or four-year contracts could cost upward of $20 million — maybe as much as $30 million. Bidwill will have to pay for another new staff, which could be another $20 million to $30 million. That’s a lot of money for a team to pay.