Cardinals reward mediocrity by giving extensions to Kliff Kingsbury, Steve Keim | Opinion

Kent Somers
Arizona Republic

Those hot seats general manager Steve Keim and coach Kliff Kingsbury supposedly were on after the Cardinals lost four of their last five regular-season games and were embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs?

Turns out they weren't even room temperature.

Both received contract extensions through 2027, the team announced Wednesday morning. They are moves that produced a lot of questions, beginning with “Huh?” and “Why?”

Neither Keim, whose contract had one year remaining, nor Kingsbury, who had two years left, has done enough to merit new deals. No one who watched the Cardinals suffer another collapse in December thought: "You know what, owner Michael Bidwill should lock these guys up for six more years."

Except, of course, Michael Bidwill.

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August 13, 2021; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Cardinals' president Michael Bidwill (L) and general manager Steve Keim come onto the field before a game against the Cowboys at the State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

He changed his title from team president to owner a year or so ago, and the extensions for Keim and Kingsbury are another way for him to say, “This is my damn team.”

Bidwill didn’t ignore the noise surrounding his team. The complaints about Keim’s drafts and free-agent signings. The criticisms of Kingsbury overseeing a second-half collapse for a third consecutive season. The minimal progress made by quarterback Kyler Murray in three seasons.

No, Bidwill heard the noise, and responded with noise of his own: lengthy extensions for men who didn’t deserve them. Not yet, or maybe never.

Not that Keim and Kingsbury deserved to be fired. There has been steady improvement the last three seasons, going from five to eight to 11 wins and a playoff berth for the first time in six years.

Keim, who has been with the franchise 23 years, including nine as general manager, hit on some trades, acquiring receiver DeAndre Hopkins and center Rodney Hudson. His drafting moderately improved, although the wait continues for his last two first-round picks, linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins to make an impact.

Kingsbury, who had never coached in the NFL before Arizona hired him, has learned on the job and grown as a coach.

But there hasn’t been enough improvement to warrant to keeping both under contract for six seasons.

The Cardinals like to trumpet their gradual improvement since 2018. I can’t blame them for that since it’s the best thing they have to sell.

But they also had nowhere to go but up after 2018. Some horrendous drafts by Keim contributed to the Cardinals having a historically bad roster in 2018 when they went 3-13. Coach Steve Wilks paid the price by being fired after only one season, and Keim was given the rare opportunity to resurrect the Cardinals for a second time.

It was a prudent move at the time, because some deft personnel moves by Keim contributed to the Cardinals compiling a 34-14 record his first three years as general manager.

Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill and General Manager Steve Keim introduce new head coach Kliff Kingsbury during a news conference on Jan. 9, 2019, at the Cardinals Training Facility in Tempe, Ariz.

Bidwill and Keim made an out-of-the-box hire in Kingsbury, who had been fired after six seasons at Texas Tech, his alma mater. It was going to take time for Kingsbury to grow into the job, to find out what works in the NFL and what doesn't. And he was going to discover that beginning with a team that won three games the season prior.

At times, Kingsbury has come close to validating the move. The Cardinals won their first seven games this year and were 10-2 in early December.

Then, they fell apart. Again. And it was a reminder that sometimes good things come in boxes, such as football coaches who know how to win in December and January.

Bidwill, Keim and Kingsbury didn’t immediately respond to interview requests on Wednesday. Keim and Kingsbury met with reporters at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Tuesday, and not a word was said about their contract extensions.

They probably were sworn to secrecy. They probably couldn’t believe their good fortune.

Not many general managers of teams with one playoff appearance in six years receive extensions. Not many coaches whose teams lost five of their last seven games in three consecutive seasons receive extensions.

Keim and Kingsbury must have been like siblings on Christmas morning. “You got a bike? Me, too!”

You know who didn’t get a bike? At least not yet? Kyler Murray, the quarterback Keim and Kingsbury drafted No. 1 overall in 2019.

If those guys deserve extensions because the Cardinals improved from three wins in 2018 to 11 in 2021, so does Murray.

And if I’m Murray, I’m calling my agent, Erik Burkhardt, who also represents Kingsbury, and asking why one of his clients in Arizona has a new deal and the other one doesn’t. At least not yet.

Now that we know Keim and Kingsbury aren’t going anywhere soon, full attention turns to a possible extension for Murray, who is three years into a five-year deal, counting a team option for 2023.

Does Bidwill set a higher bar for Murray than he did for Keim and Kingsbury? Or do he and the Cardinals want to see more from Murray, as reported on Super Bowl Sunday?

The better option for Bidwill would have been to put off a decision on all three for a year. To see if Keim can address weaknesses, if Kingsbury can coach a team after Thanksgiving, if Murray can improve as a quarterback and a leader, if this group can give you your first playoff victory since the 2015 season.

Then dole out extensions accordingly, or not.

The extensions announced Wednesday reward mediocrity, and that’s not how championships are won.