Bruce Arians wore a large sling on his shoulder as he arrived at Steak 44 in Phoenix for a charity dinner Wednesday night.
The Cardinals coach was in high spirits, explaining that the surgery to repair his torn rotator cuff actually went better than it appeared.
“Hopefully I’ll play golf in June or July,” said Arians, who was attending the “Dinner of Champions” to benefit the Animal Rescue Foundation of Diamondbacks chief baseball analyst Tony La Russa. “The original plan was that I wouldn’t play golf until next year.”
Arians and General Manager Steve Keim feel like free agency held similar deception. While the team took some hits, it wasn’t as bad as it looked.
The Cardinals lost five defensive starters in less than two weeks—including star defensive tackle Calais Campbell and breakout safety Tony Jefferson – but Keim and Arians spoke confidently on Wednesday, believing the infrastructure is in place to replace the departed contributors.
“The one thing you can see is we’ve obviously done a good job of identifying those players,” Keim said. “When guys like Marcus Cooper are getting $5-plus million or D.J. Swearinger are getting big contracts – these are guys we took off the street that nobody else wanted. I think our personnel department does a fantastic job. Our coaches do a fantastic job of developing these players and getting them ready.”
One thing that stood out to both decision-makers during the season was a lack of passion and leadership in the locker room. That’s why they targeted veterans Karlos Dansby, Antoine Bethea and Phil Dawson to add to the fold. Arians was “ecstatic” with the free agent additions and Keim explained what the trio will bring.
“Tremendous leaders,” Keim said. “Guys who have had success in the NFL. When you look at a guy like Karlos, he came in and I had dinner with him. The next day, he came into our facility, and his enthusiasm and passion for the game – there was an energy in our building that was missing, to me, to some degree. It was exciting to have him back. He couldn’t shut up.”
While Keim has signed big names in free agency in the past, he hasn’t done so in the past two offseasons. He is wary of making a move unless he is fully confident the player will live up to the contract.
“When you look at history of free agency, the fact that it’s like the draft and it’s an inexact science, there’s a lot of mistakes that are being made,” Keim said. “When you’re getting into a situation where you are paying large contracts and paying an excess amount of money, you get into a position where if that player doesn’t have success, not only are you putting team in a bad position, you’re incurring dead money moving forward. I feel like in the last four years we’ve done a great job of (limiting dead money).”
While the defections have left voids, Arians feels like the roster is in good shape. Robert Nkemdiche and Rodney Gunter were drafted to replace Campbell. Arians didn’t want to lose Cooper, but the market was hot.
“I told you guys at the combine Coop was getting paid,” Arians said. “Everybody was saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to find a corner.’ ‘We’ve got one, dammit. Shut up.’ Now he got a hell of a contract. But Brandon (Williams) is ready. Justin (Bethel) is going to be much, much better, and the draft is loaded with corners.”
Arians certainly isn’t stressing about the state of the team. His bigger concern now is getting Larry Fitzgerald to pony up for his shoulder surgery after causing the injury while celebrating the Week 16 upset in Seattle.
Arians said a “Get well” card won’t cut it from his star receiver.
“Oh, hell no,” Arians said. “It’s going to be a “Get well” convertible. I’m just still deciding what kind.”
The Cardinals finished with a losing record in 2016, but believe they can bounce back quickly and revert to contender status next season. Free agency will be key, as several of the team’s starters are scheduled to hit the open market. The Cardinals’ front office has plenty of decisions to make as free agency beckons on March 9. We’ll break down each position as it draws near.
More free agent analysis: S I TE I ST I LB
Free agent primer: Quarterback
Cap hit of players under contract for 2017 (via OverTheCap.com): Carson Palmer ($24.13 million); Drew Stanton ($4.15 million)
Scheduled free agents: Zac Dysert (exclusive rights)
VIEW GALLERY | 14 Photos
Notable Free Agent Quarterbacks
Analysis: Palmer’s performance dipped in 2016 compared to his near-MVP campaign the season prior, but some of the statistical regression had to do with subpar play from the offensive line and wide receivers. He is one of the oldest quarterbacks in the NFL, but Palmer played well down the stretch and his arm strength didn’t noticeably decrease, which gives hope for 2017.
There was some anxiety as Palmer contemplated retirement earlier this offseason, but he’s back and hoping to lead the Cardinals on another playoff run. The team has gone 35-17-1 in Palmer’s tenure as the starting quarterback, and while the window is closing, he is the clear-cut best option at quarterback for 2017.
Stanton will enter the final year of his contract as the stable backup option in case of injury. He went 1-0 as a starter last season, helping the Cardinals beat the 49ers when Palmer was out with a concussion. Dysert’s re-signing is a formality and he will return in hopes of securing a roster spot.
The Cardinals still need a quarterback of the future, but free agency almost certainly will not be the avenue to find one. Between Palmer and Stanton, there is more than $28 million of cap money already tied up at the position, and it’s not tenable to add another high-priced veteran to the mix.
The draft is the only realistic option if the Cardinals want to add a player to possibly replace Palmer in 2018.
This time of year emphasizes balancing act for Cardinals GM
Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim talks with safety Tyrann Mathieu before a game.
No talk of windows resonates, because in the end, Steve Keim has every intention of the Cardinals competing for a postseason spot each year.
That doesn’t mean the general manager is unaware of the team’s circumstances as they build toward 2017.
The quarterback and top wide receiver both considered retirement, however briefly. The coach too is closer to the end of his career as well – he’s more than once mentioned how he and the QB will ride off into the sunset together.
But as Keim and all the Cardinals’ front office and coaches head to Indianapolis this week for the annual Scouting combine, with free agency waiting just on the other side, there is a thin line to be walked. Keim, not that much older than Carson Palmer, is nowhere near the end of his career. There is a short-term future to consider, but also a long-term view. There is a need to push for a deep playoff run, the one the Cardinals expected to have in 2016, but a need to avoid doing so at the cost of 2018 and beyond.
Walking that tightrope “is kind of an instinct,” Keim said. “It’s so simplistic in my mind.”
The biggest part comes this time of year, readjusting the roster with new contracts for both current Cardinals and those potentially to arrive as free agents. The former has brought with it difficult choices. Linebacker Chandler Jones already has a franchise tag. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson are wanted back, but most believe both players will be among the top – if not the top – available players at their position in free agency.
Keim says with every player, he has that simple methodology.
“For example, do I feel like we can live without Tyrann Mathieu long-term?” Keim said. “If I think we can, then we can take a chance and move on from him. But if he is an essential piece to this puzzle, and is a key piece to this moving forward, then we have to do what we can to keep him.”
Keim doesn’t specifically talk about any free agents to be, including Campbell and Jefferson. But he notes that it can be difficult to fight the emotional attachment a franchise has built with a player against the money a player might seek.
The salary cap is a big part of it – there is only so much to go around. Teams are savvy enough to make that work in a single year of course, but again, at what cost? When Keim took his post in 2013, one of his goals was to clear out the dead cap space the team had accrued. Now, the Cardinals usually have little dead cap money in a given season.
“You can’t mortgage the future to the point where, when I look in the mirror saying to myself, ‘Is this the right thing (financially) health-wise long-term for the organization?” Keim said. “Meaning, am I going to be sitting here in two years wishing we didn’t make this deal because it came crashing down?’
“Now all of a sudden, the player isn’t the player he once was and we have incurred a lot of dead money and it’s affecting us moving forward for a long time. We just can’t put ourselves in that predicament. As hard as some of these decisions are to make, you have to be true to yourself and to the organization, first and foremost.”
It makes a difference. No one will argue the Cardinals are better off without, for example, Campbell, if he were to leave. This is exactly the time of year that underscores the importance of the draft – not only because the top players are working out in Indy, but also because they are needed to replace high-priced free agents that leave.
“You have to develop your own players, you have to keep some guys on lower salaries, you have to pay your core players,” Keim said. “And you know what, quite frankly, we have to do a better job. I’m proud of a lot of our draft picks, but I can also tell you where we have made mistakes. That’s what the great challenge is.”