How the Cardinals went from No. 1 pick to No. 1 seed: Big bets on Kliff, Kyler and culture

  • ESPN staff writer
  • Previously a college football reporter for CBSSports.com
  • University of Florida graduate

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was about to hit the practice field for his daily walk when a top lieutenant, Mike Disner, entered his office with an unexpected gift. Keim held up a tan-and-silver-rimmed frame with three words displayed: “Trust. Your. Gut.”

Disner, the Cardinals’ former director of football administration and now a Detroit Lions vice president, knew Keim became compromised when he forced or overanalyzed personnel decisions but could be unstoppable when he swung hard and followed instincts. That was the case when Keim — who started as a Cardinals scout in 1999 and became GM in 2013 — traded for an aging Carson Palmer in his first year on the job, a decision that led to a 29-9 regular-season record when Palmer started for coach Bruce Arians in their first three years together. Keim now displays the frame on a mantle in his office, a reminder he definitely needed in late 2018.

Keim knew then, in the short term, what he had to do: move on from coach Steve Wilks after a 3-13 season, a decision in conjunction with ownership and fueled by a desire to improve on offense. Firing a coach after one year was hard enough. What Keim did over the next four months would shake him at his core. He would not only hire Kliff Kingsbury, a fired college coach with a 35-40 record at Texas Tech, but also task him with making Kyler Murray, the smallest NFL quarterback since Doug Flutie, a viable starter after making a similar one-and-done decision at QB.

“Looking back at it now — hiring a fired college head coach, taking 5-foot-10 quarterback with the first pick — you should be in a straightjacket,” Keim said. “But it’s a challenging business. If you don’t take the risk, I don’t think you’ll ever have the ultimate amount of success.”

Risk, meet 10-2. In less than three years, the Cardinals have gone from worst to first entering their Monday Night Football clash with the Los Angeles Rams, who have long been a study for NFL risk tolerance. And it feels like the Cardinals are just arriving to the party with their own favors.

Rams coach Sean McVay already had concocted a Super Bowl cocktail the same year Keim and Arizona owner Michael Bidwill were resetting standards after a three-win season. Los Angeles’ willingness to part with high draft picks to land elite players still shocks many around the league. And while the Rams entered the year as a perennial contender, Arizona still had to sell its fan base on Kingsbury, who went 13-18-1 through his first two years. The game’s best division will leave the tentative behind, so Arizona embraced its paradox: turning up the heat in the desert.

We took a closer look at how Keim and the Cardinals took some massive swings in their roster construction, betting big on Murray and Kingsbury and adding key players through free agency and the draft — and how it’s all working to plan. Here’s how Arizona built the top team in the NFL through an unconventional strategy.

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