When the Cardinals fired Steve Wilks, they fired the wrong guy

Less than a year ago, Steve Wilks was introduced as the Cardinals' next head coach with team president Michael Bidwill (center) and general manager Steve Keim looking on. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. -- One of the most turbulent seasons in Arizona Cardinals history came to a close Monday, when team president Michael Bidwill fired first-year head coach Steve Wilks after a 3-13 season.

After a year like that, one riddled with poor decisions and even worse play, there was no doubting that changes needed to be made.

But the Cardinals made the wrong one.

They shortchanged Wilks by giving him only one season. That wasn't enough time for him to mold the roster to the specifications of a 4-3 defensive scheme. Sure, Wilks began the process of transforming the defensive front into one that would suit his system, but he had to do it with the players he inherited. He was given a front, namely the likes of Robert Nkemdiche, Rodney Gunter, Corey Peters and Olsen Pierre, that was good but not great. That's the one area that determines whether a 4-3 defense is successful. He also had to ask his top pass-rushers, Chandler Jones and Markus Golden, to change their approach from being standing rushers to having their hands in the dirt. That adjustment -- or readjustment for Jones, who began his career with his hand in the dirt -- took time.

And time is exactly what Wilks did not get.

Wilks took the Cardinals job knowing it would take at least a couple of years to get the franchise where he wanted it -- where he needed it -- to be. He saw with the Carolina Panthers, where Wilks spent six years as an assistant, how a team can develop over time.

"I was there throughout the process where we struggled early in Carolina," said Wilks of his six seasons with the Panthers. "Had to make some roster moves from free agency, did a great job in the draft. Just like we did this past year. In Year 3, then all of a sudden we're making moves, we're in the playoffs. Year 4, we're in the Super Bowl.

"So, again, it's a process, and sometimes it takes time."

The decision to let Wilks go was a clear sign that Bidwill and general manager Steve Keim wanted a quick fix.

But Bidwill need not look further than Keim to figure out why the team struggled in 2018. Keim should've been the one to pack up his office on Monday, not Wilks.

There's no debating that Keim was once a savant general manager. He made all the right moves, signed all the right guys, cut all the right players from 2013 to 2015, when the Cardinals skyrocketed to the upper hemisphere of the NFL under then-first-time head coach Bruce Arians.

But Keim has largely been the reason the Cardinals started to fall back to earth in 2016 and 2017, and why they crashed in 2018.

Before his DUI in July that led to a five-week suspension during training camp, there were a series of bad and head-scratching moves: From trying to underpay Calais Campbell and Tyrann Mathieu to signing veteran offensive lineman after veteran offensive lineman who either got hurt or didn't live up to their expectations, hoping for a quick fix that never came.

Then there were the draft mistakes. Four of his first-round picks -- Josh Rosen, Deone Bucannon, Haason Reddick and Nkemdiche -- hardly produced this year. His 2013 first-round pick, Jonathan Cooper, was traded in 2016. Keim's only first-round pick to begin living up to expectations was tackle D.J. Humphries, who's been hampered by injuries for most of his career.

And now Keim will be in charge of the first pick in the 2019 draft.

Keim's absence during training camp left Wilks on an island. Even though Wilks was able to rely on his former coach in Carolina, Ron Rivera, and other head coaches for advice, he didn't have access to his GM during the most important time for any coach, much less a first-time coach.

And that could be part of the reason Arizona entered the season with a thin offensive line and a receiving corps that, at the time, featured one known commodity in Larry Fitzgerald. It's no surprise both positions were a liability all year.

It's also no surprise that Rosen, the Cardinals' quarterback of the future whom Keim finally pulled the trigger on getting, struggled. As injuries on the offensive line mounted without much depth, Rosen found himself running for his life time and time again. And when he finally had time to throw, he was looking at an understaffed receiving corps. It didn't help Rosen or the Cardinals that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy may not have been Wilks' guy from the start. That was another experiment that turned out to be a disaster before Wilks fired McCoy after an embarrassing Week 7 blowout on national TV.

Wilks isn't completely without blame for this season.

He hired assistant coaches who may not have been fully qualified to coach at the NFL level. And his 4-3 defense struggled largely in part because it wasn't able to stop the run.

One year wasn't enough time for Wilks to find his footing as a head coach. And it was clear at times throughout the season he was a bit lost. But what else would anyone expect from a first-time head coach?

Wilks should've been brought back, at the very least with an ultimatum that if the 2018 debacle carried into 2019, he'd be let go midseason. The person who should've been fired Monday was the person who was responsible for the roster Wilks inherited, one that wasn't set up for Wilks to win in 2018.