Now in full reset mode, Cardinals need new brain trust that meshes with Kyler Murray

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals will be starting from scratch this offseason in the front office and on the sideline.

They fired head coach Kliff Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim stepped away from the team to focus on his health Monday -- just 10 months after both signed contract extensions -- leaving Arizona with voids at two important positions.

These are major moves for an organization that has had a chaotic year full of staff turnover, contract issues and underperforming play.

Kingsbury was let go after compiling a 28-38-1 record in four seasons. Arizona was 10-22-1 at home under Kingsbury and suffered repeated late-season swoons. It was 10-24 in regular-season games in November or later since 2019. Arizona was also bad in prime time under Kingsbury, going 3-9.

Now the Cardinals are searching to hire a new coach and general manager as well as rebuild a roster with 32 scheduled free agents.

Here’s a look at how the Cardinals got here and some of the biggest questions they face:

Why did the Cardinals fire Kingsbury?

The Cardinals had year-over-year improvement during Kingsbury’s first three seasons in Arizona. But Kingsbury, who went 35-40 in six seasons at Texas Tech before he came to the NFL, couldn’t put together a full season of success in Arizona. In 2020 and '21, Arizona wasted good starts -- including a 10-2 mark in 2021 -- with late-season collapses. He made the playoffs once but Arizona was blown out by the Rams a year ago in a wild-card game.

His tenure was capped by a disappointing 4-13 record in a season full of injuries, suspensions and off-field drama and topped by the Cardinals not performing anywhere near their expectations. Some of Kingsbury’s key relationships inside the building also soured throughout the year. His deteriorating relationship with quarterback Kyler Murray, who is recovering from an ACL tear, played a major role in Arizona’s struggles this season.

Kingsbury’s teams in Arizona weren’t always disciplined. They’ve had the second-most penalties overall in his four years and the most accepted offensive penalties since 2019.

What does Keim's departure mean?

The 10-year general manager spent the final weeks of this season on a medical leave of absence. But even before that, he wasn’t around the facility much, multiple sources told ESPN earlier this season.

The roster he put together in 2022 lacked depth at key positions, such as offensive line, and his recent drafts have left the Cardinals without the kinds of playmakers Murray needs. After picking Murray first overall in 2019, Keim drafted two inside linebackers in the next two drafts -- much to Murray’s chagrin. Keim traded Arizona’s first-round pick in 2022 to the Baltimore Ravens for wide receiver Marquise Brown, a move that was made, in part, to placate Murray. The Cardinals were decimated by injuries this season but never seemed to have the type of depth needed to sustain their competitiveness. And that fell on Keim.

What went wrong in 2022?

Basically everything. Starting with Murray scrubbing his Instagram of all Cardinals-related posts, the past 11 months have been nothing short of chaotic. Kingsbury couldn't maintain the type of control needed to keep the off-field drama from becoming a distraction. Murray’s contract negotiations dominated the conversation last offseason. Once he signed the $230 million megadeal, the Cardinals were, once again, thrown into the spotlight by the revelation of a clause requiring four hours of weekly film study, which was later removed after backlash. The Cardinals’ performance left quite a bit to be desired this season. Their offense struggled to move the ball and score. They started four quarterbacks, and had their five starting offensive linemen together for just three games this season.

The season was the perfect recipe for a disaster and that’s exactly what happened.

What’s the biggest challenge ahead for the new coach and GM?

The top challenge and priority for the new coach will be to develop a relationship with Murray. How he goes, so go the Cardinals in 2023. That relationship needs to be as strong as possible.

Beyond that, the new coach will need a general manager who can build a roster that’s not just competitive but can win -- and win quickly.

They'll have the tall task of making decisions on Arizona's pending free agents, including four of the five starting offensive linemen. Two of the team's biggest free agents to address will be defensive lineman Zach Allen and cornerback Byron Murphy. The new regime will also have to figure out if it wants to restructure receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ deal for 2023, when it will have a $30.75 million cap hit and a $19.45 million salary. The team could trade him, as well, and potentially recoup the first-round pick it traded away for Marquise Brown.

Whoever is hired, however, will have to adapt to working with Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill, who likes being hands-on. He had weekly meetings with Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to talk about the team -- something, sources close to the Cardinals told ESPN, he didn’t do with Steve Wilks or Bruce Arians, Arizona’s two previous coaches. The Cardinals will have enough firepower on paper but whether the coach can harness it into something productive on the field will be the biggest challenge.

Who are potential candidates to replace Kingsbury?

The most popular name who’ll be mentioned is Sean Payton, the former New Orleans Saints coach. He has a history of winning with undersized quarterbacks and runs a tight ship in-season, both of which could be appealing to Murray. According to conversations with multiple people around the league, the sense is that Payton, who’s currently living in Southern California, prefers to stay in that area of the country. But Payton’s asking price, which could be in the $15 million range, might be prohibitive, as well as the draft compensation they’d have to give the Saints for the rights to sign him.

Another option for the Cardinals could be Joseph. He has the relationships in the organization and has been building a quality defense through his four years in Arizona. He was a head coach for two years in Denver prior to joining the Cardinals, so he has some experience.