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Hoping, wondering, knowing: Tribute to J.J. Watt, over-reaction to Michael Bidwill, unfair NFL playoffs

Howard Balzer Avatar
January 13, 2023

I hope . . .

That everyone realizes how overblown the headlines were when numerous outlets ran with the story that Cardinals owner and president Michael Bidwill would consult with quarterback Kyler Murray about the team’s next head coach.

In his press conference to announce the departures of Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury from the organization, Bidwill said at one point, “I’ve spoken to a number of our players and have appointments to set up and speak with a number of our leaders in the locker room to continue the conversation to get their input and to see how we can get the Cardinals turned around.”

He was later asked if Murray would be included in those conversations.

Bidwill was in a corner at that point. If he claimed he wouldn’t talk to Murray, that would have been the story and likely would have been made even bigger that what actually transpired.

Instead, Bidwill said, “We’re in communication and we should be talking later today; we’ve texted. Absolutely want to get the input of our leaders, including Kyler. We’ve spoken with a number of leaders already.”

That’s it. And yet, judging by the reaction, you’d think Murray will be sitting by Bidwill’s side as he conducts interviews.

Obviously, that’s not the case, which makes the entire perception similar to the Shakespeare title, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

I wonder . . .

If the organization will take a hard look at trying to figure out if there is an explanation for why this season’s team was bedeviled with an onslaught of injuries, or whether it was simply bad luck.

Former coach Kliff Kingsbury was asked about that at the end of the season and said, “Yeah, that’s a great question. Every year we will get a breakdown from sports science, our medical staff, and strength staff that goes over those things. Particularly this year with the numbers, we’ll definitely take a long, hard look at if there’s things we can do differently in training or practice and try to avoid that moving forward.”

While the deniers refuse to acknowledge the impact being healthy has on a team’s success, the reality is that the amount of injuries the Cardinals had makes it almost impossible to be consistent on a week-by-week and in-game basis.

Last Sunday against the 49ers was a classic example when the Cardinals were two players short of the normal game-day active list because of injuries. In the game, they had 15 backups starting on offense and defense including eight on offense.

They played a few games down the stretch without their top three cornerbacks, while receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Marquise Brown and Rondale Brown never played one game together the entire season.

Of the expected offensive starters this season, 10 missed a total of 77 games, which computes to 41.1 percent of the possible starts. Included in that total were 38 missed games by offensive line starters. The five starters played only 47 of a possible 85 starts (55.3 percent), while left tackle D.J. Humphries, left guard Justin Pugh and center Rodney Hudson played only 17 games (33.3 percent of the possible starts).

The Cardinals started two left tackles, five left guards and three centers.

There were also key reserves like wide receiver Antoine Wesley and running back Darrel Williams that missed 28 games because of injury.

The totals weren’t as bad on defense, but they did pile up in the final stretch of the season.

The snap counts/percentages for the offensive line is stark for the 1,205 possible plays: Tackle Kelvin Beachum, 1,180/97.9; guard Will Hernandez, 845/70.1; center Billy Price, 754/62.2; tackle Josh Jones, 624/51.8; Humphries, 575/47.7; guard Max Garcia 544/45.1; guard/tackle Cody Ford, 350/29.0; Hudson, 303/25.1; Pugh 263/21.8; center/guard Sean Harlow, 228/18.9; guard Lecitus Smith, 209/17.3; guard/tackle Rashaad Coward, 156/12.9; guard Wyatt Davis, 1/0.08.

I know . . .

One of the only saving graces from this season was having defensive end J.J. Watt in our midst.

That was especially evident as the season ended with the send-off he received from the 49ers crowd and the video tribute to him put together by defensive line coach Matt Burke that was played during a defensive meeting.

We were able to see some of the latter on Hard Knocks as Watt watched and cried the night before the game.

After his final game, he said, “Man, I have not been emotional through the whole process. I mean, I haven’t been emotional back when I made my decision. I wasn’t emotional last week really. I wasn’t emotional at the last practice. Wasn’t even emotional in the meetings at night. I was just ready to go to bed, and then Burke got up and explained putting together the video. He contacted all the people, and kind of made it happen. The second that that video turned on I lost it. I mean, I absolutely lost it. I was bawling like a baby, and I didn’t stop until well into the night.

“The highlight videos are great, all the plays are cool, but when you hear from the people in your life that are important, from my family, from my friends and then, you hear from people you have the utmost respect for, teammates, coaches, opponents, it hit me in a different way that I never expected, and I’m forever thankful to Burke for putting together that video, because it’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received, and it is truly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life, and I thank every single person on that video who sent in a video, because it was truly unbelievable.”

On Hard Knocks, we watched him talk to the team after the video, saying, “Nobody does it alone, man. People give me a shit load of credit and I’m sure you guys are sick of hearing about me for the last two weeks and I apologize for that.”

He concluded, “I hope you take something from me. I don’t know what it is, but I hope you take something from me and you pass it on to somebody else because that’s what it’s all about. At the end of the day, it’s about what you pass on to somebody else and the ripple effect that we create in this world.”

Asked after the game about his emotions, Watt said, “They’re calmed down now, but I want to thank the 49ers. That was very classy, and their fans. You don’t have to do that for an opposing player in your stadium when you’re going to the playoffs, and I just appreciate them doing that.

“That was better than I could have expected it to be, certainly from that standpoint. Have my wife and son here, have my parents here. I wish the game would have gone differently in many ways, but I’m thankful and grateful, and I’ll always remember it, that’s for sure.”

Less than 24 hours before he would lose his job, Kingsbury said, “It’s something I’ll never forget. I’ll be able to talk about that for however long I coach for. Just watching the professionalism, the effort and what he’s done since he’s been there. He never left the building really for two years. He trained there, he rehabbed last year and was two or three months ahead of schedule to come back and play in that playoff game.

“Then, he stayed there all year training again. His goal this year was to play an entire season. And then to come in and have 12.5 sacks and play the way he did and lead the way he did is just phenomenal. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

One of those players Watt talked about paying it forward was rookie linebacker Cameron Thomas, who said the final game “was something special. When I saw him on the big screen and looked over at him and saw him walking off, I personally felt that deeply. This is only my first year and having the ability to watch him put in all the work he’s put in just this year let alone his whole career has meant so much.

“He’s taught me so much. One of the biggest things I learned from him is to just be dominating and to have unquestionable work ethic. His approach, every time he steps on the field, is to work harder than you and know he’s better than you. It just teaches me to be myself.”

I hope . . .

And wonder how a probably new coaching staff will utilize linebackers Zaven Collins and Isaiah Simmons.

It’s important to note that a big factor going forward is the scheme that will be played by whoever coaches the defense. Collins and Simmons have played in coordinator Vance Joseph’s 3-4 defense, but the next defensive iteration could be the 4-3 or a different style 3-4.

Collins made a big jump in 2022 from his rookie season and Kingsbury said recently, “He’s made progress; still a long way to go. I think we all have very high expectations of him and being able to play at an elite level every play (and) every down. That’s something we’re still working towards, but from last year (he’s had a) big jump and hopefully next year he can take the same type of jump.”

In a recent Hard Knocks, Collins admitted to sometimes thinking too much, which can affect a player’s ability to play fast. Safety Budda Baker told Collins that during a game, while linebackers coach Bill Davis mentioned how a false step against Tampa Bay led to a pass defensed rather than a possible interception.

Davis said to Collins in a meeting, “We have to unlock The Beast instead of fear of being wrong. I promise you, your mistakes will be less — not more — if you go on your first gut instinct.”

As for Simmons, he was in a hybrid linebacker/safety role during the season and was mostly a safety for the final two games when Baker was on reserve/injured.

Asked about Simmons after the Week 17 game against the Falcons, Kingsbury said, “Thought he did a nice job. He’s played multiple positions since he’s been a pro. We really like the role we found for him this season and now expanding the safety duties will only help us when we have different packages moving forward with him.”

Is one spot better for him?

“No,” Kingsbury said. “I think he has that ability, so you have to maximize a player like that who has that hybrid-type versatility, that type of athleticism. Just watching his knowledge of our defense, his understanding of NFL offenses has really progressed this season. It has been great and I think it will continue to progress and should allow him to do multiple things for us.”

Now, whatever it will look like in 2023 is to be determined.

I wonder . . .

If wide receiver A.J. Green has played his final game in the NFL.

Green will be 35 next summer and had an up-and-down experience since signing with the Cardinals in the 2021 offseason. He had some big plays during the first half of last season, but virtually disappeared down the stretch once Hopkins was injured.

This season, his biggest plays were the 2-point conversion catch that tied the Week 2 game against the Raiders and sent it to overtime and a 77-yard catch and run in the season finale against the 49ers on a trick play named after Joe Montana that we saw on Hard Knocks practiced early in the season with Murray, Moore and Hopkins as the key components. Last Sunday, it was David Blough and Pharoh Cooper.

That score was the 70th of a career that included 158 games and 727 receptions for 10,514 yards (14.5 average).

He had games this past season where he didn’t play many snaps, but Kingsbury said, “He’s been the consummate professional. I can’t say enough good things about him. (He was) very productive for us last year. This year for a number of reasons, it wasn’t the same type of playing time, but he shows up every day and helps work with those young guys, motivates those young guys and then just does it right.

“He’s the type of guy if I had a son, which I probably won’t ever have, but if I did, I would want him to carry himself and treat other people like A.J. does.”

When Green was being interviewed before the season finale, a teammate yelled, “We love you A.J.!”

He smiled and said, while admitting this season has “been tough. I know where I’m at, at my point of my career. I know the business side of it. So I just made the most of it this year.”

Will this be it?

“We’ll see,” he said. Right now, I just want to enjoy the offseason and then I’ll see what happens. It’s a decision I’m going to have to make with my family. But whatever the decision is, I’m at peace with it. I feel like I’ve been true to this game my whole career. I did everything the right way. So if it’s my time to walk away, I’ll be ready. If this is my last one (game), I’m going to enjoy it and move on to the next chapter in my life.”

If that’s the case, he’ll surely cherish the memory of that last touchdown.

I know . . .

It’s time for the NFL to change its fractured playoff structure. I also know it’s probably not going to happen.

First off, is there any reason the league persists on calling the first round of the post-season the wild-card playoffs when half the teams involved are division winners? It’s an insult to them.

Then, since 2020, when an extra wild card was added in each conference, they now call the first round Super Wild Card Weekend. Save the Super for the Super Bowl. That shouldn’t be a word used when two of the teams, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, are 9-8 or 8-9.

Which brings us to the real problem they have, something that has happened nearly every year since divisional realignment in 2002. That created eight, four-team divisions, but in effect, made division games less important because there are only six instead of the eight it was previously.

The change resulted in 10 non-division games for each team, which is now 11 after the money-grab increase to 17 games in 2021. Since 2002, there have been seven instances where a division winner won only eight games and three where they won only seven.

Yet, those teams are automatically gifted a home playoff game. The NFL’s defense is that it’s the reward for winning the division, but the reward should be simply competing in the post-season.

Monday night, the 8-9 Buccaneers will host the 12-5 Cowboys, a differential of four victories. Saturday, the 9-8 Jaguars are home against the 10-7 Chargers.

Since 2002, those two games will bring to 27 the number of times a wild-card team with a better record was forced to go on the road for their first playoff game.

It is also the fifth time in those 27 where there is a four-win differential.

Coincidentally, the Bucs were on the other end of that two years ago when they were 11-5 and played at 7-9 Washington. Tampa Bay won a highly contested game and then ended up winning the Super Bowl.

The previous three times there was a four-game difference the home team won:

2008: The 8-8 Chargers defeated the 12-4 Colts, 23-14.

2010: In the famous Marshawn Lynch “Beast Mode” game, the 7-9 Seahawks beat the 11-5 Saints, 41-36.

2011: The 8-8 Broncos, with Tim Tebow at quarterback, won in overtime over the 12-4 Steelers, 29-23.

There have also been three games with a differential of at least three games and one involved the Cardinals:

2013: The 12-4 49ers beat the 8-7-1 Packers, 23-20.

2014: The 11-5 Cardinals lost to the 7-8-1 Panthers, 27-16.

2016: The 9-7 Texans defeated the 12-4 Raiders, 27-14.

It can be argued that playoff teams have fared better on the road in recent years. In the last four post-seasons, home teams are 24-20 and in the conference championship games it’s a 4-4 split.

But that’s not the point. It should be simple and fair: the team with the better record should be the home team.

I won’t hold my breath waiting for it to be that way.

Words of wisdom

Beachum on winning the local writers’ Good Guy Award: “Considering everything that’s happened this year, the wins, the losses, the tough losses, the tough outcomes, you still have to treat people the right way. At the end of the day, it’s all about how you treat people.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com

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