The Arizona Cardinals decided not to sign veteran free agent defensive end Marco Coleman before the first game of the season. His skills had diminished enough that the team didn’t want to guarantee his salary.
The decision was made by vice president of football operations Rod Graves. Debatable? Maybe. But Graves thought Coleman wasn’t nearly the player he once was.
The problem came about 10 days later, when rookie defensive end Kenny King stubbed his toe in practice — and the resulting dislocation sent him to the sideline for more than a month and left the Cards with only six healthy linemen.
Everyone knows Murphy’s Law: What can go wrong will. The Cardinals seem to have done their best to be law-abiding citizens. Graves spent the last week defending the team and its personnel decisions. But the Cardinals are 0-2 and the team is being skewered as the worst in the league.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. “Murphy’s Law depends on perspective,” offensive tackle L.J. Shelton said. “Maybe we’ll go with L.J.’s law: ‘If you are waiting for something to go bad, it will.’ I know within these walls we’re not thinking like that.”
The Cardinals couldn’t have forecast season-ending injuries to key defensive starters Kyle Vanden Bosch or Duane Starks. Most of their other problems are of their own doing.
“I believe our problems are internal,” Graves said. “We have to fix them as a team, as a coaching staff, as management. Focusing anywhere outside those areas at this time is irrelevant.”
“Outside those areas” apparently means ownership, which has — as the only constant since the team arrived in Arizona — gotten the brunt of the criticism. But ownership is not alone to blame.
THE FRONT OFFICE
Spurred by the constant talk about the team’s $12.5 million or so in salary cap space, Graves went on the offensive last week in defending the franchise’s choices.
“I feel to a large degree we have not received enough credit,” Graves said. “I haven’t heard much focused on the money we have spent.”
The Cards were more active than usual in free agency, signing veterans Emmitt Smith, Jeff Blake, James Hodgins and Dexter Jackson. The team updated its injury-waiver form for rookies after problems the past two offseasons. And the Cardinals brought their negotiation tactics for first-round picks into the 21st century by including escalator clauses and two-tiered bonuses in the contracts.
Arizona also looks like it made the right decision in letting the troubled David Boston walk away.
But the Cardinals couldn’t get their top free agent targets — linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and defensive end Vonnie Holliday — in large part, Graves said, because each made a “conscious decision to play somewhere besides Arizona.”
It should be noted that Graves has said the Cards offered Colvin a $5 million signing bonus, and he received $6 million up front with New England. Graves said the bidding for Holliday reached a point where the Cardinals were not comfortable offering any more money.
“We are making moves, we are trying to manage in a healthy way,” Graves said, “but we will not be pressed into getting off of that plan.”
Graves said the Cardinals misjudged the free agent market. He said the team should have been more aggressive earlier in the offseason. But the Cards also declined to take defensive tackle Norman Hand in their draft-day trade with New Orleans. They passed on a chance at defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson in training camp. Some Cardinals players quietly wonder why the team hasn’t brought in more players given its cap space.
“There is ignorance behind those (cap) numbers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that ignorance was in the locker room,” Graves said.
The Cards are trying to identify players to sign to extensions, which would eat up cap space. Shelton is one. Cornerback David Barrett and linebacker Raynoch Thompson are others. Graves admitted the Cards’ lousy history doesn’t help the team in signing free agents or keeping their own. “You know that when you come here, that you are saddled with that,” Graves said. “So what? I’ve been hearing it as if it is a reason why you can’t (change).”
Coach Dave McGinnis still has another year to go on his contract, but it hasn’t stopped the speculation about his immediate future or the questions about some of his moves.
When the game was still close during the season opener in Detroit, the Cardinals abandoned their running game. Cameron Spikes, brought in to be a backup, has struggled as the starting left guard. Safety Adrian Wilson has not made much progress. Defensive schemes designed to help create pressure on the quarterback haven’t worked. Nine turnovers in two games is an epidemic.
Injuries haven’t helped. The roster could have more talent. But Graves said before the season he thought the team was competitive, and it doesn’t seem the front office is changing its assessment.
If the Cards keep putting out 38-0 stinkers, it will be seen as an indictment of McGinnis.
“It’s life in this league,” McGinnis said. “You deal with it and handle it, and if you can’t handle it mentally, you get out of it. There are always going to be adjustments, there is always going to be heat, it’s just a matter of degrees. “Regardless what I have been presented with, I will find a way to get it done. But to sit back and worry about it and ponder it, you don’t.”
Smith hears the talk about the front office. He hears the talk about the coaching staff. And he scoffs.
The players, Smith said, are the main culprits right now.
“The problem I have right now, people are trying to characterize this organization . . . that it hasn’t changed to the (decade of the) 2000s,” the veteran running back said. “This game has not changed from day one. It’s all about not making mistakes and executing and making plays. It has nothing to do with how the organization is run.”
Smith admitted he is worried some players will look at the Cards’ vast salary cap space and see an excuse.
“The cap number is just a cap number. The people on the team are your teammates,” Smith said. “We are the ones that have to get the job done.”
Graves said the current roster isn’t going to change much for the rest of the season. Playoffs aren’t likely to be an issue, but no one can afford for the team to tank. The won-loss ledger is not only a barometer of this past offseason but can foretell future moves.
Victories, Graves said, will help the Cards sign future free agents. Younger players, optimistic about the future, will stay that way. Free agents like Shelton want to remain in Arizona.
“I have seen guys come and go, and I have seen the way they have come and gone, and the last thing I am going to do is go and start thinking I am bigger than the organization or bigger than the situation,” Shelton said.
Not to completely lose hope may be the most important decision for everyone around the franchise.
“We’d rather not be 0-2 right now,” Shelton added. “I think we all know we could be better. It’s not comforting when you get beat 38-0. But I don’t think people are necessarily discouraged.”