Another year, another NFC West Super Bowl team Steve Keim and Michael Bidwill will watch from their couches. In fact, over the last 6 years, every NFC West team will have visited the NFL's mountaintop, except for the one that plays at State Farm Stadium. I believe the most succesful teams teach us the biggest lessons in sports, the same way the most successful people teach us some of the biggest lessons in life. If you pay attention to their stories, you'll unlock the secrets to how they got there. Here are some lessons the Cardinals and their fans can take away from the stories of the 49ers and Chiefs.
1. Have patience. With your head coach, and your defensive coordinator. - Kyle Shanahan went 6-10 his first year with the 49ers, and 4-12 last year. They picked 2nd in the draft in 2019. Andy Reid has forever been known as the coach who could never get over the hump. Now, both will be competing for a Super Bowl. For both coaches, the signs were there, even through losing seasons and early playoff exits. The record wasn't great in Kliff Kingsbury's first season, and there are reasons to be skeptical, but during his first go-round as an NFL head coach, the signs were there. He shaped gameplans around player's strengths, helped Kyler Murray to a great rookie year, and had the team ready to play during a meaningless last quarter of the season.
As for the defensive coordinator, Cardinals fans called for Vance Joseph's head throughout the season, sick of being burned by tight ends for touchdowns. But the nature of defense requires more than one year for evaluation. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had his unit ranked 5th worst and 8th worst in 2017, and 2018 respectively. Now, he's Golden State's golden boy. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo faced heavy criticism when his unit gave up 23.5 points per game to start the year, but they finished as the 7th best scoring defense in the league. Defense requires guys to play fast, and that takes comfortability in a system. The Cardinals did the right thing in retaining Vance Joseph.
2. When you have a great offensive mind at head coach, invest in defense. He'll figure out the rest. - Look at the way both Super Bowl teams approached the offseason. The Chiefs added Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu in free agency, and drafted defensive players with 3 out of their top 4 draft picks. The 49ers signed Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford in the free agency, and drafted Nick Bosa 2nd overall. Both teams have taken the leap in large part due to their commitment to adding impact players on defense. The Cardinals should pay attention. When you hire an offensive guru, their value should be elevating mediocre offensive players, and their weakness will usually be affecting the game defensively. Smart general managers acquiesce, and capitalize on that by going bargain hunting on offense, and splurging on elite defensive talent.
3. The league rewards the best offensive play callers more than ever, which bodes well for Kliff Kingsbury. - Most businesses have many different aspects, but make most of their profit in one or two key areas. In restaurants it's liquor sales, in fast food it's soft drink sales and in professional sports leagues it's television contracts. Well, NFL teams have now started to "make their money" with their play caller/quarterback combinations. Last year it was Sean McVay/Jared Goff and McDaniels/Brady. This year it's Shanahan/Garapolo and Reid/Mahomes. The way NFL rules are changing to benefit offenses means that you can hack the system with the right duo. That bodes well for Kliff Kingsbury. 20 years ago, I'd be a lot more concerned with his lack of experience, lack of a history of winning and lack of defensive prowess. There's two things that make me worry less today. First, the use of analytics means that coaches don't need as much game experience as they used to. Analytics takes data from the past to predict what will happen in the future. That process has given Bill Belichick an edge for years, only he did it with 40+ years of NFL experience has his "data". Now, teams collect that data in a spreadsheet, not a brain. Second, Sean Mcvay, Kyle Shanahan and others show me that a play calling head coaches can win big, even without defensive prowess.
Of course, Shanahan and McVay are different animals...