Cardinals take risk on Steve Wilks when defense is sound but QB is an issue

TEMPE, Ariz. — There’s risk with any head-coaching hire, especially when it’s the first time a coach sits in the lead chair. There’s greater pressure, more responsibility, higher expectations. No longer can he toil in relative anonymity. As the head coach, he’s the face of the franchise to a large extent.

Those factors haven’t deterred the Arizona Cardinals from taking chances on first-time head coaches. They’ve found success recently with the likes of Ken Whisenhunt, who led the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl, and then Bruce Arians, who set the franchise record with 50 wins — surpassing Whisenhunt’s previous team high. The Cardinals continued their trend this week, hiring first-time head coach Steve Wilks on Monday.

But Wilks’ hire comes with an extra degree or two of risk. And that can all be placed on team president Michael Bidwill.

Arians retired on Jan. 1, and the Cardinals entered the coaching search with two knowns: They didn’t have a quarterback, and they had a top-10 defense the past three seasons. After casting a wide net, as general manager Steve Keim pointed out during Wilks’ introductory news conference on Tuesday, and traveling “thousands and thousands of miles” and having “hundreds of hours” of conversations, as Bidwill said, the Cardinals picked Wilks. They liked his presence and his resume. They liked his accountability and his command.

But the risk in hiring Wilks, who was the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, lies in the short-term future of the franchise.

Wilks is well aware of the Cardinals’ most dire need at the moment; he even called it the “elephant in the room.” The Cardinals don’t have a quarterback under contract for the 2018 season. There’s a chance they’ll draft one. There’s a chance they’ll sign one in free agency. Either way, the Cardinals’ offense will be rebuilding behind center while the defense is poised to keep chugging along like it has the past few seasons.

So herein lies the exact risk: Bidwill decided to hire a defensive mind who — although he said Tuesday he doesn’t run a scheme, rather a system that allows him to adapt to his personnel — likely will tweak and tinker with the defense to his preference. There’s no harm in that. Every coach has his own ways of doing things. And Wilks even said Tuesday that he’s “not trying to change too much.”

“If it’s not broke, don’t try and fix it,” Wilks followed.

Steve Wilks calls the Cardinals’ situation at quarterback the “elephant in the room.” Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

But for a team in desperate need of stability at quarterback, hiring a coach who’ll implement his system will lead to a learning curve and could stunt the progress of a defense that’s been one of the best over the past few seasons.

Bidwill sees the risk as, well, something different.

“The risk is we have potential to get better,” he said. “It’s a positive risk, which is we have potential to get better. When we look at our defense, it’s about the players on the field that are making the plays. So when I think about bringing in great leadership, I’m really excited about what he can bring.”

The Cardinals are entering a pivotal era in their long and storied existence. The tide had turned from them being a perennial sub-.500 team to being a franchise that’s expected to make the playoffs. Both Whisenhunt and Arians experienced success early in their tenures, which was followed by losing or .500 seasons.

Should Wilks follow the same path, he’ll win for two or three — maybe four — years and then the team will fall off. But based on the Cardinals’ current condition, winning may be easier said than done in the next season or two because of the coming turnover at quarterback. Instead of hiring a head coach whose main responsibility would be to help find a quarterback and then develop him, the Cardinals opted to hire a coach who’ll delegate that responsibility to his offensive coordinator.

That’s risk.

The Cardinals’ defense will carry this franchise for the next two or three years behind the likes of Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Markus Golden while the offense finds itself. Arizona needs to rebuild its receiving corps and restock its offensive line, all while finding its quarterback.

On Tuesday, Keim was asked what will be harder: finding a coach or a quarterback. He laughed.

“Quarterback,” he said.

And the Cardinals just took a franchise-defining risk in hiring a defensive coach when their most pressing need is on offense.

That’s risk.