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Gannon Faces Big Challenges in Arizona ... Including Murray

Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon and general manager Monti Ossenfort prepare for a press conference.
Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon and general manager Monti Ossenfort prepare for a press conference.

The last NFL head-coaching vacancy was filled Monday with the Arizona Cardinals finalizing a five-year deal with Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, the team announced.

The 40-year-old Gannon will be facing a major challenge in Phoenix, where he will try to turn around a team that has lost 18 of its past 23 games. The Cardinals finished 4-13 this season, losing their last seven games, including embarrassing 28- and 25-point defeats to the San Francisco 49ers.

“Arizona is a very challenging situation for a coach,’’ said former NFL executive Joe Banner, an analyst for The 33rd Team. “They don’t have a great roster. The jury still is out on their quarterback (Kyler Murray). He could be a great asset or a problem. So far, he hasn’t been the asset that you would like.’’

There are major questions about Murray, who signed a five-year, $230.5 million contract extension last summer, then underperformed before tearing his ACL late in the season. Murray threw just 14 touchdown passes and finished 22nd in the league in touchdown percentage.

He was last in the NFL in yards per attempt (6.1) and has had just one game-winning drive in his career. Murray probably won’t be ready to play until late September or early October. Their backup is 36-year-old Colt McCoy.

The Cardinals also aren’t very strong along either the offensive or defensive line.

“I come from a place where you’ve got to have a quarterback that’s a difference-maker and strong lines on both sides of the ball,’’ Banner said. “They don’t seem to have any of that right now.

“They’ve approached things more with an orientation towards weapons rather than linemen, which is a mistake. They’ve allowed themselves to get older in key spots. They don’t have obvious internal leadership.

“They have a new GM (Monti Ossenfort) who could turn out to be great. But at this point, he’s unproven. They’re also playing in a division that should be reasonably tough for the foreseeable future.’’

Ossenfort, who replaced Steve Keim last month, was the Tennessee Titans’ director of player personnel for the last three years. Before that, he spent 13 years with the New England Patriots, working his way up from a scout to director of college scouting. Gannon actually was a scout for the Rams from 2009-11 between coaching gigs with the Atlanta Falcons and Titans.

Gannon’s got his work cut out for him in Phoenix. The Cardinals have qualified for the playoffs just once in the past seven years and have made only nine postseason appearances since 1949. That’s right, 1949.

Gannon replaces Kliff Kingsbury, who was fired after four years and one winning season. He was preceded by Steve Wilks, who was shown the door after just one season.

Kingsbury was an unorthodox hiring right from the start. While he ran the fun-to-watch Air Raid offense, he wasn’t very successful as a college coach, going 35-40 in six seasons at Texas Tech before the Cardinals brought him to the NFL.

Three months after hiring Kingsbury, the Cardinals selected Murray with the first pick in the draft. It looked like a marriage made in heaven. Murray was fun to watch as he scooted all over the place dodging pass-rushers. But he has a 25-31-1 record as a starter.

This time around, the Cardinals passed on out-of-the-box candidates and interviewed most of the usual coordinator suspects, as well as former Saints head coach Sean Payton. Payton reportedly decided life was too short to spend any of it coaching Murray.

Gannon is a much more conventional hire. He has spent the last two years running the Eagles’ defense. Before that, he spent three years as the secondary coach in Indianapolis. Before that, he spent four years as an assistant on Mike Zimmer’s staff in Minnesota.

The Eagles had one of the best defenses in the league this season. They led the NFL in quarterback sacks with 70, which was the third most since the league officially started counting sacks back in 1982. The Eagles finished second in yards allowed (301.5), eighth in points allowed (20.2) and tied for fourth in takeaways (27).

“Jon is a super, super person,’’ said Zimmer, an analyst for The 33rd Team who probably would’ve been Gannon’s top choice for Cardinals defensive coordinator if he hadn’t joined Deion Sanders’ University of Colorado staff last month.

“I’m proud of him and the work that he’s done. Everybody that’s coached with him has thought highly of him. He’s a good leader. The players love him.

“The thing that he’ll do, he’ll put together a good staff. He’ll find guys who fit in with what he really wants to do offensively and defensively. Obviously, in Arizona, he’s going to have to figure out how to manage Murray. But he’s smart and he’ll get good guys around him. He’ll be a good leader for the coaches. And he’ll be a good leader for the team.’’

There’s nowhere to go but up for Gannon and the Cardinals. Things started to go south in 2021 after a 10-2 start dissolved into a 1-5 finish and a 34-11 playoff humiliation against the eventual Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams.

Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins then was suspended for the first six games of the 2022 season for violating the league’s PED policy. He and Murray played just five games together. Hopkins finished with just three touchdown catches, which was his fewest since his second year in the league. His 11.2-yards-per-catch average was the lowest of his career. Another key pass-catching weapon, tight end Zach Ertz, also tore his ACL and missed the last seven games.

The Cardinals averaged just 15.7 points per game during their season-ending seven-game losing streak.

Things weren’t much better on the defensive side of the ball. They finished 31st in points allowed (26.4) and 24th in sacks with just 36.

“The thing about Jon,’’ said Zimmer, "is he’s pretty innovative. I don’t think he’s stuck on one approach. In Minnesota, we were basically a four-down (linemen) team and didn’t vary from it. In Philly this year, he was playing some more five-man-on-the-line stuff. So, he’s not afraid to try different things.

“In his heart, he’s always been a defensive secondary guy. In the NFL, if you can’t stop the passing game, you’re going to struggle. He works a little more from the back to the front (defensively). That may have changed this year given the number of sacks they had. But it all works hand in hand. Some of the things we did (in Minnesota) he still does. Pressure-wise and things like that. Understanding how to attack protections.’’

Paul Domowitch covered the Eagles and the NFL for the Philadelphia Inquirer for four decades. You can follow him on Twitter at @pdomo.