The experiment of Kliff Kingsbury has run its course in Arizona, with the Cardinals firing the head coach following his fourth season in the role.
Along with Kingsbury, general manager Steve Keim won’t be returning, opting to step down to focus on his health after taking a leave of absence midseason.
Decisions are aplenty for the franchise, who embarks on a hard reset after reaching the postseason just a season ago.
When it comes down to the head coach, there are some intriguing names out there on both sides of the football to consider if you’re the owner of Michael Bidwill.
The future looks pretty bleak right now, especially with the beginning of quarterback Kyler Murray’s season in question due to a torn ACL and meniscus, 20-something free agents and a JJ Watt-less defense to consider. Whoever accepts the job will have their work cut out for them.
A look at who I believe could be the right fit for an organization moving into yet another era.
49ers DC DeMeco Ryans
You’re probably reading this name and thinking, “that’s not how you spell Sean Payton!”
We’ll get there.
But first, shooting up the San Francisco 49ers’ ranks since 2017, Ryans is turning heads as the team’s defensive coordinator.
He knows how the NFC West operates and can bring a perspective player to the position that others cannot.
And just look at the 49ers’ production on that side of the ball. Since he took over the reins in 2021, San Francisco has finished third or better in total offense allowed, highlighted by its 2022 mark of 300.6 yards per game (first in the NFL).
With Ryans running things, the progression of Zaven Collins, Isaiah Simmons and safety Jalen Thompson could be accelerated.
That trio, along with a healthy Budda Baker and potentially 2023 free agent Zach Allen returning to the fold, are great starting points for Ryans to work with.
The biggest unknown with Ryans — and every other defensive-minded candidate — is who would be his choice at offensive coordinator.
Remember, Murray is getting paid a whole lot of money and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Having the right coordinator will be of utmost importance if he is hired.
Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy
If it’s not Ryans, Bieniemy is another great option for the Cardinals’ vacancy.
But first, Bieniemy deserves a good hard look given the resume he’s put together over the past five seasons as offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Since manning coordinator duties in KC, the Chiefs have been no worse than sixth in total offense. Kansas City ranked first in three of the five years.
Patrick Mahomes is in a league of his own. There’s no denying that. But he and Murray both have that ability to turn a game on its head in a moment’s notice.
Mahomes deserves a ton of credit for being where he is in his career. So does Bieniemy, who continues to get the best out of Mahomes on an annual basis.
He’s also got a rushing background, having played running back in the NFL before eventually working as a ground game coach across four stops between college and the pros in his coaching career.
That kind of influence could bolster the production of starting RB James Conner and whoever fills out the room.
He’s absolutely due for a head-coaching job, having been interviewed for openings over the past few years, with one of the most recent being for the Denver Broncos’ job that instead went to the already ousted Nathaniel Hackett.
An offensive-minded head coach with a knack for getting the best out of his quarterback? Seems right up Arizona’s alley.
Former Saints head coach Sean Payton
Alright, we’ve made it to Payton.
The coach-turned-broadcaster seems like a homerun type of hire for the Cardinals.
He has a former relationship with the team, being a former ball boy for the then-St. Louis Cardinals, has won at the biggest stage and could be a trusted influence in Murray’s continued development along with revamping the unit as a whole.
But all that good comes with what appears to be a pretty large price tag.
Technically still under contract with the Saints for two more seasons, New Orleans would receive some sort of compensation if another team and Payton move forward.
And let me be the first to say it, sending a sixth-round pick — something the Cardinals received in their 2019 trade of former head coach Bruce Arians and a seventh-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — is not going to cut it.
Now, do I think the Saints receive a treasure chest of picks like Jon Gruden warranted in his trade from the then-Oakland Raiders and Buccaneers? No way.
If I had to put my finger on it, Payton will garner at least a low first-round pick.
But with the personnel questions surrounding this team and the obvious needs it has on both sides of the line of scrimmage, the appeal of adding Payton to the mix takes a bit of a hit.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh
A lot like Payton, Jim Harbaugh would be one of those big-name hires that could calm a turbulent Red Sea.
He definitely knows a thing or two about the division, having found success head-coaching the 49ers, and could give the franchise a complete culture reset.
From 2011-13, Harbaugh and his squad finished second in the NFC West, earning the divisional title twice during his tenure.
After an 8-8 finish in 2014, the head coach opted to head back to college to coach at Michigan.
There is, however, the fact that he is still employed by the Wolverines, is coming off back-to-back College Football Playoff berths and has said that he thinks he will return to the university next season, although he doesn’t know what the future holds.
That hasn’t stopped the Broncos from reporting kicking the tires on the head coach, though, who are planning to interview Harbaugh.