TEMPE, Ariz. — With defensive coordinator Ray Horton under contract for another year, it seemed plausible the Cardinals might keep him in the same position should they pass him over for the head coaching vacancy.
But honest evaluation from the start should have made it clear: It was head coach or nothing for Horton. Hiring anyone else all but guaranteed Horton wouldn’t be back, even if the Cardinals wanted him.
At his introductory press conference Friday, new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians confirmed reports that Horton had been released from his contract and explained why Horton was not a fit to remain on staff.
“I didn’t feel like, at this point in time, that’s where I wanted to go,” Arians said. “It needed to be a football team that was directed by me, and any time there’s carryover, we don’t want [players] being able to go somewhere else to voice their opinion. I didn’t want to put Ray in that situation. That’s not fair to him.”
Translation: Keeping Horton would have been too awkward.
And it wouldn’t have mattered if the Cardinals had landed Mike McCoy, Jay Gruden, Todd Haley, Darrell Bevell or anyone else. Keeping Horton, who was passed over for head coaching jobs by a few other teams as well, would have been an uncomfortable situation from the start.
Arians knew it. Horton knew it.
Keeping a coaching candidate on staff, as Arians noted, would have created the potential for division in the locker room. Defensive players could have second-guessed their coach’s decisions and turned to Horton. There was also the idea that Horton would have been a ready-made, in-house replacement should Arians have struggled to produce a winner. Again, awkward no matter who’s in charge.
Horton moved on quickly, getting hired by the Browns as defensive coordinator less than an hour after Arians was introduced in Arizona.
Arians also wants to assemble his staff quickly, with Sunday his target date. It appears he’ll tap Todd Bowles — who was released Friday from his contract as defensive coordinator with the Eagles — to replace Horton.
While Horton’s departure may have been inevitable, that doesn’t mean anyone has to like it. And by the sound of things Friday, players don’t.
“It’s tough because this will be my third [defensive] coordinator, and I felt the direction we were going as a defense was looking to be really great,” Cardinals linebacker O’Brien Schofield said. “It really sucks, because I think Ray is a good coach. He’s done a lot for the defense, the organization and me as a player, personally. I just want to wish him the best.”
It’s true that Horton’s defense gained some momentum this season, especially early on, after a full season and offseason of installation. The numbers ultimately did not reflect much of that momentum — the Cardinals ended the season 12th in total defense and 17th in scoring defense — but Horton’s blitz-happy 3-4 scheme showed it could win games, as it did during the Cardinals’ 4-0 start.
The Cardinals have essentially scrapped that momentum, although they are not necessarily back at square one. Arians said Friday he wants to install an “aggressive, attacking” defense and “build upon what’s been put in place.”
“Similar in style,” Arians said. “Very multiple … As far as 4-3, 3-4 we’re not going to let anybody pin us down.”
That should help in the transition. The next step will be players greeting their new defensive coordinator with an open mind, and while some players seemed upset about losing Horton, they appear ready to do so.
“The reality, no matter what the reasoning [for losing Horton], is I’ve got to play football,” defensive end Calais Campbell said in an interview with XTRA 910 AM on Friday. “I’ve got to make the best of whatever happens. So whoever my new coach is, I’m going to try to understand what he wants me to do and do it to the best of my ability.”
Schofield expressed a similar sentiment and suggested there must be some give and take in getting started under a new defensive leader.
“It’s going to be as difficult as we as players make and as difficult as the coaches make it,” Schofield said. “There’s going to have to be some type of middle ground and some good communication, because when you’re doing something one way for so long, it’s not easy to do a complete turnaround and go a different way or have a different mindset.”
Arians said Friday he had spoken with Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, and Peterson expressed excitement about the regime change. The veteran players, specifically Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson, will be key in buying into the new defensive coordinator, but it appears the group is off to a good start.
As for Horton, Arians and each player who discussed him on Friday expressed appreciation and admiration.
“I wish him the best in his next job,” Arians said. “He is a great coach, and he should be a head coach in the National Football League very soon.
“I’ve got all the respect in the world for Ray Horton.”
All the respect and admiration in the world, though, would not have been enough to make keeping Horton in Arizona a realistic or comfortable situation.
Most players — and probably some Cardinals executives — would agree that Horton’s departure is a meaningful loss, but it’s part of the process. The Cardinals are starting over, and they had to leave no threads of the past hanging around the edges.