(Eds: Corrects spelling of Jonathan.)By BOB BAUMAP Sports Writer
When Steve Keim walked off field at Seattle a year ago, the scoreboard read: Seahawks 58, Cardinals 0. Keim, then Arizona’s vice president for player personnel, felt sick.
A few weeks later, Rod Graves was fired and Keim was promoted to general manager. At the news conference announcing his hiring, Keim promised he would never forget that feeling in Seattle.
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Last Sunday, he left the same stadium after the Cardinals beat the Seahawks 17-10, ending Seattle’s 14-game home winning streak. He was ”at peace” and ”content.”
Not for long.
It’s nice for a second,” he said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press, ”but I’m too concerned with how did we lose five games – how do we get better.”
The 41-year-old bear of an ex-college football lineman has overhauled the roster of a team that limped home to a 5-11 season by losing 10 of its last 11 games in 2012. Heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale at home against San Francisco, Arizona is 10-5, has won seven of eight, and has a shot at tying the franchise record of 11 victories in a season.
The Cardinals might not make the playoffs, but it’s still quite a turnaround.
”If he’s not executive of the year I think it’s a crying shame,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. ”The job he’s done as a rookie GM, turning over our roster and then finding guys I think are keepers. I’m not afraid to play young players, or new players, as long as they’re capable, and Steve’s done a great job of bringing us capable people.”
Keim worked up from the scouting ranks of the Cardinals for 15 years. When general manager Rod Graves, Keim got the job.
He’s since made 192 roster moves. Twenty-eight players on the 53- man roster are new to the team this year. Half the 22 starters weren’t with the Cardinals a year ago.
The first chore was to find a coach.
Team President Michael Bidwill and Keim immediately fell for 60-year-old Bruce Arians.
”Bruce Arians was able to come in,” Keim said, ”and within two minutes was able to express to Michael and myself, ”here’s what’s wrong, here’s how I fix it and these are the men that I’m going to bring with me to help teach and coach my system.”
Keim’s next priority was to get a quarterback, and he was able to acquire Carson Palmer and a seventh-round draft pick for just Arizona’s sixth-round pick.
Keim worked to add depth, bringing in the likes of defensive lineman Frostee Rucker and outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy.
He watched the veteran free agents in the offseason and waited until the last minute to get outside linebacker John Abraham, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and right tackle Eric Winston at bargain prices.
Looking to help the beleaguered offensive line, Keim drafted guard Jonathan Cooper as the seventh pick overall but lost him in the preseason with a broken leg. Paul Fanaika, a lightly used player who had mostly been a tackle, moved in.
Keim had two big hits in the draft. He took a chance on defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and his troubled background in the third round and the diminutive dynamo was a standout until he sustained a season-ending knee injury. Speedy Andre Ellington, picked in the sixth round, adds a dynamic element as a runner and receiver.
Working with a ”ready list” of players without jobs, Keim kept adding pieces throughout the season and the Cardinals evolved from a team that blew an 11-point first quarter lead and lost their opener in St. Louis to one that toppled mighty Seattle on the road.
”Now Calais Campbell is telling people we’re the best team in the NFC,” Keim said. ”There’s quite a change from hoping to win to now your players think we’re the best team in the NFC.”
The offseason looms large. Keim wants to talk with cornerback Patrick Peterson about a new contract, and that’s bound to be big money.
There is a long list of players who will become unrestricted free agents, six of them starters. Among them is Dansby, who leads the NFL in solo tackles.
”I’ll go on record as saying we want Karlos Dansby back,” Keim said.
But only at the right price.
As for restructuring Larry Fitzgerald’s big contract. Keim said the contract’s current figures are in the existing budget although ”if there are things we can do to help our team from a cap standpoint and to get better around Larry, if it makes sense on our end and it makes sense on his end, we’ll certainly approach him.”
The aggressive young executive remains as fired up as ever about his ”dream job.”
”The thing has only scratched the surface of what it could be,” he said. ”I mean, we could get this valley rocking if we do things the right way.”