TEMPE, Ariz. -- The night before making the most important draft pick of his career, Steve Keim had an acute understanding of the substantial stakes. As the embattled general manager of an Arizona Cardinals franchise which, by virtue of its miserable 2018 season, would have its choice of any player in the 2019 NFL Draft, Keim knew the pressure was on -- and, justifiably, he was looking out for No. 1.
"We've got the first overall pick, and it's obviously a big one," Keim told me Wednesday. "Because, let's face it, if we ever have the No. 1 pick again, I won't be the one making it."
Harsh -- but fair, given Keim's recent struggles on and off the field. For as he attempts to shore up a roster full of rough patches, Keim's seat is hotter than a summer afternoon in the Valley of the Sun.
Simply put: To extend what has been a largely successful two-decade Cardinals career as a highly respected talent evaluator, including six-plus years as the team's GM, Keim must get this pick right. And though he didn't reveal his plan on the eve of the first round, Keim was already locked in on a bold but potentially perilous choice: former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, a two-way threat whose Heisman Trophy-winning performance in 2018 disrupted his plan to play baseball and vaulted him to the top of the Cardinals' draft board.
On Thursday, while a party raged more than 1,600 miles away in downtown Nashville, Keim manned the draft room at the Cardinals' training facility and shot his shot. In picking Murray, the Cardinals made some dubious history, becoming the first NFL team to select quarterbacks in the first round of consecutive drafts since the Baltimore Colts in 1982 (Art Schlichter) and '83 (future Hall of Famer John Elway, who six days later was traded to the Denver Broncos after he refused to join the Colts, threatening instead to play ... wait for it ... baseball).
The Cardinals also left their incumbent franchise quarterback, Josh Rosen, in limbo, creating an uncomfortable situation that has the potential to last through the remainder of the draft and beyond. Regardless of how messy the transition, the franchise's immediate fate -- and, quite likely, Keim's fate as Arizona's GM -- is now in the hands of a relatively raw QB who stands a shade over 5-10.
A year ago, exactly nobody could have seen this coming.
Last April, Keim traded up five spots to take Rosen with the 10th overall pick, surrendering selections in the third and fifth rounds in the process. At the time, the GM's excitement over that move was palpable.
Now flash forward to Thursday night: As he and rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury held a press conference in the Cardinals' media room following the end of the first round, Keim talked up his new franchise quarterback while attempting to sell the notion that Rosen might remain with the Cardinals for the 2019 season.
In insisting that he would keep Rosen on the roster absent a suitable trade offer, one which by late Thursday night had yet to materialize, Keim repeated a refrain he had voiced the previous evening: "Look, if we take Murray, I'm not giving up Josh for less than he's worth. He's a really good player. He's been amazing throughout this process, and I have nothing but good things to say about him. Quarterback's the most important position in the game, and without one, you're screwed -- so you'd better have more than one. Trust me, I know. Four years ago, we went into a playoff game with our fourth-stringer (Ryan Lindley) because our other quarterbacks got hurt, and it wasn't fun. (Lindley threw for just 82 yards in a 27-16 defeat to the Carolina Panthers.) So yeah, people might think it would be awkward to have them both, but I'm not worried about that at all. I have no reason to give Josh away."
It's tough not to be skeptical. Though Rosen did not return messages and was unavailable for comment, several sources familiar with the quarterback's thinking said he was upset by the selection of Murray. They also confirmed that he was far from thrilled with the franchise's handling of the pre-draft process, during which he received no assurances regarding his status nor any indication that he was being replaced. Yet Rosen concealed his frustration well, even as the Murray-to-Arizona talk reached a crescendo. Teammates and coaches lauded the incumbent quarterback for his professionalism and unflappable demeanor during offseason workouts, including a voluntary minicamp that extended through Thursday afternoon.
Given Rosen's renowned mental aptitude and experience as the team's starter -- and the fact that Murray has a more reserved personality -- he wouldn't seem to be an ideal backup, yet it would be tough to imagine Rosen losing out to the rookie in a fair competition.
In a word: Awkward.
In the name of preserving team chemistry, the logical move for the Cardinals would be to trade Rosen, something that could theoretically happen on Friday, when the draft continues with the second and third rounds.
However, as Thursday night's theatrics played out, it was fair to wonder whether the Cardinals had mishandled the process, an opinion that some of Keim's peers around the league privately expressed as it became apparent that Arizona's leverage had dissipated.
With two teams having filled their needs by selecting quarterbacks in the first half of Thursday's first round -- the New York Giants, who took Duke's Daniel Jones sixth overall, and the Washington Redskins, who selected Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins 15th -- the pool of logical trade partners for Rosen had been substantially reduced. The Miami Dolphins, according to a knowledgeable source, put out feelers to the Cardinals about acquiring Rosen, and the Los Angeles Chargers also had at least some interest. However, with Keim apparently intent on receiving a first-round pick in return, no deal appeared to be forthcoming.
As the clock struck midnight in Nashville and Thursday turned to Friday, this seemed to be the deal: Either Keim will relent and take what he can get for Rosen and move on, or the Cardinals could well be in for a very strained spring and summer.
It's not an ideal state of affairs, and it's reasonable to wonder whether it could have been avoided.
Though Keim was smitten with two defensive prospects who would be picked second and third overall -- former Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa (who was taken by the San Francisco 49ers) and ex-Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (New York Jets) -- as the draft approached, it had become clear to most of his fellow GMs, and other talent evaluators and coaches around the league, that Murray would be the choice. On Thursday, one veteran mover-and-shaker referred to the dynamic quarterback's selection as "the worst-kept secret in the last 25 years."
In fairness, Keim had his reasons for not tipping the pick: maintaining suspense; holding out hope for an irresistible offer to trade down; creating leverage for preliminary contract talks Thursday afternoon with Murray's agent designed to protect the team against the quarterback, who was picked ninth overall by the Oakland A's in last June's MLB draft, switching back to his original intended sport. Still, the Cardinals' reluctance to shop Rosen aggressively seemed in retrospect to have been a miscalculation, because once they selected Murray, they were unable to convince any potential suitors that they valued their deposed franchise quarterback.
If nothing else, it was a bad look for a general manager trying to rebound from the most trying year of his professional life.
The drama began in early 2018 when Keim contracted a nasty staph infection in his leg that led to a weeklong hospitalization and a subsequent surgery. Last July 4, he was pulled over and arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence; two weeks later, he served a two-day jail sentence after pleading guilty to extreme DUI.
Ashamed and embarrassed, Keim showed up at Phoenix's Lower Buckeye Jail to begin his 48-hour incarceration and encountered a row of television trucks, with camera crews and newscasters poised outside. Before emerging from his car, he called his lawyer to ask if this was a normal scene, with journalists routinely staking out the facility to get footage of entering prisoners. When the lawyer answered, "Nope -- that must be for you," Keim's stomach dropped.
In the wake of the incident, Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill suspended Keim for five weeks and fined him $200,000. He returned in late August, just before the start of a lost season. Arizona struggled from the jump under rookie coach Steve Wilks, whom the GM had hired after Bruce Arians' resignation following the 2017 season. The Cardinals were 0-3 when Rosen took over from veteran Sam Bradford as the team's starter in late September and sputtered to a 3-13 record, as the rookie quarterback endured growing pains behind a flawed offensive line.
After the season, Keim fired Wilks and replaced him with Kingsbury, who had been dismissed from Texas Tech after going 35-40 over six seasons as the school's head coach. Ostensibly, Kingsbury was hired because he convinced the GM of his ability to "fix" Rosen; however, Kingsbury's extremely high opinion of Murray, his former Big 12 rival, was already well-documented, and people around the NFL began connecting dots. Soon Keim, too, became a not-so-secret admirer.
"I know people think this pick is about Kliff wanting Kyler, but he really didn't push me in any way," Keim insisted Wednesday. "If I take him, it'll be because I was blown away by what I saw. I've scouted quarterbacks who can run like he can, and I've scouted quarterbacks who can throw it like he can. But I've never scouted one who is so good at both."
In the end, Keim concluded that Murray's talent -- and potential for greatness -- overrode all other mitigating factors, even at the expense of not getting anything close to perceived value for the quarterback he'd traded up to draft a year earlier. As Keim knows all too well, running the Cardinals' draft a year from now is far from promised, and with so much on the line, he decided to trust his gut and avoid the temptation to play it safe.
"You know me," Keim said, smiling. "If I'm going down, I'm going down swinging. And I promise that whatever we do with that first pick will be the move we truly believe we need to make to get this franchise back to where it needs to be."
And if the selection of Murray doesn't accomplish that lofty goal? Well, as Keim knows, that will likely end up being someone else's mess to clean up.