Can Jonathan Gannon flip the Cardinals round? Answering seven large questions

Thirty-six days after firing coach Kliff Kingsbury, the Arizona Cardinals found his replacement Tuesday in former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who’s fresh off a Super Bowl loss Sunday.

When Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill set out to find his fourth head coach in the past seven years, he said he would cast a net “far and wide,” and he did. Arizona was connected to eight other candidates throughout the process, including the likes of Sean Payton (hired as head coach of the Denver Broncos) and Brian Flores (hired as defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings).

Arizona was the last team to hire a head coach after taking a break in the process when the Super Bowl was in town. Arizona was down to three finalists in the last few days: Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and Gannon. Arizona had focused its attention on Gannon and Anarumo in recent days.

In Gannon, the Cardinals get a 40-year-old defensive mind who was one of the hottest names going into the coaching search. They didn’t get in on the Gannon sweepstakes during the first round of interviews, so they had to wait until he was out of the playoffs, which just so happened to be after the Super Bowl in his new home as a head coach.

Now Gannon is charged with turning around a franchise desperate for success after a 4-13 season that followed back-to-back late-season tailspins in 2020 and 2021.

It’s a tall task, but the Cardinals must believe Gannon is up for the challenge. Here are some of the biggest questions about Gannon and his new team.

Who is Gannon?

Gannon was the Eagles defensive coordinator the past two seasons, overseeing a group that finished first in sacks (70) and pass defense (171.6 yards per game) during the 2022 regular season, helping the Eagles secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC en route to an appearance in Super Bowl LVII.

Before that, he worked with defensive backs as an assistant for the Indianapolis Colts (2018-20) and Minnesota Vikings (2014-17), where he studied under then-head coach Mike Zimmer. He has cultivated a reputation around the league as a sharp football mind with CEO qualities that should translate well to a head-coaching post. — Tim McManus

Why was Gannon appealing for the Cardinals?

Arizona needed its next coach to change the culture — a coach with experience winning who could stand in front of the team, demand respect and coach players hard.

Gannon checks all those boxes.

The X’s and O’s are the least important part of this hire. Gannon has shown what he can do with talent, although the Cardinals don’t have as much as the Eagles. But it’s about the leadership Gannon can bring to the locker room. Under Kingsbury, the Cardinals essentially had two head coaches — Vance Joseph was the head coach of the defense and Kingsbury the offense. Bridging that gap will be vital for Gannon’s success.

And Gannon having just gone to a Super Bowl helps too. — Josh Weinfuss

Did offensive or defensive background matter in the Cardinals’ search?

No. Bidwill said he wasn’t going to rule out any coaches based on which side of the ball they came from. The Gannon hiring, however, keeps up with a trend of the past four coaches having alternating specialties. Kingsbury was offensive; and before him, Steve Wilks was defensive; and before him, Bruce Arians was offensive.

Bidwill said he wanted to hire someone “with a very good plan and with the right leadership skills.”

The big question now will be which assistants Gannon will bring with him on his staff, specifically the offensive coordinator.

With the Cardinals not landing a coach until this late in the offseason, many assistants have found work elsewhere because they didn’t want to risk not having a job. When Arizona hired its past two head coaches, the team all but built their staffs for them. It’s still yet to be seen whether the Cardinals will do that again.

Who Gannon’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach end up being will be watched closely because of the importance of them building a relationship with the face of the franchise, quarterback Kyler Murray. The increasingly tense relationship between Kingsbury and Murray was at the heart of the Cardinals’ problems in 2022. — Weinfuss

What did Gannon do well in Philadelphia that should encourage Cardinals fans?

He is a top-notch communicator. Edge rusher Haason Reddick is among Gannon’s most vocal backers, crediting him with listening to his players and using their input to tailor the scheme to their strengths.

His overarching defensive philosophy is to prevent the big play and generate takeaways — believing zone coverage is a good way to do so, as it allows defenders to have their eyes on the quarterback. Although that philosophy might be straightforward, Gannon is big on pre-snap disguises to muddle the picture for opposing quarterbacks.

The Philly fan base has mixed feelings about him — his lack of aggressiveness his first year as DC, in particular, didn’t mesh with the city’s personality — and the team’s defensive performance in the Super Bowl left a bad taste, but his coaches and players back him up hard.

“This guy is an incredible coordinator. People love to play for this guy,” coach Nick Sirianni said in January. — McManus

What does this hire mean for Murray?

It’s too early to get a definitive idea until Gannon hires an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach — both of whom will spend the most time with Murray whenever he returns from the ACL tear in his right knee next season.

What will be interesting to watch is how Gannon’s relationship with Murray develops.

Not having the head coach be directly involved with the offense or quarterbacks could, in some ways, be better for Murray. It could give him an opportunity to work with those two coaches more often and in a deeper way than if the head coach were an offensive-minded coach who called plays. — Weinfuss

What are Gannon’s biggest priorities in fixing a defense that ranked 31st in points allowed?

He needs to rebuild a pass rush that used to be the foundation of Arizona’s defense and find a true lockdown cornerback who can defend every team’s WR1. If he can do that, Arizona’s defense should make a jump in 2023.

Gannon could use a player like Reddick, the former Cardinals linebacker he coached this season in Philadelphia. Reddick wasn’t re-signed by Arizona after the 2020 season and had an All-Pro season in 2022. After the 2021 season, the Cardinals let Chandler Jones walk in free agency, which has left them with a diminished pass rush that struggled to get to the quarterback (36 sacks in 2022, ranked tied for 23rd).

Adding a No. 1 cornerback, in free agency or by re-signing Byron Murphy Jr. — who’s been dealing with a back injury, could also be a game-changer for Gannon’s defense.

But the biggest question heading into the early days of Gannon’s regime will be what happens with Vance Joseph. The incumbent defensive coordinator is still under contract, and some players from last year’s team expressed to Bidwill their desire to have Joseph be the next head coach. — Weinfuss

Where might the Cardinals focus with the No. 3 pick in the draft?

They should take Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., the top prospect on my board. There’s a great chance they’ll be able to select the draft’s top defender if quarterbacks are taken with the top two picks. Anderson could be a game-wrecker, and with the recent retirement of J.J. Watt (12.5 sacks) and with Zach Allen (5.5) set to become a free agent, there’s a clear need here.

Anderson is a versatile pass-rusher who would solve Arizona’s pressure woes and be a consistent disrupter against the run. With 34.5 career sacks during his three seasons with the Crimson Tide, he would give this franchise an instant-impact player.

In Gannon’s scheme, Anderson will need to improve on his missed tackles — he had 10 last season — but he likely will stick to one position instead of moving all over the defense like in college. Focusing on one spot will help him as a rookie. — Jordan Reid

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