The Arizona Cardinals were a 5-11 team the year before Steve Keim was named their general manager in 2013.
The Cardinals have won 34 regular-season games in three seasons since and are one more win, Sunday against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC championship game, away from the Super Bowl.
This is not an accident, according to the people who know Keim, who was an offensive linemen for N.C. State in the early 1990s, the best.
Patience, perseverance, discipline, toughness, common sense – all the things that made Keim a good blocker for the Wolfpack are the same reasons he has had success in a long personnel career with the Cardinals.
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“To me, it’s a great story,” said Rod Graves, Keim’s mentor and predecessor with the Cardinals. “I’m really happy for Steve because I always felt that he did things the right way.”
Keim, 43, has made some smart draft decisions, mining some smaller colleges maybe other NFL teams wouldn’t touch, and some even smarter free-agent signings and trades to rebuild the Cardinals into a winner.
The two things hardest to judge are the heart and the mind. And they are the most important.
Cardinals GM Steve Keim on evaluating players
Most first-time general managers would play it safe or at least play the percentages. Keim hasn’t been afraid to take risks. In three years, he has already made 592 roster moves and 44 of the 53 players on the current roster were brought in by Keim.
“He has made a lot of good moves in a short amount of time,” said former N.C. State and NFL star receiver Torry Holt.
The most important player move was trading a sixth-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for quarterback Carson Palmer. Perhaps his biggest, and best move, was hiring coach Bruce Arians, a longtime NFL assistant.
Some moves weren’t always popular at the time – drafting safety Tyrann Mathieu, re-signing veteran Larry Fitzgerald, trading for Palmer – but they’ve all helped the Cardinals get to this point.
“You can’t get consumed with what the public says,” Keim said. “You have to trust your eyes and trust yourself.”
There’s a story Keim loves to tell about the time he predicted his NFL future to his mom, Sally. At the age of 9, Keim declared in the family kitchen in New Cumberland, Pa., that he would be a general manager in the NFL when he grew up.
“He told me lots of things,” Sally said. “One thing about Steve, once he zeroed in on a goal and made up his mind, he worked really hard to get what he wanted.”
Sally figured out her son meant business about a future in football after his first year playing in eighth grade. Keim’s career began on the bench, his mother said.
“He came home from practice and said, ‘Boy, I have a lot to learn,” his mom said.
That’s when Keim went to work. He got in better shape and lifted weights. He started on his varsity high school team at Red Land as a sophomore. He earned a scholarship to N.C. State and started at left guard. He helped the Wolfpack to a 9-3 season in 1994, when he was named second-team All-ACC.
He tore the ligaments in his right knee in spring practice. Robbie Caldwell, Keim’s position coach at N.C. State, remembers being told Keim wouldn’t be healthy enough to play for his senior season.
“That’s about the last thing you should do with Steve: tell him he can’t do something,” said Caldwell, now an assistant coach Clemson.
Sure enough, Keim rehabbed and worked through to injury to prove everyone wrong, Caldwell said.
“He never missed a play,” Caldwell said. “He was so tough.”
And smart, or “on-the-field” smart, as Caldwell put it. In nearly four decades of college coaching, Caldwell said Keim was one of the smartest players he ever coached.
“Now, academically I’d have to jack him up after the fall semester but on the field, he was smart,” Caldwell said. “He always had a good, analytical mind.”
Keim needed his wits. N.C. State went 3-9 in Keim’s senior season but his play and determination stood out. He was named second-team All-ACC again.
The knee injury damaged Keim’s pro potential. He got a free-agent chance with the Miami Dolphins in 1996 but didn’t make the team. He made the Edmonton Eskimos’ roster in the CFL but suffered another knee injury.
After his playing career was over, Keim went back to N.C. State to become a graduate assistant in the strength and conditioning program.
Former running N.C. State assistant Dick Portee helped set Keim up with his future wife, Kim, on a blind date. Keim’s professional prospects took a little bit longer to develop.
Keim’s second year as a graduate assistant was Holt’s senior season. With every NFL personnel director and general manager coming through Raleigh to check out Holt, Keim started to make some connections.
Jerry Hardaway was a scout for the Cardinals who lived in Cary and was impressed with Keim’s work at N.C. State. Graves, then the Cardinals’ GM, also knew William Hicks, N.C. State’s strength coach at the time. Graves decided to hire Keim a job as an area scout.
“The two things that have always separated Steve from all the others are his passion for football and his initiative,” Graves said.
About 75 million people played fantasy football this year, according to one study. Most all of them would love to have Keim’s job. Few would have been willing to put the work in Keim did.
“Area scout” sounds like a great gig until you’re on the road for 210 days of the year, at another lousy hotel, eating another warmed over meal away from your wife and kids.
“There’s no glamour to it,” Keim said. “At the same time it’s extremely rewarding.”
Keim learned the value of dedication and loyalty from his father, Ken, who worked as a machinist for AMP Inc. in Harrisburg for 42 years.
Patience and perseverance, for 15 years on the road, did pay off. Graves was promoted to director of college scouting in 2006 and two years later to director of player personnel. Graves, with Keim’s help, built a Super Bowl roster in 2008.
The Cardinals, a wild card team at 9-7 that season, beat the Panthers in Charlotte, 33-13 in the divisional round. They made it to Super Bowl XLIII but lost by four points to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Cards went 10-6 the next season but didn’t have a winning record for three straight years. Graves lost his job because “that’s how the NFL works, it’s about wins and losses,” he said.
But Graves couldn’t have been happier for Keim and his opportunity.
“I’m really proud of the decisions that he has made in that role and the job he has done,” Graves said. “He has done an excellent job.”
The same language
With his bald head, blue eyes and goatee, Keim could pass for wrestling legend “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. With his deep voice and big personality, he could probably pull off a wrestling promo, or two, but Keim’s reluctant to brag about his own success.
Humility, he says, is one of the most important traits for anyone in the business.
“You have to be humble enough to say, ‘I missed,’ and learn from your mistakes,” Keim said.
And there’s some luck involved, too. Keim interviewed eight other coaches before hiring Arians. The Chicago Bears interviewed Arians before Keim could. The Bears decided to go with Marc Trestman, a former N.C. State assistant, instead.
Arians, who grew up in York, Pa., not too far from Keim’s Harrisburg suburb, had an immediate connection with his new boss.
“We just speak the same language,” Keim said.
While Arians has coaxed the best out of Palmer, a former No. 1 overall pick with Cincinnati, Keim has been able to upgrade the talent around the 36-year-old quarterback.
Keim hit on his third-round draft pick this year (running back David Johnson from Northern Iowa) and last year (receiver John Brown from Pittsburgh State). His free-agent moves have netted Mike Iupati and Jared Veldheer on the offensive line and Dwight Freeney and Cory Redding on the defensive line.
He also re-signed Fitzgerald to a two-year deal when most other GMs would have given up on a 32-year-old receiver coming off of a down season.
“The two things hardest to judge are the heart and the mind,” Keim said. “And they are the most important.”
Keim hasn’t missed on either for the Cardinals. And his hard work, and patience, have paid off.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio