Robert Nkemdiche with the Arizona Cardinals in December 2018. Dec 9, 2018; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (90) against the Detroit Lions at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

From 2013 through this past season, Steve Keim was the general manager of the Arizona Cardinals. Keim announced in January he was leaving that role to focus on his health, which came after he took a health-related leave of absence in December. But he appeared on Chris Long’s Green Light Blue Wire/Wynn podcast this week and dropped many notable takes on Cardinals’ players past and present, including quarterback Kyler Murray. One of the most remarkable things Keim said was about a former Cardinals’ first-round pick now in the USFL, though: Robert Nkemdiche.

The Cardinals selected Nkemdiche, a defensive tackle out of Ole Miss, with their first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft (27th overall). That came after a lot of scouting praise for Nkemdiche’s on-field play, but also after some raising concerns about his character, especially after he was suspended for the Rebels’ 2016 Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma State. That suspension came from an early-December incident where he broke a window at the Grand Hyatt in Atlanta and fell 15 feet, and then had marijuana cigarettes discovered in his room. Keim told Long some of those concerns were why Nkemdiche was available at 27 despite “top-10 talent,” but the pick didn’t work out because Nkemdiche “didn’t love football enough”:

 “In Arizona, I drafted Robert Nkemdiche with the 26th pick overall, who we thought was a Top-10 talent. And there were some concerns and questions about him coming out. At the end of the day, really, the guy just, in my opinion, didn’t love football enough. He didn’t succeed or play at a high level because he was in love with the process of going through the draft, being the top pick, getting money. But when it was time to grind, that wasn’t his focus.”

While some talking heads in the sports media will question players’ “love for the game” from time to time, it’s more unusual to see a general manager make a remark such as “the guy didn’t love football enough.” And remarks like that have led to some notable blowback from time to time, perhaps especially for former Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi around his 2008 remark that then-Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Dunn “doesn’t even like baseball all that much.”

Unlike Dunn and his successful 14-year MLB career, though, Nkemdiche has not put up that great of a professional sports resume. At least not to date. He played for the Cardinals from 2016-2018, but only appeared in 27 games across those three seasons. He was waived in the 2019 offseason with a failed physical designation, with the team saying he arrived at camp out of shape (following a knee surgery that ended his 2018 season).

Nkemdiche briefly played with the Miami Dolphins in 2019, appearing in two games after returning from that injury. But he was cut by them that November, and then was suspended for two weeks by the NFL for unspecified reasons. He then didn’t play for anyone in 2020, played nine games for the Seattle Seahawks in 2021, spent the offseason with the San Francisco 49ers in 2022, and is now with the USFL’s Michigan Panthers. Questions can be asked about if his NFL performance to date is about scheme, coaching fit, injuries, or other reasons beyond Keim’s allegation he “didn’t love football enough,” but it certainly hasn’t been a resounding success. (However, Nkemdiche choosing to continue his professional football career in the much-lower-salaried USFL suggests he has at least some passion for football at this point.)

And there isn’t necessarily specific blowback coming for Keim. He’s not even in the NFL at the moment, and has no current plans to return there full-time. He did tell Long he’ll be working for Fox Sports at this year’s NFL Draft, and he’s entertaining consultant offers from teams, but it’s unclear if he’ll be heading back to the league (especially considering that there’s also a controversy around a lawsuit from former Cardinals’ executive Terry McDonough, which claims that owner Michael Bidwell had him and head coach Steve Wilks communicate with Keim via burner phones during a five-week suspension Keim faced in 2018 over a DUI). And maybe the lack of a current NFL job got Keim to be a little freer with his comments than many executives might have been. At any rate, it’s certainly interesting to hear a “didn’t love football enough” from a GM.

[The Green Light Podcast, The Arizona Republic; photo of Nkemdiche during a 2018 game from Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.