With the way there is sure to be backlash and overreaction, I’ll keep this introduction short.
The Cardinals started the season 5-2 and finished the season with an 8-8 record…with the way 9-7 would have gotten them into the playoffs, it was a brutal finish after a promising start.
This is what we learned:
#1. kyler murray’s legs are a phenomenal weapon…but not one you can build a full offense on long-term
murray came close to being the first player to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000. but after a big hit in the seahawks game 2 and playing some tougher defenses, the space to run and fight became rare , and the Cardinals started losing games.
showed all the elite traits you want, made your ol’ look good and defenders look dumb and even got better at taking dumb sacks and lowered his interception total compared to last year when he just relied too much on his arm.
what’s left? the hard part, honestly, in winning games, even when the team isn’t helping around them to the best of their ability. that is leadership, and it is something that is difficult for anyone, much less a 23-year-old who basically had to carry a franchise on his back.
for the second year in a row… he did pretty well.
the problem? His offense, especially third down, relied on Kyler’s wrestling and making a play when things broke in the pocket. and once teams were able to contain him and force him to arm-butt them, he would either see passes rejected or be forced to try to move and … he wouldn’t find much open field. teams would even taunt him to run into the man just to make it a zone defense, and he would come up short with two defenders in front of him instead of a single man to miss.
He’s a deadly weapon, but in the nfl and with his size, he has to develop as a passer. Lamar Jackson faced similar struggles in Year 3 that Kyler had at times in Year Two…but the Ravens could still run the ball and win games even without much passing attack. the one in arizona was not the same, in part due to the carefree vs. soft and intentional design.
#2. deandre hopkins picks up where larry (leaves?) as the elite wide receiver the team needs
hopkins in his first season put up a sensational 1400 yards with 6 touchdowns and actually, in some cases, he was essentially carrying the team’s offense. the Cardinals last year didn’t really have a weapon that could win one-on-one. now they have one that won 3-1 in the craziest game of the year.
considering az’s other offseason picks were a pick at no. 8, amari cooper or get rid of david johnson’s contract and a second round for hopkins… the fact that door no. o’brien and slammed is crazy.
#3. the impact of fa-to-be haason reddick was great, that of fa-to-be kenyata drake not so much
if you had told cardinals fans they could keep a player from last season between reddick and drake, 99.9% would have picked drake, who looked terrific as an arizona running back, instead from the fucking inside linebacker.
instead? With borderline movement, the smaller Reddick racked up 13 sacks and forced multiple turnovers in his last year under contract, proving that he not only had a place in the NFL, but an invaluable one.
kenyan drake finished with 4.0 yards per carry and 236 rushes for 955 yards, just shy of a thousand. however, there were too many times when he looked like he had missed a step, even early in the season. The burst for the 80-yard touchdown against Seattle or the Miami Miracle seemed to be gone, and his production seemed to rely entirely on the offensive line instead of making guys miss.
He even needed to be told to run forward in one case, he said, by his mother of all people. The Cardinals brought him back on a one-year tag for signing him to a long-term contract, and it sounds like a wise move.
#4. defensive line and safeties struggled to stay healthy
chandler jones and corey peters were the two cardinals veterans on the defensive line, and both suffered season-ending injuries. For a team that was mostly all youngsters besides them, Angelo Blackson proved to be a lifesaver. but the likes of zach allen, rashard lawrence and leki fotu got hit and at one point it looked like arizona would be turning to street free agents like domato peko just to get bodies into position.
insurance was no exception either. budda baker made it to the pro bowl despite having a wrapped thumb and missed only one (critical) game, and we saw jalen thompson in and out of the lineup all year long.
#5. starting cornerbacks and non-hopkins receivers were an enigma
man, it’s hard to look at the needs early on and then look at arizona’s ability positions outside and in the defensive corners.
the biggest thing this season was that dre kirkpatrick was a boon to arizona for the price… but you got what you expected from someone who was on the market until a few weeks before the season started.
patricio peterson looked like the cardinals weren’t going to spend a penny more on him than they wanted to after this season, and off a solid game against d.k. Metcalf (who went south the second time) was the most penalized player on the team and seemed to have missed a step. Larry Fitzgerald, meanwhile, was the same, and while several clutch closures were found (see: Philly) he really didn’t look like the same Fitzgerald card fans have seen for the last 4-5 years.
the receivers beyond hopkins? ugh.
christian kirk stopped for over 600 yards, close to his rookie season, but struggled with separation and tumbles in the end zone and strangely seemed to fade as the season went on.
andy isabella ended up on the bench after a crazy 2 touchdown game opened up his spot on the field, keesean johnson showed he has a chance in the slot as little more than a backup and hakeem butler was released by arizona and signed with philly for 2 weeks… tight end. even dan arnold was maybe underrated, but he certainly had a few drops in the season that he’d like to have back.
It was an odd collection from the group, especially given the accolades for a healthy church and how Isabella and Johnson were going to improve by leaps and bounds… and instead Arizona saw its second leading receiver be 38-year-old Fitzgerald .
At the same time, he conveyed the sentiment of kyler murray for arizona to add his old favorite target, ceedee lamb, who had 1,000 yards for dallas as a rookie from 4 different quarterbacks.
when it comes to wide receivers in the draft, steve keim post bruce arians could probably let jesus take the wheel and find more success than whatever this is.
follow the bills method: add weapons for your qb. good.
#6. isaiah simmons shock was muted (as were the rest of the rookies)
simmons was the biggest story of the offseason after hopkins and his departure from camp. In a way, he was one of Arizona’s greatest young success stories:
-some sparkles on the cover
-some game-changing turnovers (seahawks game)
-flexibility in multiple positions
and elsewhere he was maddeningly inconsistent: burning multiple times in cover and receiving multiple personal foul penalties for lowering his helmet, as well as a few missed tackles at a poor chase angle.
He wasn’t the “ever down player” az fans were hoping for. maybe it was too much, but it was still surprising, as good things seemed to come with him on the field, and with how slow jordan hicks looked at times in coverage, there seemed to be some chance that he was a threat to the defensive player of the year was already eliminated in week 1.
#7. arizona was undisciplined and battled superior competition to keep flags off the field, especially on the o line
the offensive line did a good job of reducing sacks on kyler murray from a year ago and at one point was running the best running game in the nfl overall.
That didn’t last and surprisingly, it wasn’t due to injury. Part of the problem seemed to be issues with the team struggling to avoid false starts or jumping out of the game, as Justin Pugh, DJ Humphries, and Kelvin Beachum all played their part in this.
mason cole, for what it’s worth, also had penalties and his plays seemed to lose quality as the season went on.
it was all sloppy, and really only saved by humphries’ healthy and sometimes elite play. the inside of the offensive line had a lot of fans questioning the players there late in the season.
#8. Vance Joseph got some redemption… but maybe not enough to guarantee her place next year as irreplaceable
man, if there’s one coach to pick who seemed to make a big difference in arizona’s fortunes, it was joseph.
Taking over the 2020 32nd ranked defense that began to see players move into their appropriate roles (chandler jones primary pass-rusher, reddick as rim/te defender, simmons seeing less time as lb and more as safety, dennis gardeck at pass rusher and zach allen at defensive tackle) came on in leaps and bounds.
joseph came in with perhaps the hottest seat of any positional coach in the nfl, but he turned things around quickly. That said, the defense still seemed to fail at times.
There were lessons not learned, some weird calls and coverage, and essentially Arizona was torched by rookie and backup quarterbacks all season and couldn’t force many game-changing plays.
if joseph relies on talent, that’s fine, but the best in the nfl can completely stifle opposing offenses and that’s something he just couldn’t do.
#9. kliff kingsbury’s offense was productive but left people wanting more
where do you start?
arizona was a roller coaster this year. From two dominant games for Hopkins and Kyler’s legs to two downtrodden performances to three crushing wins only to be followed by some close losses and then a true slump of the final 6 games.
outside the philadelphia game, the cardinals offense went from being the #1 offense in the nfl to looking like they had no idea what they were doing.
and for that matter, even in the midst of some of his successes, kingsbury had questions about plays and situational awareness/timeout issues.
It seemed like I was going to make the right decision at the wrong time, or make the wrong decision at the right time. For example, he would go deep on a fourth play on a drive and then kick into an area later where Arizona was on fourth-and-short and a field goal was not guaranteed.
he put a lot of trust in kyler, his kicker and his players (remember the 4th and 12th in the rams first game?) and at other times he seemed to have no trust in them and put the wheels on training on offense.
It’s puzzling, to say the least.
there weren’t as many wrinkles and while the plays were there, it seemed almost as if kingsbury stopped trying to execute “tricks” and concentrated on more “basic” plays. The ones that were the most successful were, oddly enough, the ones that weren’t aerial attacks, but rather powerful NFL-style running formations and action shots from the middle.
There was a lot of talk about how when the season started he brought up chris streveler on some snaps and was mocked for taking murray off the field. Then later in the season, when arizona failed to convert several short plays and 3rd/4th, he was mocked for not bringing in streveler to handle those conversions.
In some cases, it seemed like he couldn’t do the right thing no matter what he did despite powering Arizona’s offense in his second year in the NFL.
but, in others, it looked like he was throwing darts at the board, and when the Cardinals needed to just attack guys, they just couldn’t do it. perhaps there are leaders someone would “walk through a wall” for and others lead by example and performance.
kliff isn’t one of those guys…he has to earn it similar to sean mcvay but without the experience mcvay has had, and don’t know if it’s too much for him until we probably get to 2022.
in the meantime? i would like to look at offenses like seattle/la and others to see how they were able to utilize tight ends more in their attack and put kyler lower in center to utilize play action fakes and contraband to get him into space, on the move and out of pocket.
#10. Cardinals may have a long way to go to be competitive long-term in the NFC West
Cutting it to the nitty gritty, Arizona went 2-4 in the division this year, and still hasn’t beaten the Rams and Sean McVay…with or without Jared Goff!
the fact that arizona started 2-0 and ended the season losing four times in a row shows that they are still behind mcvay, shanahan and carroll in both the training and talent department.
kyler may have had the second best qb season of any team, but…it’s a team sport. there are 21 other positions and special teams and coaches to teach & start to succeed. And if Arizona is going to be able to close the gap, they’re going to have to match blow for blow at some point taking advantage of how Kyler is paid pennies compared to Russ/Goff and even Garoppolo.
if one of the other two teams in the division gets a talented rookie qb? good.
The Cardinals, to be blunt, have been at the bottom of the NFL for a long, long time, and getting out of that hole will require grinding out every little scum they have in their organization and finding leadership.
sound in the comments on your conclusions!