With how there’s bound to be reaction and overreaction, I’ll keep this intro brief.
The Cardinals started the season 5-2 and finished the season with an 8-8 record…with how 9-7 would have gotten them into the playoffs it was a brutal finish after a promising start.
Here’s what we learned:
#1. Kyler Murray’s legs are a phenomenal weapon…but not one you can build an entire offense around long-term
Murray came close to being the first player to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 1,000. But after a big hit in the second Seahawks game and playing some tougher defenses, running and scrambling room became rare, and the Cardinals started dropping games.
He showcased all of the elite traits you want, made his OL look good and defenders look silly and even improved on taking dumb sacks and shrunk his interception total from times last year where he simply trusted his arm a bit too much.
What’s left? The hard part, honestly, in winning games even when the team isn’t helping around him to the best of their ability. That’s what leadership is, and it’s something that’s hard for anyone, much less a 23-year-old who had to essentially carry a franchise on his back.
For a second year in a row…he did a pretty good job of it.
The problem? Their offense, especially 3rd and long, was built around Kyler’s scrambling and making a play when things broke down in the pocket. And once teams were able to contain him and force him to beat them with his arm, he’d watch passes get batted down or be forced to try and scramble and…wouldn’t find much open downfield. Teams would even bait him into running against man only for it to be a zone defense, and he’d come up short with two defenders in front of him rather than a single man to make miss.
It’s a weapon that’s deadly, but in the NFL and with his size, he has to develop as a passer. Lamar Jackson encountered similar Year 3 struggles as Kyler had at times in year two…but the Ravens still were able to run the ball and win games even without much of a passing attack. Arizona’s wasn’t the same, in part due to the freewheeling versus smooth and intentional design.
#2. Deandre Hopkins picking up where Larry (is leaving?) off as the elite wide receiver the team needs
Hopkins in his first season put up a sensational 1,400 yards with 6 touchdowns and really, in a few cases 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 on 1 in the craziest game of the year.
Considering that AZ’s other options in the offseason were a pick at #8, Amari Cooper or shedding David Johnson’s contract and a 2nd rounder for Hopkins…the fact that Door #3 even existed to run through before the Texans fired Bill O’Brien and it slammed shut is insane.
#3. FA-to-be Haason Reddick’s impact was big, FA-to-be Kenyan Drake’s not so much
If you told Cardinals fans that they could keep one player around from the previous season between Reddick and Drake, 99.9% would have picked the latter, who looked phenomenal as a running back for Arizona, over the maligned inside linebacker.
Instead? With a move to the edge, the smaller Reddick put up 13 sacks and forced multiple turnovers in his final year under contract, proving that he had not just a place in the NFL, but an invaluable one.
Kenyan Drake finished with 4.0 yards a carry and 236 rushes for 955 yards, just shy of a thousand. However, there were far too many times where it looked like he had lost 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 fully hinge on the offensive line rather than 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 over signing him to a long-term deal, and it looks like that was a wise decision.
#4. The Defensive Line and Safeties struggled to stay healthy
Chandler Jones and Corey Peters were the Cardinals’ two veterans on the defensive line, and both suffered season-ending injuries. For a team that was mostly all youth besides them, Angelo Blackson turned out to be a lifesaver. But the likes of Zach Allen, Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu all were banged up and at one point it looked like Arizona would be turning to street free agents like Domato Peko just to field bodies at the position.
The safeties were no exception either. Budda Baker made the Pro Bowl despite a wrapped thumb and missed a single (critical) game, and we saw Jalen Thompson move in and out of the lineup throughout the year.
#5. The Starting Corners and non-Hopkins receivers were a conundrum
Man, it’s rough to look at the needs up front and then look at Arizona’s skill positions outside and in the defensive corners.
The biggest takeaway from this season was that Dre Kirkpatrick was a boon for Arizona for the price…but you got what you expected from someone who was on the market until a few weeks before the season began.
Patrick Peterson looked like the Cardinals weren’t going to spend a dime more on him than they wanted to past this season, and outside of a solid game against D.K. Metcalf (that went south the second time) he was the most penalized player on the team and looked like he had lost a step. Larry Fitzgerald, meanwhile, was the same, and while several clutch catches were to be found (see: Philly) he really didn’t look like the same Fitzgerald that Cards fans have seen for the past 4-5 years.
The receivers past Hopkins? Oof.
Christian Kirk pulled up with over 600 yards, close to his rookie season, but had struggles in separation and endzone drops and oddly seemed to fade away as the season stretched on.
Andy Isabella ended up benched after a crazy 2 touchdown game started his place on the field, KeeSean Johnson showed that he’s got a chance in the slot as not much more than a backup and Hakeem Butler was released by Arizona and signed with Philly for 2 weeks….as a tight end. Even Dan Arnold was maybe undertargeted but certainly had a few drops on the season he’d like to have back.
It was a bizarre collection from the group, especially given the praise lauded on a healthy Kirk and how Isabella and Johnson were going to improve by leaps and bounds…and instead Arizona saw their 2nd leading receiver be 38 year old Fitzgerald.
All the while passing on Kyler Murray’s sentiment for Arizona to add his old favorite target CeeDee Lamb who got 1,000 yards for Dallas as a rookie from 4 different quarterbacks.
When wide receivers in the draft are involved, Steve Keim post Bruce Arians could probably let Jesus take the wheel and he’d find more success than whatever this is.
Follow the Bills method: add weapons for your QB. Good ones.
#6. Isaiah Simmons’ impact was muted (as were the rest of the rookies)
Simmons was the biggest story of the offseason after Hopkins and coming out of camp. In some ways he was one of the biggest young success stories for Arizona:
-some flashes in coverage
-a few game changing turnovers (the Seahawks game)
-flexibility at multiple positions
And in other spots he was maddeningly inconsistent—getting burned a few times in coverage and multiple personal foul penalties for lowering his helmet, as well as some missed tackles on a poor pursuit angle.
It wasn’t the “every down player” AZ fans expected. Perhaps it was too much, but it was surprising still as good things seemed to come with him on the field, and with how slow Jordan Hicks looked at times in coverage, it seemed like any chance of him being a threat for the defensive player of the year got stripped away as early as Week 1.
#7. Arizona was undisciplined and struggled against top competition to keep flags off the field, especially on the O-Line
The offensive line did a fine job of reducing the sacks on Kyler Murray from a year ago and at one point was operating 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 keep from false starts or jumping offsides, as Justin Pugh, DJ Humphries and Kelvin Beachum all did their part in this.
Mason Cole, for what it’s worth, also had penalties and his snaps seemed to decline in quality as the season stretched on.
It was sloppy all around, and really only saved by Humphries’ healthy and at times, elite, play. The interior of the O-Line had a lot of fans questioning the players there by season’s end.
#8. Vance Joseph earned some redemption…but perhaps not enough to guarantee his spot 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 32nd ranked defense from 2020 that started to see players move into their proper roles (Chandler Jones primary pass rusher, Reddick as an edge/TE backer, Simmons seeing less time as a LB and more as a safety, Dennis Gardeck as a pass rusher and Zach Allen as a defensive tackle) they made strides.
Joseph came in with maybe the hottest seat of any positional coach in the NFL, but he turned things around quickly. That said—the defense still seemed at times to misfire.
There were lessons not learned, some strange calls and coverages, and essentially Arizona was TORCHED by backup and rookie quarterbacks all season long and unable to force many game-changing plays.
If Joseph is talent-dependent, that’s fine, but the best in the NFL are able to stifle opposing offenses entirely and that’s something he just wasn’t able to do.
#9. Kliff Kingsbury’s offense was productive but left people wanting more
Where do you begin?
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 sinker of a final last 6 games.
Outside of the Philly game, the Cardinals offense went from being a #1 offense in the NFL to down the stretch looking like they had no idea what they were doing.
And for that matter, even in the midst of some of their successes, there were playcall questions and situational/timeout awareness issues that lingered for Kingsbury.
It felt a lot like he would make the right choice at the wrong time, or the wrong choice at the right time. For example, he’d go deep on a 4th down play on one drive, and then kick in an area later where Arizona was in 4th and short and a field goal wasn’t guaranteed.
He put a lot of confidence into Kyler and his kicker and players (remember the 4th and 12 in the first Rams game?) and at other times he would seem to have no confidence in them and would put the training wheels on the offense.
It’s perplexing, to say the least.
There weren’t as many wrinkles and while the plays were there, it seemed almost like Kingsbury stopped trying to run “gimmicks” and focused on more “bread and butter” plays. The ones that were the most successful were interestingly the ones that weren’t air raid but instead were NFL-style power running formations and play-action shots from under center.
Much was made about how when he started the season, how he trotted out Chris Streveler on a few plays and was mocked for taking Murray off the field. Then, later in the season, when Arizona couldn’t convert multiple 3rd/4th and short plays, he was mocked for not bringing Streveler to pick it up on those conversions.
In some cases, it felt like he couldn’t do right no matter what he did despite boosting Arizona’s offense in his second year in the NFL.
But, in others it seemed like he was throwing darts at the board, and when the Cardinals needed to simply maul guys over, they just couldn’t get it done. Perhaps there’s leaders that someone would “run through a wall for” and others lead through example and performance.
Kliff isn’t one of those guys…he’s having to earn it similar to Sean McVay but without the experience that McVay has had, and there’s no telling if it’s too much for him until likely we hit 2022.
In the meantime? I’d aim to look at the offenses like Seattle/LA and others to how they were able to utilize tight ends more in their attack and put Kyler more under center to utilize play-action fakes and bootlegs to get him in space, on the move and out of the pocket.
#10. The Cardinals may have a ways to go to be competitive long-term in the NFC West
Cutting it to the quick, Arizona went 2-4 in the division this year, and still haven’t beaten the Rams and Sean McVay…with or without Jared Goff!
The fact that Arizona started out 2-0 and ended the season dropping four straight shows that they are still behind the likes of McVay, Shanahan and Carroll in both the coaching and talent department.
Kyler may have had the 2nd best QB season of any team but…it’s a team sport. There’s another 21 positions and special teams and coaches to teach & put in place to be successful. And if Arizona’s going to be able to close the gap, they’ll have to match blow-for-blow at some point taking advantage of how Kyler’s being paid pennies compared to Russ/Goff and even Garoppolo.
If one of the other two teams in the division get a talented rookie QB? Welp.
The Cardinals, to be frank, have been bottom dwellers in the NFL for a long, long time, and in order to climb out of that pit it will take polishing off every little bit of dross they have in their organization and finding leadership.