Through six games, the 2019 Arizona Cardinals have been many things.
Losers. Winners. Neither (that tie!). Frustrating. Unpredictable. Disappointing. Promising.
But one thing they haven’t been is boring. Even at their lowest point (the back-to-back double-digit losses to the Panthers and Seahawks) they’ve never been less than entertaining. They were within striking distance in the second half in both games and provided some highlights even though they lost. No one is turning these games off at halftime like happened all too often last year.
In other words, this team is something they haven’t been in a while.
Entertaining. Relevant. Must-watch. Exciting.
At 2-3-1, things obviously aren’t perfect (we’ll get to that), and no one should expect this 2-game winning streak to turn into a playoff push. This is still a rebuilding team with a rookie coach and QB.
But Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray have rejuvenated this team and its fanbase. It’s such a relief to see the arrow pointed in the right direction after the abject failure of last season. Kliff and Kyler are not only helping Cardinals fans forget last season, but return the team to its high-flying glory days.
Redbirds Take Flight Again
The two previous successful runs of Cardinals football in the UOP/State Farm Stadium era were predicated on harmonious coach/QB duos—the Ken Whisenhunt/Kurt Warner teams and the Bruce Arians/Carson Palmer teams. Both teams made deep playoff runs predominantly on the backs of high-flying offenses led by big-armed, productive QBs.
But the Cardinals offense has been grounded for the past couple seasons. In 2017, the final year of the Arians/Palmer pairing, injuries and poor playcalling led to a precipitous drop-off in offense from top-10 in the league to the bottom-10. That season led to both men retiring (albeit Arians only temporarily—but one can only imagine how much longer he’ll stick around if he has to continue to deal with Jameis Winston).
That led to the ill-fated Steve Wilks/Josh Rosen duo (with an even iller-fated cameos from Mike McCoy and Sam Bradford). Things went from bad to worse, as the Redbirds fielded a historically bad offense, finishing dead last in the league in both yards and points in 2018.
Both coach and QB had that deer in the headlights look far too often last season. Unproven quickly became incapable and it was clear what needed to be done. For all the legitimate concerns about this team’s front office leadership over the past two years, Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim made the hard choice, stepping down hard on the gas pedal and running both those deer off the road.
Gone were the underqualified head coach who never should have been hired in the first place and the rookie QB who never showed he had what it takes to be an elite player at the game’s most important position. They now play prominent roles for the league’s worst team (QB for the Dolphins) and most disappointing team (DC for the Browns). Note that I take absolutely no pleasure in this and wish both men well, but it is what it is.
In their place, Bidwill and Keim brought in a new rookie coach/QB duo. Although they both have shown their warts so far, they’re also an obvious—and potentially significant—improvement over their predecessors.
Welcome to the Kliff and Kyler Show
If you’re active on Twitter, you’ve likely seen this Evan Silva tweet by now:
Early returns on Kliff Kingsbury’s #Cardinals offense:— Evan Silva (@evansilva) October 14, 2019
2018 Cards / 2019 Cards
Points: 32nd / 17th
Yards: 32nd / 10th
Yards Per Play: 4.3 / 5.6
1st Downs: 32nd / 15th
Yards Per Rush Attempt: 3.8 / 5.0
Yards Per Drive: 20.6 / 33.7
Points Per Drive: 1.09 / 1.97
The difference between last year’s offense and this year’s is as startling as it is obvious, both on the stat sheet and on the field. Kliff and Kyler have completely transformed this unit. Last year’s team doesn’t make that crazy near-comeback against the Lions in Week 1, doesn’t win a 10:00 a.m. East Coast game against the Bengals, and they definitely don’t hang with Matt Ryan and the Falcons for four quarters. (Okay, last year’s team probably loses 27-10 to the Seahawks, I’ll give you that.)
But what’s even more impressive is that the talent around Kyler isn’t significantly better than what last year’s QBs had around them. The O-line is still a below-average unit (although health has been improved aside from Marcus Gilbert), and TE is still largely a wasteland (I see you, Maxx Williams truthers, but he has just 7 targets on the year). Chase Edmonds does look like a new player, yes, but David Johnson doesn’t look appreciably different from the player he was last year. And the receiving corps is still an aging Larry Fitzgerald, an injured Christian Kirk, and a collection of late-round picks and castoffs (KeeSean Johnson, Damiere Byrd, Pharoh Cooper, et al.).
It all comes down to Kliff’s offense, which is working better so far than most could have hoped, and Kyler’s talent, which is as advertised thus far. If—and this is a big if—Steve Keim can assemble an above-average line and stockpile more weapons, this offense could be truly special. (We’ll discuss our GM more in a future column.)
A Dose of Reality
But as exciting as this team has been so far, it’s important to have a little perspective as well. We’re only six games into the season, and these last two wins have come against two very underwhelming opponents—the 0-6 Bengals and 1-5 Falcons, whose defenses are among the worst in the league. And this week’s opponent, the Giants, also have a bottom-5 defense. But things aren’t always going to be this easy.
Some growing pains for this offense are very likely coming as the schedule gets tougher and opposing coaching staffs get more tape on the Kliff and Kyler show. We still have five divisional games left: two against the 49ers (who might have the best defense in the league), two against the Rams (who just traded for Jalen Ramsey), and one more against the Seahawks (who held us to 10 points at home in Week 4).
And then there’s our own defense to worry about. Vance Joseph’s unit is also one of the worst in the league—#30 in yards against and #29 in points against. It nearly cost us both of our wins, allowing both the Bengals and Falcons to tie the game after being down double digits in the second half. Only Kyler’s last-minute heroics (and, okay, a shanked Matt Bryant extra point) allowed us to escape with victories.
As exciting as this offense is, we can’t rely on it to win a shootout every week. Can Joseph turn things around? We do get Patrick Peterson back from suspension this week, which will help—but how much? And there will doubtlessly be an adjustment period as Peterson and Joseph get used to each other—how long will it last? Can this defense come together and give this team some balance down the stretch? So many questions on that side of the ball.
There are questions about the offense, too, but not as many. Can Kyler continue to avoid negative plays (1 sack and 0 turnovers combined the past two games) as the defenses get tougher? Can Kliff figure things out in the red zone? Three TDs in four chances last week (with the one FG coming as time wound down in the first half—I’ll give him a pass for that) was nice, but he’ll need to sustain that success. Button up those two issues and this should be a top-10 offense at the end of the season.
Regardless of what happens with the defense, or whether Kliff and Kyler can show improvement in their weak areas, it’s clear that this is a changed team from last year’s inept, moribund, boring squad. The Arizona Cardinals are exciting again.
That’s good enough for now, despite what some other local sportswriters think. This year was never going to be about wins and losses as a bottom line, but about changing perceptions, changing a culture. Even though it’s just 6 games in, it already looks like Kliff and Kyler have done just that.
Welcome to the Kliff and Kyler show. Can’t wait to see what’s on next.