Three weeks ago, the Arizona Cardinals were improbably .500 after seven weeks. This was not only improbable because the only way to be .500 after seven games is to have a relatively rare tie, but also improbable because the team only won three games all of last season.
It’s been a downhill slog since then, however, with three tough losses in a row. I’ll forgive them the road loss in the Superdome. That’s as tough a place to play as there is in the NFL; losing there is nothing to hang your head about.
But the last two losses—by a field goal apiece—especially sting. We were *thisclose* to upsetting the then-unbeaten 49ers at home on national TV, and then we quite simply gave away a win to the coach who “retired” rather than coach through a rebuild. The close nature of the losses combined with the particular opponents make these losses even more difficult to stomach.
Not only are these losses painful, they’re also revealing—in part because of that pain. That pain means that people care about this team again. That definitely wasn’t the case at this time last season. That’s a good thing. But these losses also reveal exactly where this team is at—how much better they are than last season, and how far away from true contention they still are. This team still has a ton of flaws.
Quarterback play isn’t one of them. These losses also have made that abundantly clear. Check Kyler Murray’s combined numbers from the 49ers and Buccaneers games: 44/68 (66.1%), 565 yards, 5 TDs, 1 INT (that might have resulted from a missed PI call), 8 carries for 72 yards. Without Kyler, these games would both have been blowout losses. He kept us in both games—and nearly won them—while major pieces of the team were falling apart around him.
Today, let’s take a look at what has gone wrong around Kyler these past two games and start to think about what can be done to fix the flaws on this team stuck in neutral between rebuilding and ascending.
Speed Offenders Slowing the Offense Down
There are some nice pieces around Kyler on this offense. Christian Kirk had the breakout game everyone has been waiting for last week (6/138/3 TDs) and should be a game-changer down the stretch if he can remain healthy. Chase Edmonds has been just that when he’s been healthy. Kenyan Drake has stepped into Edmonds’s role almost perfectly. Larry has been Larry. Andy Isabella is clearly starting to heat up. Even the O-line is playing well above expectations (and, likely, its true talent level). So the cupboard isn’t exactly bare.
Even so, the offense—leaps and bounds better than last season’s even as it is—isn’t in the top half of the league in either yards (#18) or points (#17). Kyler has us knocking on the door, but some of the pieces around him are really slowing him down. We’ve gotten practically nothing from receivers not named Kirk or Fitz. (And how much longer will Fitz be around?) Charles Clay has mostly been a bust, and Maxx Williams lost most of the good will he’d built up with one of the worst, most costly drops you’ll ever see last week. The running game is being held together with scotch tape right now, and DJ looks cooked as a runner (he also lost a crucial fumble). The O-line had five penalties against the Niners and could be one more injury away from totally collapsing. And they’re probably not athletic enough as a group for Kliff to play offense the way he really wants to.
I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to say that Kyler has less to work with than a lot of other QBs in the league (look no further than his predecessor at Oklahoma to see what I mean). He’s really elevating these guys right now—other than Drake and Isabella (who have been bit players in the grand scheme of things), this is largely the same group of guys as last season at the skill positions, and while the O-line has been healthier, it’s also dealt with several injuries. (Sean Kugler obviously deserves a lot of credit for the way these guys are playing.) It just makes you wonder what Kyler could do with a stronger supporting cast.
Where Do We Go From Here?: In 2019, it’s about getting the right guys on the field and getting them the ball. Steve Keim has made a ton of questionable moves at the skill positions this season (Kevin White, Michael Crabtree, Zach Zenner, Alfred Morris), but the Kenyan Drake trade almost makes up for all that. Thankfully, it didn’t take Kingsbury as long to figure out how to use him as long as it took him with Edmonds. We’re seeing the same thing happen with Isabella now—hopefully his playing time continues to increase. Needless to say, it unfortunately looks like the opposite needs to be true for DJ. (And, to a lesser extent, KeeSean Johnson.) This offense is built for speed, so we need to be getting as much of it on the field as we can around Kyler. That needs to be a high-priority item on Steve Keim’s 2020 offseason list as well.
Kingsbury Playing the Jester
First things first: I’m a Kliff Kingsbury fan. If Kyler is the engine of this offense, Kliff is the guy who turns the ignition. He’s put together great offensive gameplans the past two weeks, and you can’t really question his X’s and O’s. But I still have serious questions about his gameday coaching acumen, especially in big moments.
Against San Francisco, he had two gaffes involving timeouts. The first was at the end of the first half when his late time out “erased” what appeared to be a Cardinals goal line stand on 4th-and-goal. As Walter Mitchell pointed out, calling the TO wasn’t the mistake—but his timing was. If you want to get a look at their formation, that’s fine, but don’t let them get the play off! It’s gotta be hard for players to come down after feeling like they’ve already made a huge stop, and it’s no surprise that the Niners scored on the subsequent play. Going into the half down one touchdown versus two is a monumental difference.
But Kyler twice got the Redbirds to within one score after falling behind 21-7 and then 28-17. His dazzling connection to Andy Isabella got the team to within 3 with almost 5 minutes left. Surely another comeback was brewing? But Kyler wouldn’t touch the ball again, as the Niners were able to run out the entire clock, partially due to Kliff wasting a critical timeout by challenging a play he had no business challenging. Now, bad challenges are embarrassingly commonplace for NFL coaches, but for a forward-thinking guy who prides himself on incorporating analytics into his decision-making, you’d think he’d be avoid this kind of glaring mistake.
Against Tampa Bay, Kliff’s clock management bugaboo was even more egregious. Walter also did a great job breaking down our final possession, but suffice to say that Kliff’s playcalling (draws? short passes?) was extremely suspect and there was an extreme lack of urgency in getting the plays in. Very Jason Garrett-like. (Always good to get a dig at the Cowboys in.) Yes, there were some officiating issues, but every coach has to deal with those. That’s not an excuse. Kliff seemingly just blanked when the team needed him most.
Where Do We Go From Here?: It’s probably more about Kliff learning on the job than anything else. At least he’s making these mistakes in a season when there is no real pressure on the team to win every week. But it makes me wonder how he’ll react if/when there are real expectations on this team. We all know his teams generally didn’t perform up to expectations at Texas Tech. Let’s hope that once he has his bearings in the NFL that he’ll prove to be a wiser, more hardened coach this time around. I’m confident that he will.
Finally, I have almost nothing good to say about the defense. Chandler Jones is tied for the league lead in sacks. There. That’s the only good thing I can think of.
We’re near the bottom of the league in both yards against (#31) and points against (#27). The defensive line routinely gets knocked off the ball and generates precious little pressure. Our linebackers have been consistently eviscerated by tight ends and are making too many tackles far downfield. The secondary has somehow gotten even worse after Patrick Peterson’s return to the lineup. His play against the Niners was inexcusable. He was slightly better against the Bucs, but then previously promising rookie Byron Murphy plays maybe the worst coverage I have ever seen and you get frustrated all over again. For all the guff about clock management I gave Kliff above, the defense was obviously the real reason we lost in Tampa. They gave up gut-punch drive after gut-punch drive, and it’s a testament to Kyler and the offense that they were able to hang in there. This unit is just a massive, massive liability. There’s really nothing more to say than that.
Where Do We Go From Here?: Just like it became painfully obvious early last season that Mike McCoy needed to go, we’re already at that point with Vance Joseph this season. He was underqualified with a spotty resume, and he has unsurprisingly proven himself to be an inadequate defensive coordinator. Unlike last season, I don’t think we’ll make a move midseason, however (unless the Niners drop 40 on us this Sunday or something—then it’s Bill Davis time). But I also can’t imagine he comes back next season. In the meantime, the pressure will be on Kyler to win a shootout every week. He’ll be happy to take on the challenge, I’m sure, but he shouldn’t have to week in and week out. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to in 2020 and beyond.
Kyler has been everything Cardinals fans hoped he’d be when they drafted him #1 overall. He’s a dynamic playmaker who has shown a knack for clutch play and is rapidly developing into a leader. (Although I think we all wish he’d stop running backwards into 19-yard-loss sacks—the only real major flaw in his game so far.) He’s clearly ready for primetime.
But until he gets the right players around him on offense, his coach stops making critical mistakes, and the defense gets new leadership, the team will sputter along in neutral, good enough to entertain but not ready to win consistently. And there will be more painful losses to come.
That’s part of the growing/rebuilding process, of course, and is something I think most Cardinals fans can accept in 2019 (even if Kyler himself can’t). But come 2020, expectations will be raised. I’m pretty damn sure Kyler will rise to meet them. I’m just not sure about the rest of the team and its leadership.