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LAR 31 ARI 24: Hamstrung and Ramstung

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

If not getting completely blown out and having the final score make the game look closer than it actually was is your cup of tea—-if the Cardinals still managing to secure at top ten pick in the 2020 NFL Draft felt like a moral victory—-then today you are likely feeling fine “under the circumstances.”

In being completely honest with my own feelings—-I am not feeling fine today. The sting of this loss and the careless mistakes that the Cardinals made on offense in this game—-while the Cardinals’ defense once again made QB Jared Goff look like Joe Montana—-is nagging at me like a canker sore.

I guess at this point I had higher hopes about Kingsbury’s Cardinals finally reversing the BA Ram curse that keeps sticking to the Cardinals’ logo like the black tar on Sunset Boulevard—-and for the 3rd year in a row getting swept by the Rams, giving up 30+ points on all 6 occasions.

Yeah, this stings bad.

The one small tincture of solace that I am taking away from this loss is the fact that the Cardinals did at least play a more physical game this time. But the Cardinals’ best efforts were basically erased by 5 careless turnovers on offense and when the game was on the line, by the defense making it so frustratingly easy once again for Jared Goff, Tyler Higbee, Cooper Kupp (pictured) and Robert Woods to score.

Sure, Kyler Murray played with a hamstring sprain and on a number of occasions, he threw some nifty dimes from what was a well protected pocket for most of the game—-but for him, he left so many big plays out on the field—-and where ball protection was once a tremendous strength—-it’s now become a cause for concern.

On the one hand, Murray deserves high magna cum laude-type praise for his play as a rookie—-the numbers are impressive—-passing and rushing for over 4,000 yards and producing a combined 24 TDs (20 passing and 4 rushing).

But, on the other hand, Murray, like the team’s defense, struggled at the end of games. Kyler’s late game struggles surprised me—-I thought that with chances to win games late, Instead, he looked tentative and at times looked mentally checked out.

Maybe that’s too much to expect from a 22 year old rookie—-so, I apologize to him and to everyone else, if my expectations were unrealistic.

But that’s the thing when you see such outstanding potential—-you start forming high expectations.

As the season wore on, I grew more and more uncomfortable with Murray’s redundant post-game statement that “ I am not used to losing.”

Most recently that has turned into “I am not used to having nothing to play for late in the season,” as in meaningless games.

Ok—-that’s true—-

But—-that’s one of the major reasons why I keep expected him to play with a greater sense of urgency, precision and clock management awareness.

I also felt consistently frustrated by lack of tempo on offense just when up-tempo was needed most. Man it was tough for years to watch Carson Palmer milk seemingly every play clock down to 1 second—-thus to see this repeatedly from Kyler Murray is all the more agonizing.

Like Rodney Dangeffield says in “Caddy Shack”—-”let’s go while we’re still young.”

The evolution of Kliff Kingsbury’s offense this season was impressive in terms of achieving rushing and passing balance—-but lost in that shuffle was the original premise of the Air Raid which is to force defenses to cope with a brisk, fast paced offense so as to ensure that the defensive personnel stays on the field and eventually is going to get gassed so that late in the game the offense can imposed its will—-and thereby—-win.

If anything the Cardinals’ offense seemed to slow down toward the end of games and become more painstakingly deliberate. Same thing in the red zone. And calling timeout in the 3rd quarter following a long penalty delay—for a dazzle dazzle play that fizzled—-was especially irritating—-and you just knew—-it would come back to haunt them—-and it did.

The other thing that was quite a surprise to me is how stingy Kingsbury is in substituting on offense. I thought that with the uptempo offense, subs would come flying in at times like hockey shifts in order to keep fresh legs while continuing to tire out the defense.

Instead, as the season ensued, it became more and more clear that if you play for Kingsbury you had better win a spot in the starting lineup—-or you won’t play many snaps, or at all.

This become increasingly apparent at RB—-where Kenyan Drake was rarely taken off the field. Kingsbury often said in press conferences how he wanted a RB “to build the offense around.” Well, he found his guy in “K.D.”

Yesterday was a perfect example—-Chase Edmonds got one carry and David Johnson got nada.

It’s rare in this day and age that one RB would be able to take over 90% of the snaps and make it through a 16 game schedule. Drake was able to do that for basically 12 of the season—-could he do it for a while season? And still be ready to roll in the playoffs?

It almost felt to me yesterday like Kingsbury didn't want any of the team’s focus taken a way from Murray and Drake—-almost as if he was leery of Brett Hundley or Chase Edmonds or David Johnson stealing the limelight.

Plus, I kept asking myself—-couldn’t the offense be getting just as much or more from Andy Isabella in Damiere Byrd’s role? Or—-at least—-isn’t it a role they can share? For example, would Isabella have gotten the extra separation on the deep post that Murray nearly completed to Byrd?

The other nagging question about this game on offense was how suddenly out of sync Murray was throwing to Larry Fitzgerald. Man, if this was Larry’s last game—-Murray didn't do him many favors.

On the flip side, the emergence of the other TEs in this offense (for all intents and purposes, Larry is a flex TE in the K-Raid) in PS steal Dan Arnold and UFA gem Maxx Williams. For Murray to have three big targets like that up the seams, over the middle or into the flat is very exciting—-plus for Williams to be such a key cog in opening up the running game.

Major credit goes to Sean Kugler and the Cardinals’ offensive line—-who managed to do what was previously unthinkable: keeping the starters healthy and highly productive for the vast majority of 16 games. I can see the value of trying to keep the unit as much intact as possible, although key decisions need to made at LT and C, with a chance to possibly make the unit even stronger. But, as for yesterday—-Kyler Murray was sacked only once for 3 yards on a sack that he took himself. That’s a stat to behold.

Per a Mark Dalton tweet (@CardsMarkD):

A tip of the hat to the Cardinals 2019 offensive line.

  • 4 of the 5 started all 16 games (Shipley, Humphries, Pugh & Sweezy) & were pivotal part of dramatic offensive improvement
  • 40% increase in TDs
  • 50% in rushing yards/game
  • 100% in rushing TDs
  • 100 more total yards per game

On the defensive side of the ball, it was great to watch the defense flying around trying to make plays—-over the past three weeks Chandler Jones, Budda Baker, Corey Peters, Jordan Hicks, Joe Walker, Patrick Peterson and Jalen Thompson have played with great passion and intensity. Byron Murphy flashed—-like he did on the great chase and stuff he made on that Robert Woods screen—-but his and the team’s general play in the red zone remains a significant work in progress—-because the secondary is making it way too easy for QBs, TEs, RBs and WRs to score. This is what keeps nagging me about Vance Joseph—-how can these types of breakdowns keep happening, especially in game 16?

The defense did get it right for one game versus the Seahawks—-is that enough for us to feel confident that the defense will be reliable in 2020?

To me, if there’s a chance to sign Wade Phillips—-the Cardinals should do all they can to make that happen. However, if they decide to stick with Vance Joseph, adding a key defensive assistant to advise on pass coverages and techniques is, imo, of paramount importance. The days of wide open receivers have to stop.

The special teams under Jeff Rodgers were very good for the second straight year—-for example yesterday, what a superb, highly aware and disciplined stop the punt return team made on the fake punt. That speaks to preparation and an understanding of the opponent’s tendencies.

So, what about GM Steve Keim?

On the one hand when you look at the stars of the Cardinals’ best game, the 27-13 win in Seattle (notice the Cardinals handled the Seahawks better than the 49ers did last night)—-Steve Keim deserves credit for making the three key trades for Chandler Jones, Budda Baker and Kenyan Drake. Plus, Keim was the architect of the team’s much improved OL—-choosing to give D.J. Humphries his 5th year tender, signing UFAs Justin Pugh, A.Q. Shipley and J.R. Sweezy and putting a waiver claim in on Justin Murray.

But, what about Keim’s continued acquisition of fat-cat veterans who take the Cardinals money and run? What about the continued questions regarding the player development of so many of Keim’s draft choices? And lastly, what about Keim’s reputation around the league?

The thought of acquiring a new GM who would add to the excitement of building the team around Kyler Murray, Chrsitian Kirk, Chandler Jones and Budda Baker under the leadership of a player’s coach like Kliff Kingsbury is very compelling and could make the Cardinals all the more popular around the league with free agents.

The Cardinals have a lot of excitement going for them as it is—-

I think Corey Peters said it best: “Obviously, we’re disappointed with the record but the way we’re competing is different, It feels different. I think there’s a lot of positives to take out of it. I feel like the attitude now is kind of we’re building toward the future. Last year, there was a lot of uncertainty about everything. I think we’re in a good place right now.”

When a rookie head coach like Kliff Kingsbury gets this kind of salute from a veteran leader like Corey Peters, it makes you sit up and take notice:

“I’ve been very pleased with him,” Peters said. “Kliff is a very self-aware guy. He’s strong where he’s strong, and where he’s not strong he delegates to others. I think that’s a smart way to go about things. I think it’s been a good first year for him. Obviously, he’s had to do some learning, but I think he can be proud of the improvements we’ve made.”

Thus, I would like to know Corey Peters’ honest thoughts about Steve Keim and Vance Joseph—-and I would be willing to bet that Peters’ responses could and should be exactly what Michael Bidwill needs to hear.

One way—-or another.