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Reasonable doubt: What should the expectations for the Cardinals be in 2019?

The early projections for the Cardinals in 2019 aren’t looking good, despite the changes to the team. Are these projections reasonable? Or should Cardinals fans be expecting more?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Rookie Minicamp
Kyler Murray is the new face of the Cardinals franchise. What should fans expect in Year 1 of the Murray Era?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As the offseason has wound down over the past few weeks, many pundits and prognosticators have started to make predictions for next season. Between the Cardinals’ ugly 3-13 record last season and the team’s… eventful offseason, most predictions have been rather bearish:

  • Each of the ESPN NFL Nation team reporters predicted their team would beat the Redbirds, which would result in an 0-16 record.
  • The Cardinals’ own NFL Nation reporter, Josh Weinfuss, predicted a 5-11 season.
  • NBC Sports’ Peter King has the Cardinals as the league’s second-worst team in his first power rankings.
  • USA Today’s For the Win blog pegs the Cardinals for a 4-12 record.
  • Finally, Vegas set the team’s over/under for wins at just 5—the lowest in the league (tied with Josh Rosen’s Miami Dolphins).

So it seems that most experts predict that, even with the changes to the coaching staff, the myriad free agent additions, and a draft that was mostly well reviewed, the result will only be a modest 1-2 win improvement from last season.

The question now is this: Is a 4-to-5 win season a reasonable expectation for this Cardinals team in 2019? Then: Would the team (read: Michael Bidwill) be happy with that result? Would Cardinals fans?

Let’s take a look at a few key factors for the team in 2019 and attempt to answer those questions.

The New Coach

The Kliff Kingsbury hire ticked a lot of boxes: young, offensive innovator, head-coaching experience. However, those traits all come with their own questions: Is he too young? Will his offense translate to the NFL level? Can he make the jump from (losing) college coach to NFL success? Kingsbury has said all the right things so far and seems to have the confidence of Cardinals fans, but the fact remains that he’s a giant unknown. Could he take the league by storm like Sean McVay or Matt Nagy? Potentially. Could he crash and burn like Lane Kiffin or Bobby Petrino? It’s a definite possibility. There is a wide range of outcomes here, and the uncertainty of how this experiment will turn out is a contributing factor to the national pessimism about the Cardinals—and understandably so.

The New Quarterback

By just about all accounts, Kyler Murray landed in a good environment here in the desert. He’s got a coach who believes in him, a system he’s familiar with, an intriguing supporting cast, and—unlike last year’s rookie QB—no competition for the starting job. The Cardinals are Kyler Murray’s team, and, arguably even more than Kingsbury’s influence, they’ll rise or fall with him (acknowledging, of course, the symbiotic relationship between coach and QB). Murray is an undeniably dynamic talent, but he has his own set of question marks: stature, durability, and lack of starting experience. Like our new coach, our new QB is an unknown quantity—although the consensus around the league seems to be more bullish on Murray than Kingsbury. That’s potentially a good sign.

The O-Line Questions

New coach, new QB, questions about the offensive line… any of this sound familiar? Yep, that’s how we wound up with a 3-13 record last season, falling short of Vegas’s pessimistic-seeming projections. I think most Cardinals fans would agree that Kingsbury is an upgrade over Steve Wilks, even though he hasn’t coached a single NFL game yet. Everyone would agree that Murray is an upgrade over Sam Bradford as well (although you’ll still find some holdout Rosenites in the RotB commentariat). But O-line? Opinions seem to be very split, and with reason—the current projected starting O-line of D.J. Humphries, Justin Pugh, Mason Cole, J.R. Sweezy, and Marcus Gilbert doesn’t seem like much of an upgrade over last season’s massively maligned unit, if at all. Not an ideal situation for a rookie QB with potential durability concerns to be sure. Will this unit be our downfall in 2019 as well?

The Depth Concerns

As I discussed last week, there are a number of units where depth is a concern: QB, O-line, D-line, LB. Much like last year (déjà vu all over again), this squad seems ill-equipped to deal with a rash of injuries. This is doubly concerning given that we have a lot of returning players coming off IR, and several of the newcomers come with durability concerns (Gilbert, Sweezy, and Jordan Hicks in particular). That said, last season was an absolute nightmare from an injury perspective—I mean, our entire preseason starting O-line wound up on the IR. That almost certainly won’t happen again. There has to be some positive regression to the mean on the health front, right? …right?

The New-Old Defense

Under new DC Vance Joseph, the Redbirds will return to the familiar 3-4 defense after last season’s head-scratching switch to the 4-3. Al Holcomb’s unit (I actually had to look up his name, no joke) finished a stout #4 against the pass, but otherwise were #32 against the run, #20 in total defense, and #26 in points against. Under Joseph’s guidance and with the additions of veterans Hicks, D.J. Swearinger, Robert Alford, and Terrell Suggs, as well as rookies Byron Murphy and Zach Allen, this unit should return to the top half of the league, with the potential to be a top-10 unit. I expect the defense to look much more like the stalwart units we had before Wilks, rather than the ineffectual group we had last season. (Note: If we actually trade Patrick Peterson, the defense might fall apart and all bets are off here.)

The Difficult Schedule

The NFL schedule makers did the Cardinals no favors this season—just take a look. Things start out reasonably enough with three home games in the first four weeks, followed by two winnable road games against teams that figure to be among the league’s worst (the Bengals and Giants) sandwiched around a home game against the Falcons. We could—and maybe should—be floating somewhere around .500 after that Week 7 game against the Giants. After that—yikes. Thee road games in four weeks before the latest possible bye in Week 12. (And remember what I said about our O-line and depth above.) Then the final stretch has to be the toughest in the entire league: home games against the Rams, Steelers, and Browns, followed by divisional road games at the Seahawks and Rams. The only way to get a win down the stretch might be for teams to be resting players. This brutal slate is definitely a cause for pessimism.

Final Thoughts

Of these factors, I think the new coach and QB (despite the unknown factor) are reasons for optimism, as is the change in defensive scheme. But the O-line, lack of depth, and tough schedule are all valid reasons for concern. (Although I do believe we’ll have better injury luck in 2019. We almost have to.)

Now, to answer the questions posed above:

Is a 4-to-5 win season a reasonable expectation for this Cardinals team in 2019?

While I do think it’s possible, I don’t think a 4-12 record is a “reasonable” expectation for the upcoming season. The offense *will* be better, and the defense should return to form as well, so a 1-win improvement seems too low. But a 5-11 season? Yeah, I could see it, especially given that 5-game crucible to end the season. It’s only a 1-game difference from 4-12, but 5-11 seems like a more “reasonable” expectation to me. (Although my personal initial guesstimate is probably more like 6-10.)

Would the team (read: Michael Bidwill) be happy with that result?

I suspect that, publicly, Bidwill would be happy with any kind of improvement on last year’s 3-13 debacle, especially if Kingsbury, Murray, and the offense pass the eye test. I *think* Keim’s job would be safe even with a 4-12 season in that case. Privately (and this is pure conjecture on my part), I’m sure he’s hoping for closer to a .500 record—although that would be a tall order (ZING!) given the factors discussed above. I don’t think anyone is expecting playoffs (and I don’t even want to talk about another 3-13 season).

Would Cardinals fans?

Depends who you talk to. This offseason was especially divisive, and I don’t think a marginal improvement would be enough for some. But I think, generally, Cardinals fans would also be happy with any kind of improvement and Kingsbury/Murray showing more than Wilks/Rosen did last year. You can count me firmly in that camp as well. A 5-11 record but Murray challenges for (or wins) Offensive Rookie of the Year? Yeah, I think I’d be good with that.

How about the rest of you? What do you think are “reasonable” expectations for the Cardinals in 2019? What’s the minimum they need to do to make you happy? What’s the most you’re expecting from them? Let’s look forward to 2019 in the comments.