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Tampa-bound in 2021: What will it take for the Cardinals to make a 49ers-like run to the Super Bowl next season?

The Cardinals don’t seem particularly close to contention, but quick turnarounds are possible in today’s NFL—as this year’s 49ers have shown. What would need to happen for the Cardinals to follow in their footsteps next season?

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-Commissioner Roger Goodell Press Conference
What needs to happen for the Cardinals to be playing for the Lombardi Trophy next season?
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup between the Chiefs and 49ers features a pair of juggernauts. The Chiefs had one of the best offenses in the league, finishing the regular season at 12-4 and earning the AFC’s #2 seed. The 49ers rode a dominant rushing attack and defense to a 13-3 record and the NFC’s #1 seed. These teams both clearly belong here.

However, this wasn’t a matchup most people would have predicted in the preseason. It’s not a surprise the Chiefs are here—they were just a few plays away from making the Super Bowl last season and have probably the best QB in the league.

But the 49ers? They were coming off a 4-12 season and had only 36-1 odds of making it to Miami in the preseason. They weren’t supposed to be here. In fact, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell recently ranked them as the second-most unlikely Super Bowl team ever.

That got me thinking.

What would it take for the Cardinals to shock the world and make the Super Bowl next season? It’s incredibly unlikely, sure—we would definitely earn a spot on Barnwell’s list—but not impossible.

So what would need to happen between now and January 2021 for the Redbirds to book their ticket to Tampa and Super Bowl LV? Let’s daydream for a bit and find out.

Kyler Would Have to Make “The Leap”

Any chance the Cardinals have of making a surprise Super Bowl run next season start with Kyler Murray. Kyler had a very good (if not quite great) rookie season: over 3,700 passing yards, 500+ rushing yards, 24 combined TDs (and 14 turnovers). He rejuvenated the fanbase and might win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

To make the Super Bowl dream a reality, he’ll need to do a whole lot more next season. Simply put, he’ll need to put up an MVP-level performance: something along the lines of 4,200 passing yards, 700 rushing yards, and 35 combined TDs (while limiting turnovers). That obviously means no injuries and no duds against elite defenses like he had in 2019. He needs to produce game in and game out, like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson did this season.

Can he do it? Maybe! Who knows? We’re dreaming here! It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility, though. But in order to make that MVP leap, he’ll need help.

Vastly Improved WR Play

As he has been for almost all of his career, Larry Fitzgerald was our #1 WR last season, putting up a 75/804/4 TD stat line. For this team to make it to Tampa next year, that needs to be the line of our WR2 or maybe even WR3. So if Fitz takes the backseat to someone else and puts up a similar line, we might be in good shape.

Who, though? Who could be that 90/1,200/8 TD guy this offense so desperately needs? Christian Kirk? Maybe, but he hasn’t shown the durability and on-field consistency needed to be a true WR1 in his first two seasons. I wouldn’t completely discount the possibility of a leap for Kirk, but I also wouldn’t put any money on it. And there’s no one else on our roster who’s a realistic possibility (sorry, Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler stans, if there are any out there).

So we’re going to need to upgrade the WR room… again. There has been a ton of chatter about the Cardinals looking at players like Jerry Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb with our #8 overall pick, but if we’re trying to find a viable path to the Super Bowl for this team next season, it’s not going to be with a rookie WR1. So we’ll have to see what veterans are available via trade or free agency.

Potentially gettable UFAs include Robby Anderson, Emmanuel Sanders, and Breshad Perriman. Sorry, I don’t think any of those guys makes this a Super Bowl offense overnight. A.J. Green is intriguing—could he resurrect his career as WR1 in the desert next to Fitz? I could see it, but it’s risky given his health. That leaves the obvious name, but one that almost certainly isn’t going to become available: Amari Cooper. If things somehow go sideways in his negotiations with Dallas, could Steve Keim swoop in and nab him? That would get this offense much, much closer to Super Bowl–level. Unlikely, but, again, we’re dreaming here.

Fortify the Offensive Line

The Cardinals’ O-line was vastly improved from the 2018 season, but it’s hardly an elite unit. And there are still several question marks heading into the offseason—namely, center and both tackle spots. An upgrade in the middle is mandatory to realize the Super Bowl dream—the team should move on from A.Q. Shipley, and neither Mason Cole nor Lamont Gaillard is ready for primetime. The name Connor McGovern has been mentioned a lot around these parts, so let’s assume we get him to stabilize the interior of the O-line.

That leaves the tackle position, where D.J. Humphries is a UFA at LT and waiver acquisition Justin Murray manned RT. We’ll need to do better than that to make a Super Bowl run—but we also likely can’t replace both. So let’s assume that Murray returns at RT and continues to improve. That means we need a new LT. The top two UFAs are Jack Conklin and Anthony Castonzo. Either of them would fit our needs in this scenario. We could also draft a rookie at #8 if we need to allocate our money elsewhere. Either path would be an upgrade over Humphries and give us a playoff-caliber line.

An O-line of a new stud LT (Conklin, Castonzo, Andrew Thomas) alongside Justin Pugh, McCovern, J.R. Sweezy, and Murray? That’d be the best O-line we’ve had in years and potentially good enough to allow Kyler to make that leap and support another strong rushing attack. (I’m not too concerned about who we have at RB in this scenario. I mean, just look at the two Super Bowl backfields this year.) That takes care of the offense—half the battle! This is where things get tricky, though.

Fix the Defense

And hoo boy, does it need a lot of fixing. We’re saddled with Vance Joseph as defensive coordinator for another year, so the most obvious way to fix the defense is a no-go. That means we’ll have to drastically overhaul the personnel, especially in the front seven. No easy task. We’ve got building blocks in Chandler Jones and Jordan Hicks, but not much else. Corey Peters, Zach Allen, and Haason Reddick will be back, but they can’t be counted on to be major contributors for various reasons. Everyone else on the front seven is in JAG territory. Yikes.

Keim is going to need to hit DE, DT, OLB, and ILB hard both in free agency and the draft. Pass rush help like Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, and Shaquil Barrett might be out of our price range even in this fantasyland scenario given what we’re already paying Jones. Guys like Matthew Judon, Dante Fowler Jr., or Bud Dupree could be better fits, or any number of rookies at #8. Regardless of who it is or how we get him, pass rush help opposite Jones is imperative.

We also need at least 2-3 starting/rotational D-lineman, preferably not overly expensive (perhaps guys like D.J. Reader, Javon Hargrave, Jarran Reed, etc.). We probably need at least one splashy signing here—let’s dare to dream for Chris Jones as the big-ticket item. He’d make a great anchor for a hugely upgraded D-line. Add a partner for Hicks like Joe Schobert or Cory Littleton and we’re in business. (Note that I’m not worrying much about the secondary in this, but that I *am* keeping Patrick Peterson and that he plays like the PP7 of old.)

Do we have the money/draft capital for this? Fantasyland doesn’t have a capologist, unfortunately. But this defense is in bad shape, talent-wise, and this team isn’t becoming a playoff threat without making a big free agent splash or three. But if we can land, say, Jones, Reed, Judon, and Littleton while plugging other holes with lower-tier FAs and middle-round picks, this defense could quickly become an above-average unit. That sounds like a lot, yes, but the specific players/cap figures isn’t important for this exercise—what is important is that a lot is going to have to change on defense to help fuel a rapid ascent to championship contention. But even continued growth by the offense and massive improvement from the defense wouldn’t likely be enough.

A Little Help from Your Foes

Win or lose Sunday (and hopefully it’s the latter), the 49ers will open 2020 as a Super Bowl favorite—and they’ll obviously be the NFC West favorite. If the Cardinals are going to make it to the Super Bowl next season, they’re going to have to go through the Niners. Not to mention the Seahawks, who were nearly as good this season.

What about the other NFC West team? Oh, right, the Rams—the NFC champion last season and presumptive NFC West favorite going into 2019. Things didn’t quite work out the way Sean McVay and Co. hoped this season, allowing the Niners to pass them, which should give Cardinals fans hope. As the Rams showed, teams like the 49ers (and Seahawks) are guaranteed nothing next season. If the Niners falter, it could be the Cardinals’ gain.

Even then, we’d likely need another contender or two to stumble—just like the Cowboys in the regular season and the Saints in the playoffs this season, which made the Niners’ path to Miami much easier. Even the Chiefs dodged a bullet when the #1 seed Ravens were upset by the Titans. The road to the Super Bowl is paved with talent, determination, perseverance… and luck. The Cardinals would need more than most next season, but the NFL is a strange league.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it: the basic outline for the Cardinals to pull off an unbelievable turnaround and make it back to the Super Bowl. It wouldn’t take much, really—just an MVP-type season from our 2nd-year QB, finding a true, game-changing WR1, solidifying the O-line, signing or drafting a half-dozen new above-average starters on defense, and hoping that several teams in front of us stumble. Easy, right?

Sarcasm aside, even the most optimistic 49ers fans couldn’t have reasonably predicted their 2019 season. They were coming off a 4-12 debacle with their QB returning from a torn ACL, nothing but question marks at the skill positions, a former rival at CB coming off an Achilles tear, and an unstoppable-seeming Rams team atop the division. But everything that they needed to happen, happened for them. The NFL is tricky like that sometimes.

It’s a lot to hope for, but maybe the cards will fall into place for us next season. And, hey, it’s free to dream, right?