These losses are getting harder and harder to stomach. First it was the listless home loss to the winless Lions in Week 3, followed by a drubbing on the road against the Panthers. And now we have the dispiriting loss to the Dolphins that cost us first place in the division at the season’s halfway point.
We’re Cardinals fans, so we should be used to losing, but these losses sting a bit more than usual because the team seems capable of so much better. But the key word there is “seems”—if we were a 7-1 team, we’d be 7-1. But we’re not; we’re 5-3 instead.
We have that 5-3 record for a few reasons—all of which reared their heads in the Dolphins game. Sunday’s game perfectly encapsulates where the Cardinals are at as a team. Allow me to explain.
Before I start focusing too much on the negative, let me start with the positive. We’re 5-3 and in second place in the division, which we’d all have taken before the season. And it’s mostly due to Kyler Murray. The second-year QB is on pace for the first 4,000-yard passing/1,000 yard rushing season in NFL history with 48 combined TDs. It seems less a matter of if than when he wins an MVP. (Never mind that he likely would have been the frontrunner with a Cardinals win on Sunday.) And Kyler’s dynamic skillset was on full display against the Dolphins: 283 yards and 3 TDs through the air, 106 yards and another TD on the ground, good for a sterling 96.7 QBR. His turnovers are up a bit in Year 2, yes, and that fumble return for a TD was ugly, but his sacks are way down and those turnover numbers should come down as well. He’s the franchise QB we’ve been searching for all these years.
Penalties have been a consistent issue for the Cardinals during Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure, and we’re currently the second-most-penalized team in the league. Flags once again killed us last weekend, as we had seven enforced penalties for 71 yards (with numerous others declined or offset). Now, not to be That Fan who calls into local sports radio and blames the refs for every loss, but there were several very questionable penalties called in this game (which hurt both teams, it must be said), especially the pass interference and personal foul calls, which could have gone either way in most cases. But stuff like false starts and neutral zone infractions are just dumb errors that keep repeating themselves. Kingsbury hasn’t been able to button these issues up in a season and a half—a major issue, but far from his only problem (more on that later).
I won’t spend a ton of time on this one, as every team has to deal with injuries—like the Dolphins, who were also without several key players. The Cardinals were obviously without Chandler Jones (although we haven’t missed him as much as expected), and Chase Edmonds didn’t seem to be ready for a featured role with Kenyan Drake out (despite facing the worst rushing defense in the league). And being down to practice squad caliber CBs made Tua Tagovailoa’s job much easier in his second career start. A healthier team would have given us a much better shot to win this game.
I’ve been saying all along that this defense wasn’t as good as the surface stats indicated, and that proved prescient on Sunday. Tua absolutely shredded the secondary to the tune of 20/28 for 248 yards and 2 TDs (plus 7 carries for 35 yards), good for a 87.8 QBR. And this was all in his second career start after basically looking like Josh Rosen last week against the Rams. The Cardinals defense simply couldn’t get stops when it needed them and it didn’t get the big plays that it was somehow able to get the week before against the Seahawks. The pass rush came up with another 3 sacks sans Jones, and the linebackers and safeties played well enough, but this group of cornerbacks—including Patrick Peterson—can’t be trusted from week to week. With Josh Allen and Round 2 with Russell Wilson coming up in the next two weeks, I think we can expect to get shredded again in those matchups. Expect to hear the usual criticisms of Vance Joseph start to get louder and louder.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Kliff did a lot right for three quarters last week—I loved the early aggressiveness on 4th down, was happy to see more designed runs for Kyler, and getting Christian Kirk more involved worked really well. But it all fell apart in the 4th quarter—make no mistake, he lost us this game. Walter and Andy already did a good job explaining why, so I won’t rehash that too much here, but this loss was another example of Kliff shrinking away from big moments and making scaredy-cat decisions that takes the game out of Kyler’s hands, which is just indefensible given how well he’s playing. As usual, Kliff owned up to his mistakes after the game—and kudos to him for continually doing so—but when is he going to learn from those mistakes? He’s not a rookie anymore, and he just hasn’t shown the kind of leap that Kyler has. Kliff has to be better in big moments for this team moving forward.
This game really had it all as a showcase for the 2020 Arizona Cardinals—plenty of big plays from Kyler and the offense spoiled by injuries, penalties, defensive lapses, and coaching mistakes. There’s a lot of good to take away, but way more bad than you’d like to see if this team has any playoff aspirations.
But, as I mentioned above, this team is a bit ahead of expectations in Year 2 of Kliff and Kyler. That’s why this team has been so confounding so far. We want the team as a whole to take the same leap Kyler has, but they’re just not ready—Kliff and the defense especially.
And maybe that’s okay… for this year. Let’s try to remember that we’re not even two years removed from 3-13. If this team is still so frustrating on a weekly basis this time next season, then it’ll be time for some hard conversations. Until then, I’m going to try to be happy to just be in the playoff hunt once again—especially now that we have our franchise QB.