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Time for a Midseason Cards Check-In

@blakemurphy7 analyzes the current state of the Cards coming out of the bye, and what’s the outlook for the team’s success in the now, the season and the long-term?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With the bye week coming to an end for the Arizona Cardinals, and in an unusual year racked by Covid-19 not just in the NFL but in the world as a whole...sometimes you need a reality check.

The Cardinals’ state of the team over the last decade was one of a roller coaster. From the depths of terrible offense with a great defensive unit to stardom and success with “one last ride” from Carson Palmer to a sink back to the depths....it was quite a journey. And when it came to an end, the reboot was less a “retool” and less a “rebuild” and more “did we forget to pour the foundation...?” as the Wilks era came crashing down.

Now, in Year Two of the Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury era, through 8 weeks the team’s fortunes have taken a turn for the better.

Here’s where things currently stand...

THE HERE & NOW:

The Arizona Cardinals have made quite a turnaround from the days of 2018 when they had the statistically worst offense in the league. Currently AZ’s offense went from 32nd and historically bad to being:

  • #1 in total yards per game aka the #1 offense in the entire NFL
  • 16th in passing yards / game
  • #3 in total rushing yards, 2nd overall in rushing yards per game
  • Top 10 in points per game and 11th in total points, top 10 in first downs and
  • Averaging 5.2 yards per carry, trailing only the Ravens and an improvement on 5.0 YPC from 2019

Defensively, they are vastly improved from the 31st overall team:

  • 5th in points per game allowed, and top 10 in points per game allowed (20 a game)
  • 23rd in yards per game, and while that might not seem a lot, it’s a huge improvement over 2019 defensively.
  • +1 turnover differential, middle of the pack defensively
  • Top 10 in 3rd down percentage.

All in all, the story of Arizona’s season is that they put up 2 dud games, two awesome games against the Niners and Seahawks that came down to the wire, and this amazing stat:

Arizona averages 29 points a game while giving up only 21.

The Arizona Cardinals...are a good team.

Nice to say.

Most impressive, perhaps, is how Kyler Murray’s exploded onto the scene as one of the best performing quarterback options in the NFL. Currently Murray is on pace for 5,000 total yards, with barely under 1,000 rushing and 46 total touchdowns...16 of those on the ground by himself!

Kingsbury’s had maybe a faux pas or two but he’s been consistent since Hopkins joined in putting up points, and the tremendous efforts of Vance Joseph to scheme a defense that without Chandler Jones has been capable has been entertaining to watch and proved many a naysayer wrong.

Perhaps most impressive has been the play of the offensive line, with a career year from D.J. Humphries, a solid signing in Kelvin Beachum and tremendous depth for the guys who’ve gotten nicked up.

14 sacks on the year=lowest in the NFL. Fans can toss some confetti at that after seeing the state of the line from 2015 to 2019.

The Cardinals fanbase and other fans of football are truly watching a star live on the field, and it goes without saying that as constructed, the Cardinals are a good team, and belong right up there with the better teams in the NFL. Maybe not yet to the heights of the Chiefs, Steelers or even Buccaneers, but being in the good tier is something they’ve rarely had as an organization.

Currently, fans can be proud of what they’ve done thus far in the season to get to a 5-2 start that has seemingly eluded the franchise.

THE NEAR FUTURE:

The Cardinals upcoming schedule kicks off with the Miami Dolphins, coming off of a thrashing of the division rival LA Rams with multiple forced turnovers.

However, with a rookie quarterback on the other side, there’s definitely a weakness that Arizona can take advantage of in improving their record if they can manage to force errors from Tua Tagovailoa in his 2nd official start as an NFL quarterback.

It’s the schedule after that that should have fans curious...

There’s 3 teams they face with a COMBINED 6 wins on the schedule—the 3 win Eagles, 2 win Patriots and 1 win Giants.

While Arizona’s struggled to compete with the Rams ever since Sean McVay took the reins as head coach, they were able to match blow-for-blow last year in their final game of the season despite a hampered Kyler Murray and several turnovers, making it possible that the team could seek revenge and find their first win against them since 2016 in one (or both, maybe) of the upcoming games.

The 49ers themselves don’t look to be competitive of any sort as they’ve been riddled with injuries...goodness have they been riddled with injuries.

Put these pieces together and while no game is guaranteed (just look at Detroit and the Panthers) Arizona has at least 5-6 winnable games in this stretch.

As such, they have a solid chance of being a team that can reach the playoffs with 7 seeds from each side entering the matrix if they can avoid significant injuries or their Quarterback missing time/hitting a wall with production.

For those on the MORE optimistic side...the team’s toughest stretch of schedule going Bills at Home, Seahawks on TNF on a short week, Patriots away (the mini-bye) and Rams at Home....doesn’t look QUITE as daunting now given the implosion that has seemed to hit New England and Bill Belichick.

If the Cardinals can steal a game from the Bills or even beat the Seahawks for a second time, there’s a legitimate chance for the team to finish with an 11-12 win season and a possibility to take first in the NFC West as a division and host a home playoff game.

While that’s certainly a stretch now (Seattle has possibly the top MVP candidate and a pair of defensive playmakers in Carlos Dunlap and Jamal Adams set to hit the field for the team) it isn’t fully out of reach, which is more than the Cardinals could have expected in so short a time.

The future that’s best for them isn’t necessarily one that ends in a Lombardi Trophy (not that any fan would object to that...) but one that rather finishes the deal and establishes a consistent, winning culture.

Which Arizona’s been lacking since...well, maybe forever. The rest of the season looks promising rather than “who should we draft with our high pick?” and that’s almost another win on the schedule.

THE YET-TO-COME:

What does the long-term future hold for Arizona? There’s several things, honestly, to be decided. The biggest and most obvious one is with a mobile QB, Kyler Murray’s long-term health is of the utmost importance. But that...like most other injuries, isn’t in anyone’s direct control.

SO there’s not really any reason to worry thus far given that Murray’s shown he can play, and play well, at this level.

What they have from a coaching standpoint is a great offensive mind in Kingsbury who seems to still be developing at times situationally or even with certain gameplans.

What’s been the most encouraging sign is...how Kliff’s humility has seemingly shaped Arizona into a team that can learn and adjust and improve.

He’s still just 41 years old and is coaching against guys who’ve spent YEARS AND YEARS in the NFL.

And he’s got the humility to make that change and adjust over the longhaul as well.

Kyler Murray is 23. They might be an offensive powerhouse for a while with this coach/QB combo. And he’s gonna get paid a LOT of money...

What about the rest of the team? Let’s look at the positions and key players...

Offensive weapons—Hopkins under contract, running backs not mattering (maybe Chase is extended cheaply) but Kirk/Isabella/Johnson is...eh.

A true outside #2 wide receiver seems like a big need for the team given Kirk’s deal is up in 2021 and he’s not been a game-breaker for AZ like Hopkins has been versus a decent deep threat and touchdown dude.

The O-line: lot of youth—Humphries is set, with Josh Jones likely taking over for Kelvin Beachum, and Cole/Galliard/Justin Murray seem set as well.

DL: Another area that might need an impact guy and some of the biggest question marks overall. Zach Allen...Rashad Lawrence...Leki Fotu...none are proven yet. And Corey Peters is getting up there.

Pass-Rushers/Edge: The big question mark. Golden/Reddick’s deals are up end of the year, Chandler’s next year. Kennard’s been fine but also has to come back from Covid and injuries...

Arizona has a BIG decision to make in terms of having long-term pass rush sustainability no matter how good or bad their defense as a whole has to be, and I think that 2021 is the “make or break” year for the defense.

Linebackers: how does Isaiah Simmons turn out? He’s the key piece as far as AZ’s 3-4 defense goes heading into the future...does he develop there or shift to some of a secondary role? Does he figure it out this season? Or next? At all? Lot of questions there but I believe he will.

Cornerbacks: Oof. This is the biggest question in “yet to come”. Even more than the edge rushers.

Pat P=deal done after this year

Kirkpatrick=deal done after this year

Byron Murphy=manning the slot outside of base/12 personnel when teams more likely run the ball, just caught Covid.

The other corners=none under contract or minimal impact.

Yikes. The Cardinals are currently an average good/situationally great defense and the secondary could use some help, big-time, for the long haul.

The safeties however...

BOOM. Budda/Jalen/Deionte & Banjo...even if Simmons plays some there, it’s clearly set for a loooong time.

All in all here’s a quick summary of the Cards and questions to answer:

  • Do they go all in on an offensive identity, and what does it look like when we (likely) enter the Post-Fitzgerald era in the coming years as far as finding a partner for Hopkins?
  • What’s the identity of the pass-rush and does it include a 30+ year old Chandler Jones?
  • Will Isaiah Simmons become an impact linebacker he’s needed to be in the future...and if so, sooner or later?
  • The post Patrick Peterson era seems inevitable....should AZ sign him to a long-term deal still? And how will they replace him and find a new offensive identity if they don’t have a true shutdown corner?

Lots to still be figured out, but there’s 4 question marks here.

The ones that are NOT questions right now...QB, Head Coach (could change with a collapse), overall defensive identity through 2021, #1 WR and OL are seemingly set.

And that’s a vast difference for the Arizona Cardinals.

Vast.

The team’s gone from two times as an aging contender to lost and helpless. Now? They have a direction. NO one knows what that future will hold, but running into that full-steam ahead is the best chance for the Cards to become something worth cheering for year in and year out.