This season once seemed so promising. Remember when we were 5-2 and coming off of that thrilling upset over the Seahawks? It was only six weeks ago.
Maybe this could still be a special season—there’s still a month left, after all. But right now the team is 6-6 and in the midst of a 1-4 freefall all the way out of the NFC playoff picture.
How did this happen? Today, let’s explore some possible explanations for this frustrating slide.
Explanation #1: Injuries
Injuries are an age-old copout that players and teams always deflect blame from. “It’s a next-man-up league.” “Every team deals with injuries.” All that. But the Cardinals have been hit pretty hard by the injury bug, especially on the defensive side of the ball: our top two DTs (Corey Peters and Jordan Phillips) are both on IR, and we’ve been without Chandler Jones—only one of the best pass rushers in football—for most of the season. Not to mention key contributors like De’Vondre Campbell and Jalen Thompson have been banged up. And then there’s the elephant in the room on offense: Kyler Murray, who hasn’t looked like his usual spry, dynamic self since that Seattle game. He’s clearly not 100%. Given all these key injuries, maybe these recent struggles aren’t so surprising.
Explanation #2: Tougher Competition
Maybe everyone is overthinking things. During our 5-2 start, the teams we played were a combined 30-54—a paltry 0.357 winning percentage. If only we could play the Cowboys and Jets every week. How about the last five games during our 1-4 plunge? Those teams are a combined 39-21, a 0.650 winning percentage. The Dolphins, Bills, Seahawk, and Rams look like playoff teams, and even the Patriots in a transition phase don’t roll over for anyone. Our schedule got harder, and we lost more games. Maybe this isn’t rocket science. The schedule eases up in the final quarter of the season (at the Giants, home versus the Eagles and 49ers, then at the Rams). Can the team right the ship and take advantage?
Explanation #3: Teams Have Figured Out Kliff and Kyler
This is related to the last point, and it’s something my esteemed colleague Blake Murphy talked a bit about this in his recent article. Teams have clearly adjusted to Kliff Kingsbury’s playcalling and Kyler Murray’s athleticism, and the offense has struggled mightily in the last three games especially. It’s on our coach and starting QB to make their own adjustments, and they just haven’t been able to do so yet. Kliff has been frustratingly predictable, his passing game utterly unimaginative, and he’s failed to effectively get his best receiver consistently involved early on. For Kyler’s part, he hasn’t show the same willingness to scramble, which is one of his greatest strengths, almost like he’s trying to prove he doesn’t need to run for the team to win (a topic local sports radio has been talking about ad nauseum all week). But if he truly wants to win with his arm… well, he needs to be better throwing the ball than he’s been. Simple as that.
Explanation #4: Maybe We Just Weren’t That Good in the First Place
Again, maybe the explanation is simpler than folks want to make it. Blake also talked about the talent on this roster in the piece linked above, and I think he’s onto something. Remember, this team isn’t even two years removed from finishing 3-13. We were a below-.500 team last year, and even though the modern NFL is conducive to quick turnarounds, we don’t exactly have a stacked roster. I know I’ve said something similar a number of times this season, but Walter recently made the point that “If anyone had said at this time last year the Cardinals would be 6-6 in 2020 and right in the thick of the playoff hunt—wouldn’t most of us have been happy to hear that?” Coming into this season, we all thought we had a roster that would be .500 or maybe a little better, perhaps competing for a Wild Card slot. Well… that’s right where we are. Sure, we got off to a hot start, but the competition was easier and we looked a little better than we really were. Maybe this is just an Occam’s razor situation.
Explanation #5: This Team Has a Leadership Problem
If I were a Cardinals fan—and I am, duh—I would be relatively satisfied with any of the four possible explanations above. Injuries? They happen. Tough schedule? I get it. Teams adjusting to schemes/players? Par for the course. Not enough good players? Uh, welcome to Cardinals fandom. But this explanation? This is the one I’d be most concerned about.
The local media has been all over this angle recently. Walter largely dismissed it in his most recent piece, but I wouldn’t be so quick to ignore this possible explanation. Kyler’s sideline body language and demeanor with the media has probably been overly dissected, but no matter how you slice it, there’s something… off there. And how many times to we have to listen to Kliff blame himself for losses in postgame pressers before 1) he actually shows some improvement in clutch situations, and 2) he actually calls out his best players (yes, I mean Kyler here)?
The best teams’ leaders are usually the head coach and starting QB. Right now, there are legitimate questions about Kliff’s and Kyler’s leadership abilities. I don’t necessarily think that’s a huge deal. They’re both only in their second year in the NFL and have plenty of time to answer those questions. But while they’re doing so, who are this team’s actual leaders? Chandler Jones and Corey Peters are injured. Larry Fitzgerald—never the most vocal of veteran leaders—is on the COVID list. I wonder how much credibility Patrick Peterson has in the locker room after his tumultuous last couple years—both on and off the field. DeAndre Hopkins? He’s the new guy. Budda Baker—yeah, he’s a defensive leader for sure. But that doesn’t help the floundering offense. If the offense can turn things around in these final four games, I guess we’ll really find out who the true leaders are on that side of the ball.
The real reason for this slide is probably a combination of all five of these explanations. (I know, talk about a copout.) We’re banged up, playing harder teams who have more film on us, our roster is still a work in progress, and there are some concerns about team leadership. When you look at it that way, it almost seems like a miracle we’re even .500.
Of course, that’s the glass half-empty view. The more optimistic view is that we finally have a franchise QB leading a (usually) exciting offense with a defense that does just enough most weeks. This still feels like a playoff-caliber team. We still have four games to address these shortcomings and take that important next step in this team’s evolution.
And if we can’t? Well, this offseason will be full of even harder questions and introspection from the bottom of this roster all the way to the top floors of team HQ.