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It’s happening again: The Cardinals’ collapses start with Kliff and Kyler

You can blame a lot of things for the latest Cardinals collapse: injuries, the defense, regression to the mean. But anyone frustrated by this team needs to look no farther than its leaders: Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray.

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Kliff and Kyler in all black to mourn the loss of this season’s once-great promise.
Michael Chow / USA TODAY NETWORK

It was just a month and a half ago when I told you that the Cardinals weren’t going to suffer another second-half collapse this season.

Er, whoops.

I really thought this team had made a leap and would be able to sustain their hot start. The duo of Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray—the Kliff and Kyler show—was flying high. Kliff was looking like a COY candidate, and Kyler was again playing like a potential league MVP.

Well, here we are now in the midst of a 3-game losing streak. The #1 seed and NFC West title, once both in our back pocket, are gone as the team has crashed back to earth. Especially Kliff and Kyler. Kliff continues to make embarrassing coaching gaffes, Kyler doesn’t look right, and their offense is going through something of an identity crisis.

There are certainly other reasons for this latest collapse. Injuries are a major factor—the absences of guys like J.J. Watt, Rodney Hudson, and DeAndre Hopkins have been keenly felt. But every team has to deal with injuries. Remember how many players the Packers were missing when they beat us? The Rams? The Colts? Injuries are not an excuse. Next man up.

The defense has started to spring some leaks as well—they’re giving up 27 PPG during the losing streak (although they played well on Saturday). But this team’s identity is clearly centered around Kliff and Kyler, so you have to start with those two when trying to figure out why this team has collapsed yet again. I’ve been a huge supporter of Kyler since even before we drafted him, and I came around big time on Kliff during our 10-2 start. But it’s time to lay blame where it’s most deserved, on the leaders of our team: our head coach and starting quarterback.

Today, let’s take a look at this beleaguered duo to see how they got here—and what they can do to get the team out of this tailspin. Let’s start with the one I’m the least worried about.

What’s up with Kyler?

One common element of both collapses has been injuries to Kyler. Last season, he hurt his shoulder in Week 11 against Seattle; the team went 2-5 from that point on. This season, he had the ankle injury late in the Green Bay game; we went 2-1 in the three games he missed but are just 1-3 since he returned after the Week 12 bye. That makes sense—a team struggling in the wake of injuries to its franchise QB is hardly surprising.

But this is clearly a pattern. So is Kyler “injury prone,” like some feared he would be in the pre-draft process? I don’t think we can say that—the injuries are unrelated and weren’t serious. Guys get dinged up. But Kyler seems to be the kind of QB that needs to be as close to 100% as possible for this offense to really click. Is he 100% now? He sure looked like it on that long run, but you never know for sure (the team definitely downplayed his injury last year) and the offense is averaging just 17 PPG during the losing streak.

The other concern about Kyler I want to bring up has nothing to do with his health or his play. Instead, it’s his leadership. Now, I want to preface this by saying that I don’t know how much—if any—stock I put into this next part. But there have been lingering questions about his body language and leadership skills, and it’s fair to explore them in the context at looking at these collapses.

I’m talking about articles like this one, which refers to two former Cardinals QBs—Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton—calling into question Kyler’s sideline demeanor during losses and his overall leadership ability. These concerns have been hovering over the team basically since Kyler came into the league, and at this point there’s too much smoke for there not to be some kind of fire. There’s no question about Kyler’s ability on the football field, but this team also needs him to be a strong leader on the sidelines and in the locker room, regardless of the score. And right now, there are valid questions about that aspect of his personality.

What’s up with Kliff?

Moving on to the head coach, who I am much more concerned about. I’ve been a vocal critic of his since last season’s collapse, even suggesting he should be fired after last season. That was mostly bitterness talking, and I’m glad we didn’t—I want to be clear about that. Like I said in the article I linked at the beginning, I’ve come around on Kliff. I don’t at all think his job is or should be in jeopardy, like some are suggesting. But a lot of the team’s struggles of late can be pinned on Kliff, and he deserves a lot of the criticism that’s coming his way.

For one, this isn’t new territory for Kliff, not even close. Take a look at this:

And this (from the CBS article linked above):

A visual history of Kliff’s collapses.
CBS Sports

This isn’t a pattern, or even a trend at this point—it’s practically a habit. Now, I couldn’t even come close to telling you why this keeps happening to his teams—and, to Walter’s point, it might not be fair to keep bringing up his failures at Texas Tech. Is it the style of offense he tends to run? His lack of ability to make in-season adjustments? Just sheer bad luck? No idea, but the common denominator is Kliff. His teams just… collapse. Not to mention that the Cardinals are now 0-5 in playoff clinching games under his stewardship. Again, there is too much smoke here for there not to be fire.

And then there’s his propensity for absolutely flummoxing gaffes in clutch situations, which I’ve harped on him about before. Man, that Miami game last season still sticks in my craw—just baffling coaching decisions. And now those issues are back with a vengeance this season:

As I’ve mentioned before, Kliff just seems to freeze up in big moments in big games, making decisions that have anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of football wanting to pull their hair out. I mean, kicking on 3rd down from the 10-yard-line(!) is just indefensible, a decision that shows Kliff seems to have no idea what he’s doing in those kinds of situations. Either decide to kick the FG early to give yourself enough time to get into the end zone if you recover the onside kick, or try to complete the tougher task—score a TD—when you’re close enough to reasonably do so. Instead, he went for the worst of both worlds—get close enough to score a TD but take too much time off the clock before kicking the FG. That’s just one example of many perplexing coaching decisions—perhaps that’s a future article.

(Do note that I don’t think Kliff is a horrible decision-maker in general. ESPN recently said he was the best coach on 4th down in the league this season, and I’ve generally been a fan of his aggressive approach. But at this point it can’t be denied that he’s shaky (at best) in clutch situations and that he has a poor feel for the kicking game.)

There are a number of other maladies affecting the team that can be traced back to Kliff as well—penalties, red zone struggles, going away from the run. These things aren’t all Kliff’s fault, of course, but as the head coach, the blame falls squarely on him—and I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that. That’s just the job—one that he needs to be better at. That he should be better at by this point.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to like about this team, and this season should still be counted as a success—we just clinched our first playoff berth in six years, after all. But no one is celebrating, nor should they be. The promise of that 10-2 start has faded, and what once looked like a Super Bowl contender now seems more likely to bow out in the first round.

When looking at why this has happened AGAIN, I think you have to look at our leadership, at Kliff and Kyler. I’ve raised questions about this team’s leadership before, and I think those questions are even more valid now. Teams with stronger leadership would seem to be able to weather storms like these better.

No team is collapse-proof, but the second-half collapses of the last two season show that there are fissures in the leadership infrastructure of the Cardinals. They need their leaders to be stronger. They need Kliff and Kyler to get better. No, not “get.” There’s no time for them to “get” better. This season is quickly dwindling away. The need to BE better. Right now.

I think they’re more than capable of it. That might involve Kyler getting out of his comfort zone a bit. He’s still just 24, so perhaps it’s just a matter of maturing, growing into a true leadership role. For Kliff, it might involve delegating some of his gameday responsibilities, leaning more on his coaching staff in those clutch moments.

Whatever it is, it needs to happen in a hurry. We have a trip to Dallas coming up to face a Cowboys team that’s rounding into form and that just dropped 56(!) on a divisional foe. Then a home game against the Seahawks. Then, likely, a road playoff game.

If you’re like me and think that just getting to the playoffs isn’t enough, then you should agree that this team’s leadership hasn’t been good enough. It’s on Kliff and Kyler to take a look in the mirror and BE better.

Or else the Kliff and Kyler show is going to go off the air prematurely. And talks of cancelation will only intensify.