As I type this, the Phoenix Suns are one win against a preternaturally pesky Los Angeles Clippers team away from making the NBA Finals. They were 19-63 just two seasons ago, but three years of growth in Monty Williams’s system and the additions of Chris Paul and Jae Crowder has the Valley’s oldest major professional franchise on the verge of a Finals appearance.
Win or lose this year, their title window looks open for the foreseeable future with a young core of Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges just entering their prime.
The Valley’s second-oldest professional franchise, the Arizona Cardinals, can learn a lot from how the Suns got here, as my colleague Blake Murphy explored in a recent article. I won’t rehash those astute points here, but the Suns’ run got me thinking about windows.
As in, what is the Cardinals’ window?
Although NFL and NBA rosters aren’t really analogous, the Redbirds clearly have their Devin Booker in Kyler Murray. We also have a lot of other elite players in their prime or close to it, such as DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Humphries, Rodney Hudson, and Budda Baker. Plus some nice veteran pieces like Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt.
Is this roster ready to make a Suns-like run? I’m not so sure, but if this team is going to make a leap to contender status, it needs to be in the next three years while Kyler is still on his rookie deal—the financial flexibility provided by a franchise passer on affordable rookie contract is still the easiest way to assemble a contender. Kyler is going to get a LOT more expensive starting in 2024, making it tougher to field the kind of deep, talented roster it takes to make a championship run around him.
With that in mind, the 2021 season is a critical juncture for this Cardinals team as they seek to enter their window of contention. The way I see it, things could go one of two ways:
- The plan put in motion when the team drafted Kyler and hired Kliff Kingsbury finally pays dividends, and the progress shown over the past two seasons continues. Kyler becomes a legit MVP candidate and the offense becomes one of the best in the NFL. The defensive retooling by GM Steve Keim—Watt, CB Malcolm Butler, rookie ILB Zaven Collins, etc.—keeps the unit competitive. Finally, Kliff avoids the game management gaffes that have plagued his first two seasons in the desert, posting his first winning season as an NFL head coach. The Redbirds not only make the playoffs but win a game or two and that window is wide open heading into 2022.
- If some or most of these things don’t happen, this franchise will in trouble as it tries to salvage the last two years of Kyler’s rookie deal. I’m not too worried about our franchise QB, but it would be a little concerning if he doesn’t show growth as a passer in Year 3. That would also be an indictment of Kliff, who simply has to be better at his job if the Cardinals are going to make the playoffs this year. His job rightfully depends on it. Also potentially on the hot seat is Keim, who likely can’t afford to whiff on yet another draft class or crop of veteran free agents. If this team flounders around .500 again, we could be looking at a new coaching staff *and* front office in 2022. Given the competitiveness of the NFC West, that window will be tougher and tougher to crack fully open.
There’s a lot riding on this season, and, to my eyes, the second scenario looks a lot more likely than the first right now. As Blake pointed out in his piece, Kliff sure doesn’t look like a Monty Williams–type coach, and Steve Keim hasn’t shown the kind of team-building chops that James Jones has.
I truly hope I’m wrong and that this team’s leaders on the sidelines and in the front office have what it takes to capitalize on the window provided by Kyler’s rookie deal. It’s open just a crack right now, and I’m hoping that this team can pry it fully open this season just like the Suns have done. No one really saw this Suns run coming this year, as few predicted the team would jell so quickly and become a true championship contender. Who’s to say the Cardinals can’t do the same this season? Stranger things have certainly happened in the NFL.
As the riotous home crowds at Phoenix Suns Arena (forever America West to me) have shown, this town is starved for a winner. It’s time to give them another one, Cardinals. Force that window open. Let’s see the Red Sea truly rise in 2021.