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Should the Cardinals’ 2021-2022 season be considered a success?

Only one team can win the Super Bowl, but there are other ways to measure success. With that in mind, should this season be considered a success for the Arizona Cardinals?

NFL: NFC Wild Card Playoffs-Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams
You wonder if Kyler Murray and the Cardinals would consider this season a success after how it ended.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been over a week, and I’m still pretty disgusted with the way the 2021-2022 season ended for the Arizona Cardinals. That seems to be a pretty common theme around these parts as you look at some of the recent RotB headlines:

“Arizona Cardinals end season in embarrassing fashion with loss to Los Angeles Rams”

“10 Ways to Ruin a Great Season by the Arizona Cardinals”

“Confidence in direction of the Arizona Cardinals all but gone after epic collapse”

No one is happy with the way this season ended—including Michael Bidwill, as indicated by recent reports of possible turmoil behind the scenes at Cardinals HQ. Safe to say, everyone associated with the Cardinals—from the team to the local media to the fans—has a bad taste in their mouth about this season right now.

But recency bias is a real thing, and it’s worth trying to take a big-picture view of the season. Wouldn’t most fans have taken an 11-6 record and a playoff appearance before the season? Didn’t the team show progress from last season (and the one before that)?

Even given the terrible way the season ended, can it still be considered a success? Let’s try to answer that question today.

How do you measure success?

First, we have to decide how to measure “success.” There may be more ways to determine success than these, but I’m going to consider three definitions in this piece.

  • Performance relative to the previous season. How did the team do compared to last season? Was their performance and season result improved enough to consider the season a success?
  • Performance relative to preseason expectations. How did the team do compared to general expectations in the preseason? Did their performance and season result exceed expectations enough to consider the season a success?
  • Performance relative to the team’s capabilities. How did the team do compared to what it was capable of? Did their performance and season result approach the team’s perceived ceiling?

Performance Relative to the Previous Season

In 2020, the Cardinals finished 9-8, 3rd in the NFC West, and missed the playoffs on tiebreakers. In 2021, the Cardinals finished 11-6, 2nd in the NFC West, and made the playoffs as the first wild card. That’s a two-win improvement, one spot up in the division standings, and a trip to the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-2016 season. So this season was pretty obviously a success by this metric, right?

Yes, but the team’s performance followed a similar arc to last season: a fast start followed by a dispiriting collapse in the second half of the season. Of course, this is nothing new for a Kliff Kingsbury team, so you would like to have seen some improvement in that regard. I have a hard time calling this season a total success (by this metric) when it unfolded in the exact same disheartening way as last season.

Success?: Yes, but with a caveat.

Performance Relative to Preseason Expectations

Prior to the season, most outlets (ESPN, SI, NFL.com, CBS Sports, The Ringer, et al.) had the Cardinals in the 9-8 to 8-9 range, and 3rd or 4th in the NFC West. (This includes yours truly.) You were hard-pressed to find anyone who predicted the Cardinals would make the playoffs (although our humble head honcho Seth Cox did just that). The highest predicted win total for the Redbirds I could find was 10-7.

It was a rollercoaster to get there, but in the end the Cardinals finished 11-6 and 2nd in the NFC West, outperforming the general consensus predictions. The offense performed about as well as predicted, but I don’t think many pundits saw the defense performing as well as it did (for most of the season, anyway), finishing as a borderline top-10 unit in both yardage and scoring. And I think most who boldly predicted a Redbirds playoff appearance had them as likely the final team in the field, rather than the #5 seed.

Success?: Yes, I think you can safely say this season was a success by this metric.

Performance Relative to The Team’s Capabilities

Here’s where things get tricky. This metric is admittedly fuzzy—how do we know what a team’s true capabilities are, anyway? If the team was truly capable of more, they would have achieved it, right? We shouldn’t hold the team’s early-season success against them, should we?

What I’m getting at is this: I have a really hard time calling this season a success given the way it ended. When this team started 7-0 and then 10-2, they were truly one of the best teams in the league. They had an exciting, efficient offense and a sturdy defense, and Kliff’s selectively aggressive coaching style was paying huge dividends.

Then, for whatever reason—injuries, coaching issues, responding poorly to pressure, lack of leadership—the wheels fell off. Sandwiched around bad primetime losses to the Rams and Colts, the team completely laid down in Detroit of all places, a completely inexcusable loss. The upset in Dallas was a false beacon of hope before the team completely crapped the bed at home against a Seahawks team with nothing to play for in Week 18, with the division title and a home playoff game in our grasp.

And then came the demolition at the hands of the Rams in the playoffs, maybe the worst game this team has played in three seasons with Kliff and Kyler at the helm. How can you call this season a success when it ended in that most ignominious of ways? I’m going to be disgusted by that performance for a long, long time—as should anyone who watched or played in that game last Monday.

In the first half of this season, the Cardinals proved themselves capable of being one of the best teams in the league, of perhaps making a deep playoff run. The season simply cannot be called a success by this metric given the pathetic way it ended.

Success?: Absolutely not.

Final Thoughts

So, let’s again ask the question posited by this article:

Should the Cardinals 2021-2022 season be considered a success?

If you’re measuring against last season or preseason expectations, then, yes, this season can be considered a success. I know there’s a not-small contingent of Cardinals fans who seem to be content with the steady progress this team has shown under Kliff: 3-13 before he got here to 5-10-1 to 8-8 to 11-6. Hey, we should be 14-3 at that pace next season, right? Let’s hope so.

It’s hard to argue against improving by three wins each year, but the math changes for teams with a Pro Bowl QB still on his rookie contract. Joe Burrow is playing in the AFC Championship Game, and Josh Allen (in the final season before his huge extension kicks in) did last year and maybe should have been again this season. Lamar Jackson’s Ravens have been a Super Bowl contender in recent years, and Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have been the best team in the league over the past few seasons. Hell, even Baker Mayfield won a playoff game last season.

The Cardinals were on that trajectory for most of this season, but with the pitiful way it ended, I know I won’t ever be able to look back on this season and consider it a success. This team has been to the playoffs, to the NFC Championship Game, to the Super Bowl—all in the past 15 years. I’m not content with making the dance only to leave with a whimper.

Your mileage may vary. I won’t judge you if you rate this season as a success. I just can’t do it, personally. I hate to say it, but this season was as failure for the Arizona Cardinals.

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