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Leadership void: 2022 Arizona Cardinals worst-case scenario

Last week, we took a look at the best-case scenario for the 2022 Cardinals. This week, it’s the other end of the spectrum. What’s the worst that can happen for the team this season?

Arizona Cardinals v Cincinnati Bengals
Did Steve Keim spend more on sunglasses than he did on CBs this offseason?
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

With less than a week to go before the 2022 NFL season kicks off, it’s time to offer my next round of predictions. Last week, I gave my thoughts on the best-case scenario for the Cardinals: another 11-6 finish but a win in the wild card round. That’s what this team’s ceiling looks like to me. No Super Bowl, but at least no more second half collapses!

This week, we go in the opposite direction: we take a look at the worst-case scenario for the team. How bad can things get for this team? We know the roster has some holes, so let’s see what this team’s floor is like. (Note: As always, I generally don’t consider major injuries to key players. I don’t want that bad juju on my conscience.)

Warning: It won’t be pretty. So strap in for a trip to the dark side. I’ll be back next week with my actual season predictions.

Week 1 – Home vs. Kansas City Chiefs

Like last season, the Cardinals open as underdogs against a reigning AFC division winner. Even though Tyreek Hill was traded to Miami in the offseason, Mahomes and Co. are still a formidable offense, with a better-than-you-think defense… exactly the kind of team this year’s Cardinals aspire to be. Last year, the Cardinals shocked many with their blowout of the Titans. Things… do not go the same this year. The Redbirds cornerback room is one of the worst in the league, with Byron Murphy surrounded by late draft picks and other teams’ castoffs. Predictably, Mahomes carves them up for over 350 yards and 3 scores, badly abusing the likes of Marco Wilson and Trayvon Mullen. The offense plays well enough without the suspended DeAndre Hopkins, but it’s not enough as the visiting Chiefs win handily. Cardinals lose, 34-23. Record: 0-1.

Week 2 – Away vs. Las Vegas Raiders

The Cardinals head out on the road to take on another AFC West foe in Week 2. The Raiders were a playoff team last year and added arguably the best WR in the league in Davante Adams as they seek to take the next step in contention. He and David Carr immediately connect for a 1st-quarter TD, and the Cardinals are in catch-up mode for most of the afternoon. Kyler hits Hollywood Brown for a long TD to keep them in the game, but Carr and Adams just torch the overmatched Cardinals secondary, with Adams putting up over 200 yards and 3 TDs. Kyler keeps them in the game and has them driving for a potential game-winning FG late, but former Cardinal Chandler Jones notches his second sack of the day, forcing a fumble for good measure—which he recovers to seal the game. The Cardinals drop stay winless and have the last-ranked pass defense in the league after two weeks. Cardinals lose, 26-24. Record: 0-2.

Week 3 – Home vs. Los Angeles Rams

The Cardinals still have a horrible taste in their mouths after last season’s wild card drubbing at the hands of their divisional rival, and they actually open the game with a long drive ending in a James Conner TD after receiving the opening kickoff. But it’s all Rams after that, with Matt Stafford connecting with Cooper Kupp and Allen Robinson for 1st-half TDs, shaking off his offseason elbow issues. Still, the Cardinals are somewhat in the game in the second half, but Aaron Donald ends two consecutive possessions with sacks to keep the game out of reach.. A.J. Green of all people catches a garbage-time TD, but the undefeated Rams keep the Cardinals winless. Cardinals lose, 30-19. Record: 0-3.

Week 4 – Away vs. Carolina Panthers

It seems like we play the Panthers every year, and they certainly seem to have our number. Indeed, they are 14-5 against us all time, and they’ve won the past 6 matchups, including last season’s inexplicable 34-10 beatdown at home in November. Surely Baker Mayfield and Co. won’t make it 7 in a row, right? Well, CMC takes a swing pass 75 yards to the house on the first play of the game to stun the Cardinals faithful. But even though the Cardinals are winless, they’re not a bad team, and Mayfield is is several tiers below the likes of Mahomes, Carr, and Stafford. They keep the Panthers passing game in check the rest of the game, with Murphy taking a Baker INT to the house to out the Cardinals up at the half. They’re able to play keepaway with their impressive stable of RBs. Kyler and the passing game don’t have to do much, but that’s okay. The Cardinals end their ignominious losing streak to the Panthers and improve to 28th in the league in pass defense. Cardinals win, 26-10. Record: 1-3.

Week 5 – Home vs. Philadelphia Eagles

Other than the Panthers game last week, the Cardinals have had a difficult schedule to start the season—and things don’t get any easier this week with the undefeated Eagles coming into town. Jalen Hurts has been a fantasy stud and is coming around as a real-life QB, and the Redbirds have trouble containing him. He connects with DeVonta Smith for a long TD, and dances around both Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins for a 40-yard rushing TD as well. As he did in the first three weeks, Kyler does his best to keep the Cardinals in the game, hitting former Eagle Zach Ertz for a TD to get them within striking distance. J.J. Watt then gets a clutch sack to end an Iggles drive, but Andy Isabella muffs the ensuing punt, giving Hurts a short field to score another rushing TD to put the game away. A frustrated Kyler eschews a postgame handshake from fellow Sooner Hurt, which the national media feasts on as the Cardinals drop to 1-4. Cardinals lose, 31-22. Record: 1-4.

Week 6 – Away vs. Seattle Seahawks

Lumen Field (which is I guess what they are calling it now) is usually a tough place to play with the 12th Man to contend with, but it doesn’t seem as imposing this year. The Seahawks are rebuilding after the Russell Wilson trade, and Geno Smith has them winless despite a relatively manageable schedule. (No one is clamoring for Drew Lock. Yet.) But no games are gimmes in the NFL, and this one turns into a dogfight. Kyler has a tough time getting going with Brown dropping a would-be TD and Green getting absolutely no separation from anyone. Rondale Moore does catch 8 balls… but for just 50 yards. Meanwhile, Geno Smith looks decent, connecting with DK Metcalf for a TD and rushing one in after escaping from Collins, who just looks lost so far this season. The SeaChickens are actually up going into the 4th. But Kyler shakes his frustration off and leads the team to 10 unanswered in the 4th to get the Redbirds their second win of the season. Cardinals win, 26-17. Record: 2-4.

Week 7 – Home vs. New Orleans Saints

The scuffling Redbirds fly home on a short week to take on the Fightin’ Jameises on Thursday Night Football. These aren’t your Brees/Payton Saints, but they’re still a decent squad with a good-enough offense and a strong defense. This’ll be a tough game on with an abbreviated week of practice and film, but the Cardinals have an ace in the hole: DeAndre Hopkins is back from suspension. He provide a much-needed jolt to the offense, which hasn’t scored more than 26 points in a game all season. He doesn’t exactly dominate—going 7/92/1 TD—but it’s enough to get the offense back on track, and they get to that 30-spot. Jameis does Jameis things, throwing for 300 yards with 2 TDs and 2 INTs, including one to Budda Baker that seals the deal in the 4th. The Redbirds get closer to .500 with the home victory in primetime. Cardinals win, 30-22. Record: 3-4.

Week 8 – Away vs. Minnesota Vikings

The Cardinals get a mini-bye following the TNF game, and they need it with a 10:00 a.m. East Coast game against the Vikings on tap. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and All-World WR Justin Jefferson actually have the Vikes in first in the NFC North, so the offense will need to keep up and the defense will need to keep them in the game. Kyler, Hopkins, and Co. hold up their end of the bargain—the offense is looking much better with their alpha WR back in the fold. But speaking of “fold,” that’s just what the secondary does as Cousins picks them apart all day long, completing 70% of his passes and throwing TDs to each of his top three WRs. The team puts up a valiant effort, but Patrick Peterson breaks up a pass intended for Hopkins on 4th down to end the game. Back to two games under .500. Cardinals lose, 33-27. Record: 3-5.

Week 9 – Home vs. Seattle Seahawks

It’s back to the desert for a little home cooking after the tough loss. The Cardinals badly need this one to get closer to .500 and keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Fortunately, the Seahawks are floundering and have turned the QB reins over to Drew Lock. It’s an easy matchup even for the 30th-ranked Cardinals passing defense. Budda nabs an easy pick-six off lock en route to Defensive Player of the Week, adding double-digit tackles and a sack. The offense is starting to look like its old self, averaging almost 30 PPG since D-Hop came back. This one is a laugher as the Redbirds get back on track. Cardinals win, 31-16. Record: 4-5.

Week 10 – Away vs. Los Angeles Rams

A short trip out west to L.A.—the site of last season’s playoff massacre—awaits. The Cardinals finally got their first win against Sean McVay last season, but his Rams have won the last two to start a new streak. They sit atop the NFC West and look like Super Bowl contenders again. The Redbirds badly want revenge for their wild card stomping… unfortunately, they don’t get it. In fact, they get their keisters kicked again. Stafford, Kupp, and Robinson feast on the secondary, Donald dominates, and the Cardinals lose by the exact same score as the playoff loss last year. Kyler stews on the sideline late in the 4th and leaves a terse post-game presser earlier as questions about his leadership again swirl. Cardinals lose, 34-11. Record: 4-6.

Week 11 – Home vs. San Francisco 49ers

No rest for the weary. The Cardinals don’t get to return to the Valley despite having a “home” game on the schedule. Instead, they travel to Mexico City to face another divisional foe on Monday Night Football. Trey Lance is putting up great fantasy numbers but doesn’t look like an elite real-life QB yet. Still, the Niners have plenty of talent at the skill positions and a strong defense. This is a tight, exciting affair in Estadio Azteca. The defense bends but largely doesn’t break, and Kyler has a nice comeback game after a dud against the Rams last week. He leads the Redbirds into FG range with the score tied late, and Matt Prater nails a 58-yarder to win it in the high elevation of Mexico City. It’s been a frustrating season so far, but they inch closer to .500. They need to make a run to get back into the playoff picture. Can they do it? Cardinals win, 25-22. Record: 5-6.

Week 12 – Home vs. Los Angeles Chargers

The short answer is no. Justin Herbert comes into town as a top MVP candidate—he’s been carving up defenses better than the Cardinals’ all season, on pace for the third 5,000-yard, 50-TD season of all time. That continues on this day. The Redbirds pass rush has been middle-of-the-pack, but the corners have just been brutal, and Herbert hangs 400 and 4 TDs on them to win his fantasy managers their week. Kyler’s fantasy managers don’t have any complaints—and they haven’t had any reason to since Hopkins came back from suspension—but, as it has been all season long, it just isn’t enough. The end of this one is marred by some infighting on the defense, with one of the young corners taking exception to something Budda said. This team just doesn’t seem to have the leadership—or the talent at some positions—it needs to right the ship. They enter the bye week with little hope of a second straight playoff berth. Cardinals lose, 35-24. Record: 5-7.

Week 13 – Bye Week

Week 14 – Home vs. New England Patriots

The Cardinals bye week comes in the middle of their toughest stretch of the season—six straight games against teams that were .500 or better in 2021… and they’re all over .500 again in 2022. This week, Bill Belichick and the Patriots come into town for Monday Night Football. They’re behind the Bills in the AFC East but are in the thick of the AFC wild card race. The Cardinals desperately need a win to keep their dreams alive. But The Hoodie isn’t going to make it easy for them. This is a tight, low-scoring affair—Vance Joseph has worked some magic with the defense over the bye, and Belichick has a great game plan in place for Kyler and Co., as usual. This one goes to overtime, and the Patriots look poised to end the Cardinals’ season after getting into FG range after both teams trade punts. But former UArizona Wildcat Nick Folk misses the kick to the delight of the State Farm Stadium faithful, and Hollywood Brown takes a slant to the house on the very next play to—yet again—get the team a game under .500. Cardinals win, 23-17. Record: 6-7.

Week 15 – Away vs. Denver Broncos

The Cardinals have been consistently inconsistent, alternating wins and losses going back to Week 7. It’ll be tough for them to break the cycle this week with a trip to the Mile High City to take on an old divisional foe on deck. Russell Wilson has the Broncos near the top of the AFC—to say nothing of the AFC West—in his first season in orange and blue. He’s got plenty of talented skill position players around him, and a strong defense on the other side of the ball. Whether it’s the semi-short week coming off of MNF, the elevation, or just the fact that the Broncos are the better team, but the Cardinals just come out flat. Wilson exploits the 31st-ranked pass defense and Kyler and the offense just can’t get things going. Hopes for the season are slipping away for all but the most diehard Redbirds fans. Cardinals lose, 32-17. Record: 6-8.

Week 16 – Home vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Cardinals are going to need those fans badly in Week 16, with Tom Brady and the Bucs coming into town for a special Christmas Day edition of Sunday Night Football as 4.5-point favorites. The team needs a Christmas miracle to keep their minuscule postseason hopes alive. Kliff urges Cardinals fans to keep the faith in the media, but Kyler is deadly silent on social media. An injured (again) J.J. Watt gives a rousing pregame speech in the locker room, but it seems to fall on deaf ears, as the Bucs take a quick 10-3 1st quarter lead and never look back. The team just looks lackadaisical—raising more questions about leadership. There’s no present under the tree for the Cardinals this year, just a fat lump of coal as they are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with two games to go. Cardinals lose, 36-23. Record: 6-9.

Week 17 – Away vs. Atlanta Falcons

The Cardinals finish out their season with two road games, but they’re just for pride. This one is a dreaded East Coast morning game. They already lost one such game in Minnesota back in Week 8… but the woeful Falcons are a far cry from the Norsemen. The Dirty Birds are starting rookie Desmond Ridder down the stretch, and he’s looking positively Rosen-esque. The Redbirds secondary—which has faced a murderer’s row of QBs in the second half of the season—is grateful for the reprieve, picking Ridder off three times in what turns into a rout. At least this Cardinals team is at the level where even a down year has some easy wins. Cardinals win, 34-19. Record: 7-9.

Week 18 – Away vs. San Francisco 49ers

It’s Week 18 and the Cardinals have nothing to play for while the Nines have everything to play for. The Niners just need a home win against a mediocre Cardinals team to make the playoffs. The Redbirds know the feeling—they’ve been in important must-win games against subpar opponents in each of the past two seasons only to blow them all. They hope to play spoilers today—a la the Seahawks against us in Week 18 last season—but this is a lost season and the Cardinals just can’t match the Niners’ fire. Trey Lance leads the Niners into the playoffs while the Cardinals march off the field with their heads hung low. Yet another terse, awkward post-game presser follows the final defeat of a colossally disappointing Cardinals season. Cardinals lose, 28-20. Record: 7-10.

Offseason

For a second season in a row, the Cardinals watch at home as the Rams win the Super Bowl (over Russell Wilson and the Broncos). The one silver lining to a season to forget: the Cardinals manage to not finish dead last in pass defense… instead finishing at #31. Kyler and Budda are both named as Pro Bowl alternates, but neither winds up making the roster. The team enters the offseason with questions at all levels of the organization: development of young players, coaching, talent level, leadership, roster construction. The national media levies blame on Kyler, Kliff, Steve Keim, and even Michael Bidwill. The local media especially hones in on Keim—how could he have done so little at CB when the need was so glaring? This is an organization at a crossroads, but with the QB, coach, and GM all just starting long extensions, there’s only so much change that can happen. It’s looking like several years in also-ran land for the Cardinals.

Final Thoughts

This roster has holes—big, scary, concerning ones—but I think there’s still enough talent that 7-10 is about as bad as it can get. Barring something catastrophic not even worth mentioning, of course. But that’s not the point of this column. I don’t want to get *that* dark.

Regardless of record, I think the real worst-case scenario for this team is mediocrity with no impetus for change. I just don’t want this team to get bogged down in the dredges of mediocrity like, I don’t know, the Cowboys of the past decade or so. And that’s a very real danger with an owner who seems as resistant to change as Jerry Jones at times.

Kliff and Keim were both just handed lengthy extensions without any real reason—Bidwill could just have easily have made them play out this season before making a big decision. Kyler was a bit different—the market dictated an big extension for him. But even then there are still questions about his true ceiling as a franchise QB.

But this is the core we have now, for better or worse. The “worse” is still better than Steve Wilks, Josh Rosen, and 3-13, but I’m not sure how good the “better” can actually be.

Ice, Ice, Isaiah

Defensive snap counts in the Arizona Cardinals comeback win over the Las Vegas Raiders

Arizona Cardinals offensive snaps in comeback win over Las Vegas Raiders