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Despite competitive start, Arizona Cardinals have a long way to go to close the talent gap

Maybe it’s as simple as “Just Add Kyler” but the Cardinals’ loss to the Bengals to fall to 1-4 yesterday proved just that the team is still far off from contending for a title

Syndication: Arizona Republic Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

If there’s one thing we have been able to say about the Arizona Cardinals, it’s that they have exceeded many expectations even if the score hasn’t showed it.

Pundits had projected the Cardinals to have maybe the 32nd ranked defense and offense in the league this year. Through 4 games, that had not been the case, with Arizona holding tight games goiong into the 4th quarter against the Commanders, Giants and Niners. They even beat the Cowboys outright.

Yet, it was this game at home against a hampered Joe Burrow & Bengals offense without Tee Higgins that seemed to finally crack a bit of the illusion of the 2023 Cardinals being able to move from the “building the foundation” phase to putting up walls, painting, decorating and thriving that a winning organization should do.

Arizona’s defense cracked after an early start and let Ja’Marr Chase run wild and set a new Bengals receiving record, with a large bulk of those yards given up by Marco Wilson in coverage.

Wilson was nowhere to be found after the game, and CB Kei’Trel Clark missed time on the first series of the game, something that hasn’t been addressed or discussed.

That said—it wasn’t only on 1-2 players. Jalen Thompson left the game injured, Budda Baker has been out along with Jonathan Ledbetter and Arizona’s got a new defensive scheme and a ton of young & new players making their way in the NFL.

The fact that you went from two top-notch safeties to backups having to play the run or provide help to Wilson (again, something coaching said they needed to change) shows the lack of depth.

An obvious lack of depth.

Injuries stink, but we saw with last year’s Cardinals that they were top-heavy, and when it came to the wire as far as who would break between the 1-4 Cardinals and 1-4 was the Quarterback and the Wide Receiver who got it done.

Elite players, like Mahomes/Kelce or Allen/Diggs are available and perform when it counts and the Bengals had a “get right” game while Arizona seemed to watch the fanbase accept that Josh Dobbs wasn’t going to be a long-term capable starter over the likes of Kyler Murray.

Arizona needs a talent infusion along with the youthful infusion of fresh and innovative coaching. Despite a rough day from Dobbs, Arizona used some trickery with Rondale Moore, got a touchdown from the team’s 3rd string UDFA running back and got a sack on a stunt from Dante Stills, who flashed.

Stafford and Kupp are the hosts for the Cardinals next week, in addition to one of the sleeper hits in the draft in recent years in Puka Nacua, who proved he wasn’t just a flash in the pan this past week.

“[He’ll] pick them apart” was the first thought our site manager Seth Cox had when we looked at the secondary against a Rams attack that has Matthew Stafford playing at a high level. If so, then you start to look at where the wins are without Kyler Murray.

And that’s the gut of the problem.

Under GM Steve Keim the Cardinals’ “go for it every year” philosophy meant that the team kept trying to win a Super Bowl nearly every year save for maybe 2019 (and even then, it took a 3-game winning streak for Kliff Kingsbury to convince people that the team was going to have a turnaround).

The struggles in evaluation, coaching and putting players in position to succeed or evaluating team needs (see: drafting inside linebacker over receiver/offensive line) turned from a drip into a drain in later years.

Losing multiple high draft picks towards finding a second wide receiver to pair with Hopkins or whiffing in general on talent took Arizona only one offseason to lose all their top talent.

Kyler? Hurt.

Hopkins? Gone.

JJ Watt? Retired.

Byron Murphy and Zach Allen? Gone.

Budda Baker? Asked for a trade & came back (thank god)

That’s abnormally rare for a team to go through. Even a team like the Los Angeles Rams not only won a super bowl first...but had Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald returning!

The child paying for the sins of the father is a good metaphor for this season, and it shows how Cardinals fans might need to check their expectations despite the start.

That close Commanders game? Lost to the Bears.

The Giants? Might be the worst team in football this season.

The Cowboys? Lost bigger to the Niners than you did in Arizona.

And now with the struggling Bengals handing Arizona their biggest loss of the season, the talent gap between a playoff team & Arizona is showing up.

And that’s ok.

It’s ok.

Cardinals fans, breathe.

This is not a team that is aiming for a quick playoff entry and exit, contract extensions before regression or trying to shoot for a Super Bowl window. It’s a team that’s taking steps to become that.

There will be a point where losing becomes unacceptable for the Cardinals but as it stands they’re a young team that’s playing hard & learning who are foundational pieces and who are not and being honest...there might not be a lot of foundational pieces versus some older veterans propping the door open for the next generation.

Zach Ertz? James Conner? Hollywood in a contract year? Even a half-to-whole year of Josh Dobbs?

The Cardinals have a lot of draft picks and their rookie class this year looks to be special. Already they’re seeing major contributions from Paris Johnson and Michael Wilson, and Arizona’s defense was better with Kei’Trel Clark on the field than off it.

It’s not going to be a quick fix, and nor should it. They need to add talent and there are three ways to do that:

  1. Better utilize current talent
  2. Bring in veteran free agents on large contracts or via trade
  3. Draft young talent

The 3rd category is what Arizona is trying to do, and is something we haven’t seen the team do well since that 2004-2008 time period where they added defensive studs to an offense with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin on rookie deals.

Thing is, that draft won’t be until this season is over. So until then as the storm rages on, Cardinals fans need to hold on and believe that it’ll pass.

As really, their schedule the next few weeks looks BRUTAL and even if Kyler Murray comes back, there’s no guarantee he improves the team or offense enough to turn it around or be competitive with playoff teams.

I think they’ll be dang good with him...but it’s not a guarantee.

But if the Cardinals are able to continue their march as we have seen from the rookies? Hold on, it’ll pass.

And the Cardinals might be finally getting something right, to boot.