In the heady days of last October, the Arizona Cardinals were 7-0, and Coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray were contemplating individual hardware — to say nothing of boffo contract extensions — while basking in the limelight as the darlings of the NFL.
The Cardinals doubled down on the Kliff and Kyler Show. It isn’t working.
Since then, owner Michael Bidwill watched his team get dragged through the second half of the season, then bow out around the midpoint of the second quarter of its first-round playoff game with the Los Angeles Rams. (It ended as an ugly 34-11 defeat.) Bidwill opted to dole out massive new deals to the coach and QB anyway.
He also has watched his 1-2 outfit — which is a few miracle, improvised plays away from an 0-3 start — produce some of the most unsightly offensive play in the NFL this month (although the defense is also fairly odious). Suspect game-opening scripts and dubious execution are in a weekly battle to be the biggest issue marring the Kliff and Kyler Show, which is 2-7 in its past nine games, including that playoff debacle.
Once again, major questions are being asked around the league — especially among those who have watched the Cardinals closely — about the direction and potency of this offense and its ability to adjust. The personnel is not special; the Cardinals struggle to pass or run, and they don’t seem particularly prepared, either, outscored 31-0 in the first quarter. Arizona is averaging just 3.65 yards per play in the first quarter, behind only the offensively bereft Giants and Panthers.
Could that possibly be related to Kingsbury’s early-game play-calling tendencies?
“I wish I had an answer,” he told the media this week.
Answers, for this operation, are often in short supply.
Kingsbury, a former college head coach hired away from becoming USC’s offensive coordinator by the Cardinals, mostly lives in “11” personnel (three wide receivers) in the shotgun formation (which Arizona uses 95 percent of the time, the most in the NFL, according to data from stats website TruMedia). He eschews motion — Arizona is 31st of 32 teams in its usage — despite it being more popular than ever among the brightest offensive minds. Arizona largely forgoes play-action (28th in usage) at a time when early-down play-action fuels the league’s best offenses.
He’s not the only young coach who dares teams to stop his attack in “11” and the shotgun, but unlike the Rams’ Sean McVay and Cincinnati Bengals’ Zac Taylor, he has no truly big wins to show for it. Innovation and creativity seem to be lacking, with 2019 first overall pick Murray making just enough off-script plays to tease but not nearly enough to win consistently.
“There is an arrogance to their scheme on both sides of the ball,” said one scout who has watched the Cardinals closely but is not permitted to speak about them by his employer. “It’s like they just say, ‘We’re going to do what we planned to do, no matter what.’ But it’s not working.”
Said a high-ranking official from an NFC club, under similar restrictions about speaking publicly about other organizations: “We were shocked that they extended the coach. It’s not a sophisticated scheme. He’s not considered a great play-caller. Every year the production drops as the season goes on.”
Problem is, this season the Cardinals have looked as ineffective as they ended the 2021 campaign. That raises major questions about what’s to come.
The offensive line is again a problem in the running game (just 3.5 yards per rush in the first half of games, before the Cardinals are far behind and teams are conceding the ground game). For all their money spent, the Cardinals are 28th in yards per play (4.77), and Murray is 30th in intended air yards per attempt (6.02) and sports a brutal passer rating of 82.6 — about the same as Baker Mayfield, who was drafted first overall a year before Murray and took a preseason pay cut to facilitate a trade to Carolina.
General Manager Steve Keim dealt a first-round pick to get wide receiver Marquise Brown from Baltimore, with the idea that the smaller speedster — a teammate of Murray’s at Oklahoma — would unlock the deep game. But he struggles to run a full route tree, suffers from drops and was not a consistent downfield threat for boyhood buddy Lamar Jackson with the Ravens. For the Cardinals, he has been a short-yardage safety valve at best. Brown is averaging just 10.5 yards per catch — only two of his 24 receptions are for more than 20 yards — and Murray has a staggering passer rating of 39.96 on balls traveling 11 yards or more downfield.
The Cardinals don’t seem to think they can beat opponents by going with heavy personnel — they use two tight ends just 13.5 percent of the time, 29th in the NFL — though it might boost a sagging running game. They keep relying on A.J. Green as a regular route runner, even though some scouts believe the 34-year-old is done. (Murray is 5 for 13 targeting Green this season, gaining a putrid 2.23 yards per attempt.) And there don’t seem to be enough pass catchers who can win individual battles to help bail out the quarterback — or the scheme.
“Just look at the film of the Raiders game” in Week 2, said another scout who has watched the Cardinals closely. “The offense, when they need a play, is ‘wait for Murray to run around and make a big play.’ That’s how they win games.”
Murray remains polarizing in the scouting and executive community, where some still question his dedication to his craft. The Cardinals’ insertion of a clause in his contract mandating time spent studying his playbook — later removed after it became public — spoke to the team’s uncertainties.
“It makes no sense to me,” longtime NFL executive Joe Banner, who negotiated contracts for over a decade, said of that clause over the summer. “I don’t understand why a team making this commitment felt like it had to ask for it, or why the player would agree to it. Of course, it was always going to get out. Both sides knew that. It’s preposterous.”
Botched draft picks and signings have much to do with this malaise as well, but that didn’t prevent Keim from getting another payday from Bidwill this offseason. And good luck overhauling the roster at this time of year.
“Never underestimate how close Keim is with that owner,” said one NFL GM, not at liberty to comment on other organizations. “It’s like he’s part of the family. Does wonders for your job security.”
Even Kingsbury himself doesn’t seem particularly confident about where it’s all going. He speaks about the Cardinals’ early-game foibles — they’ve trailed by at least 13 points before scoring in all three of their games — almost in the passive voice, as if the failures have been foisted upon him: “It’s hard when you’re chasing offensively and defensively like we’ve been. We’re just trying to crawl back into it. You’re not calling the game on your terms. You’re trying to catch up. That’s not an easy place to be, and that’s where we’ve been.”
Should the coaching staff mull major philosophical change? Is it time for reinvention — or at least alterations in how the Cardinals practice and navigate the workweek?
“At some point, it just has to click for us,” Kingsbury told the Arizona media when probed on such matters.
Will that happen? I wouldn’t bet on it. The problem for Cardinals fans: Bidwill already has doubled down on his Kliff and Kyler gamble.