The Arizona Cardinals started the 2021 season with a 7-0 record before an agonizingly close loss to the Packers in Week 8. There was also a loss to the Panthers in Week 10, but at the end of their 33-22 Week 13 win over the Bears, Arizona still had a 10-2 record, and looked to be motoring toward the playoffs, though the NFC’s one-seed spot had probably been taken out of the equation by the Packers loss.
Since then, it’s been all filler and no killer for Kliff Kingsbury’s team. The Cardinals have dropped three straight games, including their 22-16 loss to the Colts on Christmas night, and as we head into Week 16’s Sunday, Arizona missed out on clinching their own NFC playoff spot, and now must hope for help. The Cardinals would currently be the NFC’s five-seed, with the Rams winning the NFC West, if the season stopped today. And the Cardinals have done very little to help their own case of late.
Perhaps the most questionable example of situational awareness on the parts of Kingsbury (the head coach and offensive shot-caller) and quarterback Kyler Murray came on the Cardinals’ final drive against the Colts. That drive started with 4:12 left in the game. Murray had ended his team’s previous drive with a deep misfire to receiver A.J. Green, and after the Colts went three-and-out, Kingsbury reverted to a “death by a thousand paper cuts” philosophy in which his offense would attempt short pass after short pass against a Colts defense that was willingly allow easy completions underneath instead of the big plays the Cardinals desperately needed were they to get back in this game.
Kingsbury had no desire at that point to test Indianapolis’ defense deep. Instead, he allowed his opponent to dictate the terms of his own team’s field movement. Arizona had a 16-play, 81-yard drive that ate up 3:34 of clock, and ended with Kingsbury deciding to kick a field goal on third-and-10 from the Colts’ 10-yard line with 28 seconds left. Kicker Matt Prater booted the 28-yarder, but it didn’t matter. The Cardinals attempted an onside kick no the next play, the Colts recovered, and that was your ballgame.
Why wasn’t there more urgency on Kingsbury’s part to test Indy’s defense downfield? Well, in part because Murray had not been great at all in the intermediate and deep areas of the field. Murray finished the game with 27 completions in 43 attempts for 254 yards and a touchdown. His 5.70 yards per attempt average was the lowest of his season, and his 85.9 passer rating marked the third straight week in which Murray didn’t come anywhere near 100. That the team’s three-week slide has happened over the same period of time is no coincidence.
Murray’s protection was off, his footwork was less than solid, and perhaps Kingsbury thought in the moment that the best course for his quarterback was just to get back on the good foot with easy completions. That may have happened on that final drive, but Kingsbury also let every bit of air out of the balloon by running clock on his own comeback attempt.
“It was one of those scenarios where we’re going to have to kick the onside regardless,” Kingsbury said of the third-down field goal attempt. “Once it got under one minute, we decided to take that and give ourselves some time to try and get the onside with plenty of enough time if we did get it, to go down and score a touchdown.”
Sure, but why let your short passing game run clock when you had first-and-10 from the Colts’ 20-yard line with 1:22 left in the game following Murray’s 14-yard completion to receiver Christian Kirk? The Cardinals ran four more plays before kicking that field goal with their passing game circling the drain, and while it was eminently possible that they were not going to score the necessary touchdown on the net drive, Kingsbury could have at least given his team a chance.
Instead, the Cardinals ran out of everything at the altar of the idea that they could not dictate terms to the defense they were facing. Which makes this loss less of a one-off, and more of an indicator that the Cardinals are in some serious trouble.
“The good thing about it is that we’re 10-5 still, all you have to do is get in, that’s all you have to do,” Murray said of his team’s chances. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to get in playing the way we’re playing. We want to go in playing and feeling good about what we’re doing. The thing about it is that it’s fixable, we have to look ourselves in the mirror and stop making these mistakes, because that game was very winnable, but like I said, good teams don’t do that. Right now, we’re not doing what we need to do.”
Murray is also smart enough to know that his head coach took the necessary winning ingredient out of his hands in the most crucial part of the game. Coaches will say all kinds of things in press conferences about their players, but if you want to know how they really feel, simply watch what happens on the field.
And when you watch what happens on the field, the formerly dominant Arizona Cardinals do not even resemble a playoff team at this point in time.