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With or without quarterback Kyler Murray, the Arizona Cardinals are a flawed squad.
Monday’s 38-10 manhandling by the San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City showed one team on the rise with the other going in the wrong direction. Murray’s eventual return from a hamstring injury isn’t going to save the season after a disappointing 4-7 record.
Kliff Kingsbury’s entire tenure as the Cardinals’ head coach can be described as disappointing. Well, maybe it’s not—if anyone actually paid attention to how he performed as a collegiate coach.
At Texas Tech, Kingsbury won 47 percent of his games. With Monday’s loss, the coach’s winning percentage in Arizona is…wait for it…48 percent (when rounded up).
Combined with some of the league’s worst drafting from general manager Steve Keim, owner Michael Bidwill should have reached the point where wiping the slate clean during the upcoming offseason is a serious possibility.
Currently, Arizona appears to be checked out and outclassed in most instances. A surprising victory last week with Colt McCoy leading the way doesn’t change the fact the Cardinals have been mostly bad this season. Besides, the Los Angeles Rams are one of the few teams who’ve been an even bigger disaster.
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The team’s four victories came against opponents with a combined record of 13-29. Aside from last season’s impressive 7-0 start, the Cardinals have been mediocre to poor. Granted, Kingsbury inherited the league’s worst squad, but sustainable improvement has not been seen over the last four years. The opposite occurred.
Regression began during an Oct. 28 Thursday Night Football meeting with the Green Bay Packers last year. From that point to today, the Cardinals own an 8-14 record.
A look at the roster shows how talented Arizona actually is. Four legitimate building blocks appear to be in place, starting with Murray. Wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Marquise Brown, as well as safety Budda Baker, form the team’s other pillars.
Questions and jokes about Murray and his commitment to playing quarterback at the NFL level are moot because the Cardinals signed the 25-year-old signal-caller to a five-year, $230.5 million contract extension this past offseason. Technically, that part of his current deal has yet to even begin. He’s the guy for the foreseeable future, and he should be.
Whether or not Murray is a film junkie shouldn’t blind anyone to the fact he’s a gifted natural athlete who’s carried the offense at points throughout his career.
Explosive arm talent coupled with awesome escapability and special open-field mobility make him difficult to handle for opposing defenses. The 2019 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is a different caliber of athlete than most playing the position, and it shows.
Is Murray perfect? Far from it.
But the franchise banked on his natural gifts in a league where players with similar skill sets are more prevalent than ever. The NFL is now a league where the most damage is often down outside of structure when a play is extended.
The fact Kingsbury hasn’t gotten the most out of his hand-chosen quarterback after making him the No. 1 overall pick three years ago, primarily because he supposedly fit the coach’s system to a tee, says more about the play-caller than it does his protected.
Injuries have played a role, of course. Murray missed three games last year with an ankle injury. But the bigger issue seemed to be the discontent that grew between the quarterback and team brain trust based on how the squad finished last season.
Maybe Murray is “self-centered” and “immature,” as ESPN’s chris mortensen relayed in February. The internal strife didn’t stop Bidwill from handing out the previously mentioned mega-deal.
In doing so, the choice became obvious. If the Cardinals are to make any changes, it’ll be to the staff, not who’s behind center. To properly build around Murray, Arizona must do a better job. Keim has done a woeful job of doing so.
Keim became the Cardinals’ general manager in 2013. Since that point, he drafted Jonathan Cooper, Deone Bucannon, DJ Humphries, Robert Nkemdiche, Haason Reddick, Josh Rosen, Murray, Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins in the first round. Yikes. This year’s top pick, tight end Trey McBride, has made little to no impact.
The general manager’s batting average might not be so bad if this were Major League Baseball. In the NFL, a team can’t whiff that many times during the opening frame and not see its lineup start to crumble.
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At the moment, Hopkins is the only real threat in the passing game. Since returning from a six-game suspension, the five-time Pro Bowl selection has snagged 45 receptions for 487 yards in five contests.
Further help should be forthcoming once Brown is fully designated to return from injured reserve after missing the last five games with a foot injury.
Those blocking for Murray and his skill position players are in disarray, too. Arizona has endured seven different starting offensive line combinations so far this year. The instability in the trenches was predictable based on the fact Keim allowed an aging group to enter this season without adding significant reinforcements.
Rodney Hudson, Justin Pugh and Kelvin Beachum Jr. are all 32 or older this season. Two of the three are on injured reserve, as is another starting guard, Will Hernandez.
A poorly constructed offensive setup stagnated any type of development the coaching staff expected.
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On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals didn’t have any answers for the 49ers. San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looked as good as he has all season when working through his progressions and even extending a few plays that turned into big gainers. Christian McCaffrey and his running mates also averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
JJ Watt may be a big name, but he’s no longer the player he once was. To be fair, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year set an impossible standard. Instead, Baker is the group’s tone-setter.
“Budda kind of demands that we all play at a certain level, probably more than some coaches do,” Collins told The Athletic’s Doug Haller.
Something needs to change in the coming weeks. Impassioned pleas from Baker and the likes will only go so far. The Cardinals aren’t going to be favored in many of their remaining games.
Next week’s meeting with the Los Angeles Chargers should be considered a tossup if Murray is ready to play. After the bye week, the Denver Broncos look like the only truly winnable game.
The Cards could sneak away with one against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Atlanta Falcons, but those two NFC South participants have far more on the line as they battle for a division championship. Six or fewer wins is a good threshold to know it’s time.
Kingsbury’s approach hasn’t worked. Someone else leading the front office could make a major difference. As the face of the franchise, it falls upon Murray to answer the call of duty.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.