With that comes a glaring question. Are head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray the tandem to lead the long-suffering franchise to Super Bowl contention?
Through nine games in 2021, the answer was a strong lean yes. The Cardinals were on the fast track in Murray’s and Kingsbury’s third seasons amid an 8-1 start that had them poised to claim the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Playing in the NFL’s most competitive division, they’d already swept the San Francisco 49ers and blown the doors off the Los Angeles Rams on the road. They had the best record in the NFC, and the Murray-for-MVP talk was in full force.
Fast forward to Monday night, and that promise was reduced to smoldering ashes. That 8-1 record? A distant memory in the formidable shadow of a 1-5 finish that concluded with an emphatic thud.
Cardinals posted worst effort of the wild-card round
The same Rams team the Cardinals beat by 17 points in Week 4 put on a clinic from the opening snap in a 34-11 drubbing. The 23-point margin didn’t do justice to the chasm between the two teams.
The Cardinals opened the game with four consecutive three-and-outs. Their fifth possession ended when Murray threw an atrocious pick-6. Their next possession? Another Murray interception. That was followed by another three-and-out and then a possession that mercifully ended when the second quarter clock expired. Only after digging a 28-0 hole did the Cardinals manage to put meaningless points on the board.
By the time it was over, the NFL’s eighth-ranked offense had produced a meager 183 yards in what qualifies as the worst performance in a wild-card weekend ripe with unwatchable football. Even the Pittsburgh Steelers, led by a washed and almost certainly retiring Ben Roethlisberger, put up a better showing in a 257-yard outing against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kliff Kingsbury’s searching for answers
Meanwhile, Sean McVay’s Rams looked very much like the high-octane offensive units that made him the face of the NFL’s head-coaching youth movement that laid the blueprint for Kingsbury’s hiring. It was the kind of performance the Cardinals anticipated when they hired Kingsbury specifically to develop a strategy around Murray. Instead, the Cardinals were woefully unprepared, and Kingsbury was left to simply state the obvious after an ugly loss.
“You come out against a really good team and don’t do anything right for the first two quarters, that’s what’s gonna happen,” Kingsbury told reporters after the game.
When asked why he thinks the Cardinals performed like they did, he didn’t have and answer.
“I’m not sure,” Kingsbury continued. “That’s something we’ve got to figure out.”
Will Murray get an extension this offseason?
The noise around Murray isn’t as loud. But there are concerns. After an early-season turn as the betting favorite for MVP, Murray finished the season throwing as many interceptions (five) as he did touchdowns in Arizona’s last six games. After posting triple-digit quarterback ratings in six of Arizona’s first seven games, he produced just one in the final six.
His worst performance arrived when the stakes were highest, a 19-of-34 effort for 137 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in Monday’s loss to the Rams. His gamebreaking athleticism was nowhere to be found as he ran just twice for six yards.
Did a midseason injury that cost Murray three games play a role in his decline? It’s a stretch to place all the blame on a sprained ankle. The franchise has some decisions to make now that Murray’s eligible for an extension to his rookie contract.
Meanwhile, the window to capitalize on building around him while he’s still on that rookie deal is closing.
Kingsbury likely to start next season on the hot seat
Calls to pull the plug in Arizona — specifically on Kingsbury — are premature. The Cardinals are invested in a path that still offers significant upside, and they’ve improved by three wins each of the last two years. NFL head coaches that make the playoffs generally survive to coach another season.
But there’s a trend here. Monday’s effort against the Rams wasn’t exactly a surprise. Arizona entered the playoffs having lost four of five games, including a stunning 30-12 defeat to the Detroit Lions. Super Bowl contenders don’t lose to the Lions in Week 15.
The late-season collapse, meanwhile, marked a second straight in the desert. The promise of last season’s 5-2 start fizzled with a 2-5 finish and an 8-8 record that left the Cardinals out of the playoffs.
In short, there’s plenty of reason for Kingsbury to be on high alert — and for his seat to be hot. He may and very likely will survive the crashing disappointment of 2021. But he won’t survive another season if the trend continues.