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NFL Draft

Cardinals Don’t Have An Identity And That’s OK… For Now

  • The Draft Network
  • October 20, 2020
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The Arizona Cardinals looked as unassumed as the rest of us watching the lackluster first half of the second game in Monday Night Football’s doubleheader. It wasn’t just the Dak Prescott-less Dallas Cowboys that were eye-gougingly bad, but the Cardinals, who at the beginning of the season emerged as the NFC West’s dark horse, looked horrible.

Quarterback Kyler Murray was 5-of-14 passing in the first quarter and Arizona didn’t score until the second quarter. Somehow, the Cardinals led the Cowboys 21-3 at halftime en route to a resounding 38-10 victory. While we were reminded, ad nauseam, of Murray’s ties to Texas and his undefeated record that still stands at AT&T Stadium, we were also reminded of something else. 

Usually, when thinking of successful franchises, we’ll point to an identity or a system that has helped a team reach its height; think of the pass-happy pairing of head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes. When the Kansas City Chiefs ran up, down, around, and through the Buffalo Bills hours before the Cardinals and Cowboys took the field, we were given a look at a balanced, and extremely dangerous, Kansas City offensive attack. The team’s 245 rushing yards were the most by the Reid-led Chiefs, which made the thought of them establishing the run to pair with Mahomes’ masterful arm both terrifying and exciting. Reid adapted. He pushed down on the gas and didn’t let up, and Kansas City won 26-17. Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury did the very same thing, but what’s slightly more impressive is that Kingsbury is doing it with a far lesser team than Kansas City’s. 

Arizona is littered with talent from Murray to future Hall of Fame wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and DeAndre Hopkins to young, game-changing defensive backs, including Budda Baker and Byron Murphy Jr. The Cardinals aren’t lacking in the talent department. What they are lacking is an identity and what we were reminded of Monday was that, sometimes, that’s okay.

Kingsbury’s hire in 2019 was in large part due to the influx of young coaches taking the league by storm. Each organization wanted its version of Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay, and the Cardinals brought Texas Tech’s former head coach into the fold with no NFL experience. Kingsbury was unqualified and took over a three-win team after he was fired from Texas Tech following a 5-7 season in 2018. Whatever magic Arizona expected from Kingsbury would take time; after all, this was a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback that was tasked with making the Cardinals relevant in a division that already had an electric dual-threat quarterback and a young, hot head coach. In Kingsbury and Murray’s first NFL seasons, Arizona finished as expected: 5-10-1 and at the bottom of the NFC West—again. Murray, still impressing, won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and expectations were managed. Those expectations changed dramatically when the Cardinals secured Hopkins in a highway robbery, and with back-to-back wins to open the team’s 2020 campaign, things were looking up. 

The Cardinals were rising to the top of the most competitive division in the league while Kingsbury, Murray, and Hopkins were perfecting the Air Raid attack. Their immediate success, however, didn’t last long and a string of losses followed by an unsurprising victory over the New York Jets left little to be desired from a team that was supposed to take the NFL by storm. It led us here, well, there, in Arlington, Texas, for a game that was supposed to feature two young, great quarterbacks (prior to Prescott’s injury). Instead, it turned into a lopsided mess that made the Cardinals look better than they actually might be. Murray finished 9-of-24 passing for 188 yards and two touchdowns. He had 74 rushing yards and one rushing score to add to Arizona’s 261 rushing yards and three total rushing touchdowns, which were padded by a late 69-yard rushing score by Kenyan Drake in garbage time.

In a game that started off lifeless, Murray brought energy back into the offense with his legs and a lot of help from a defense that had been reeling from an injury to defensive end Chandler Jones. Arizona took advantage of strong defensive play and turned three turnovers into three touchdowns. The defense couldn’t have looked better against Andy Dalton and the, now, 2-4 Cowboys. But what do we make of the offense, which finished with more rushing yards than passing for the first time since Week 16 of the 2019 season? Would it make an about-face, similar to early in the 2019 season, and rely more on its rushing attack moving forward? 

While the Cardinals continue to search for their identity, one descriptor should be “versatile.” With a quarterback of Murray’s caliber, elite skill players, and a young defense emerging, things are bound to change. What plagued Arizona in the past is not changing quickly enough. In the team’s Week 4 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Kingsbury desperately tried to get the Air Raid going with little success. Early in Monday’s game, it was obvious Murray wasn’t going to be hitting targets to execute a pass-heavy scheme. Kingsbury adapted.

If we’re beginning to understand anything about Arizona’s offense it’s 1) there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done and 2) it can efficiently toe the line of a balanced offensive attack. It’s unlikely the Cardinals will be a run-first team through the remainder of the season, but what makes them exciting to watch and such a crapshoot is their versatility. 

Arizona’s real test will begin in Week 7 against the undefeated Seattle Seahawks. The Cowboys defense is among the league’s worst, but no team has given up as many yards as the Seahawks (who have allowed an average of 471.2 per game). While Seattle will test Arizona’s defense, its offense won’t see a middling-to-good defensive unit until Week 9 (versus the Miami Dolphins) and Week 12 (vs. the New England Patriots). We’ve seen the Cardinals win against unimpressive defenses. It’s how well the offense can match up with Russell Wilson-, Josh Allen- (when he’s on), and Cam Newton-led teams that will be the most telling.

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