INGLEWOOD, Calif. – First, the good news.
Kliff Kingsbury took an Arizona Cardinals team that won just three games in 2018 — bad enough to have the worst record in football and result in then-coach Steve Wilks being fired — to year-over-year improvements in each of his three seasons as head coach. It won five games in 2019, eight games in 2020 and 11 games in 2021. For a franchise mired in mediocrity for more than 100 years in the NFL, that’s no small feat.
Kingsbury, 42, should be applauded for what he did in Arizona as the fourth coach in Cardinals history to better his record in three straight years.
Yearly improvement is a rarity in the NFL. For the Cardinals, hiring Kingsbury as a first-time NFL coach paid off quickly: It took them to the playoffs this year for the first time since 2015 — and only the sixth time since that. they moved to Arizona in 1988.
Now the bad news.
In doing so, Kingsbury may have hit his ceiling as an NFL head coach.
This season, the Cardinals had all the pieces to make a deep playoff run, potentially all the way to the Super Bowl. But those hopes were dashed Monday night at SoFi Stadium, the same building that will house Super Bowl LVI. They lost embarrassingly, 34-11 to the Los Angeles Rams. That game capped another season-ending slump for Kingsbury in what is becoming an all-too-familiar scene for Cardinals fans. Arizona has lost five of its last six games after starting 7-0. He finished 4-7.
It is not the first time that a team coached by Kingsbury has broken down in the second half of the season. This is actually the ninth time in a row. As much as Ray-Ban sunglasses and stylish haircuts define Kingsbury, so do the second half slumps.
It’s happened every season he’s been a head coach, starting in 2013, his first season at Texas Tech. Arizona started 5-2 and finished 3-6 last season, missing the playoffs in the process after losing two game-winning games and you’re in. In 2018, Arizona lost seven of its last nine to finish 5-10-1.
The first seven games were the dividing line for Kingsbury. In three seasons with Arizona, he is 15-5-1 in Games 1-7 but 9-19 the rest of the season. At Texas Tech, he was 27-15 in Games 1-7 and 8-25 thereafter.
Great teams, championship caliber teams, get better and stronger as the seasons go by. This is not the case with Kingsbury. They go the other way. The Arizona collapses under Kingsbury were similar. An injury to All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins exacerbated an offensive downfall filled with costly penalties, missed shots and mental errors.
Kingsbury attributed Monday’s loss to “crucial errors at the wrong time”, adding: “I don’t know if we were pressured or if we weren’t used to being in this position, whatever it was. We have to l look at this offseason to understand how we’re improving over time.”
Later, however, he said: “We just have to keep looking at it, keep trying to find new ways to improve later in the season, whatever that may be. It’s definitely a priority this offseason. .”
The Cardinals most likely squandered quarterback Kyler Murray’s rookie contract now that he’s eligible to sign an extension after finishing his third season. With the number of inflated quarterback contracts in recent years, the window of victory for teams with young quarterbacks keeps shrinking. They surround them with lots of talent – some expensive, some not – and try to win a championship, or at least a few playoffs. None of that has happened in Arizona in the past three years and now Murray will most likely get his payday soon.
There’s always the possibility that the Cardinals decline to extend Murray past this year, pick his fifth-year option this offseason, and then wait and see. There is both a risk and a reward to this. The risk is that Murray will not be happy with this decision and that the Cards create a rift in their relationship with Murray. The reward is that Arizona would buy themselves an extra year or two to see how Murray can develop and grow before backing up a Brinks truck.
A deep run this year would have likely landed a contract in Josh Allen’s Buffalo neighborhood. Last summer – after his third year in the league – Allen received a six-year extension worth $258 million, with $150 million guaranteed, which works out to an average of $43 million a year. .
A big deal for Murray will somehow trickle down to the rest of the roster, no matter how creative the Cardinals get with the cap numbers. The time for Arizona to win cheaply is probably over.
This year, however, was more than losing games in the second half of the season. It was wasted opportunities. The Cardinals had or shared the NFC’s best record through Week 14, and they held No. 1 in NFC West through Week 15. A week later, the Rams won first place and won have never looked back.
Kingsbury brought the Cardinals to the brink to watch him slip away. In some ways it was a blessing in disguise. Arizona was 8-1 away but only 3-5 at home, a phenomenon neither Kingsbury nor the players could explain.
Yes, injuries — including major injuries to JJ Watt and Hopkins — have dogged the Cardinals all season. Losing Hopkins changed the offense and not having Watt changed Arizona’s home defense. But offensively, at least, Kingsbury didn’t seem to adapt. The Cardinals have scored 225 points in their first seven games, averaging 32.1, compared to 224 in their last 10 games, averaging 22.4. Injuries will happen, and if a coach can only win with a full roster of players, his team is unlikely to win a Lombardi Trophy.
A Monday night hearing saw the Cardinals’ season end in, as Watt put it, a “massive failure.”
Murray didn’t think the Cardinals fought much against the Rams.
“[We] preparing ourselves all week, all season to be where we are, and then the game was not competitive at all,” Murray said.
“Losing is one thing, but when you don’t even make it competitive, that’s another. So disappointing.”