INGLEWOOD, Calif. — First, the good news.
Kliff Kingsbury has taken 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 every one of his three seasons as head coach. He won five games in 2019, eight games in 2020 and 11 games in 2021. For a franchise that has been mired in mediocrity for more than 100 years in the NFL, this is no small feat.
Kingsbury, 42, should be applauded for what he has done in Arizona as the fourth coach in Cardinals history to improve his record three years in a row.
Annual improvement is a rarity in the NFL. For the Cardinals, hiring Kingsbury as a coach for the first time in the NFL quickly paid off: He got them to the playoffs this year for the first time since 2015, and only the sixth time since moving to Arizona in 1988.
Now the bad news.
In doing so, Kingsbury may have reached 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 host Super Bowl LVI. They lost in embarrassing fashion, 34-11 to the Los Angeles Rams. That game capped another late-season tailspin for Kingsbury in what is becoming an all-too-familiar scene for Cardinals fans. Arizona lost five of its last six games after starting 7-0. He finished 4-7.
This is not the first time a Kingsbury-led team has fallen in the second half of a season. In fact, it is the ninth time in a row. Just as Ray-Ban sunglasses and stylish haircuts have come to define Kingsbury, so have second-half slumps.
It has happened in every season he has been a head coach, beginning in 2013, his first season at Texas Tech. Last season, Arizona started 5-2 and finished 3-6, missing the playoffs in the process after losing two games of win and you’re in. In 2018, Arizona lost seven of its last nine to go 5-10-1.
The first seven games have been the demarcation 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 after that.
Great teams, championship-caliber teams, get better and stronger as the seasons continue. Kingsbury No. They go the other way. Arizona collapses under Kingsbury have looked similar. An injury to All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins exacerbated an offensive slump filled with costly penalties, missed kicks and mental errors.
Kingsbury attributed Monday’s loss to “crucial mistakes at the wrong time”, adding: “I’m not sure if we were pushing or we weren’t used to being in that position, whatever it is. We have to look at it this offseason to see how we improved down the stretch.”
Later, however, he said: “We have to keep analyzing it, keep trying to find new ways to improve later in the season, whatever it is. It’s definitely a priority this offseason.”
The Cardinals have most likely squandered quarterback Kyler Murray’s rookie contract now that he is eligible to sign an extension after completing his third season. With the number of quarterback contracts ballooning in recent years, the window to win for teams with young quarterbacks continues to shrink. They’re surrounded by a lot of talent — some expensive, some not — trying to squeeze out a championship, or at least a few playoff runs. None of that has happened in Arizona in the last three years and now Murray will most likely get paid soon.
There’s always the chance the Cardinals will decline to extend Murray after this year, take his fifth-year option this offseason, and then wait and see. There is both a risk and a reward in that. The risk is that Murray isn’t happy with that decision and the Cardinals could be creating a rift in their relationship with Murray. The payoff is that Arizona would buy another year or two to see how Murray can develop and grow before backing a Brinks truck.
A deep run this year likely would have clinched a contract in the neighborhood of Buffalo’s Josh Allen. Last summer, after his third year in the league, Allen received a six-year contract extension valued at $258 million, with $150 million guaranteed, which worked out to an average of $43 million per year.
A big deal for Murray will trickle down to the rest of the roster somehow, regardless of how creative the Cardinals are with salary-cap numbers. The time for Arizona to win on the cheap has probably passed.
This year, however, it was more than just losing games in the second half of the season. They were wasted opportunities. The Cardinals had or shared the best record in the NFC through Week 14, and held first place in the NFC West through Week 15. A week later, the Rams reclaimed the top spot and never looked back.
Kingsbury took the Cardinals to the brink only to see it slip away. In a way, that was a blessing in disguise. Arizona was 8-1 on the road but only 3-5 at home, a phenomenon neither Kingsbury nor the players could explain.
Yes, injuries, including serious ones to JJ Watt and Hopkins, plagued the Cardinals all season. Losing Hopkins changed the offense and not having Watt altered Arizona’s interior defense. But offensively, at least, Kingsbury didn’t seem to adjust. The Cardinals scored 225 points in their first seven games, an average of 32.1, compared to 224 in their last 10, an average of 22.4. Injuries will happen, and if a coach can only win with a full complement of players, his team likely won’t lift a Lombardi trophy.
A Monday night hearing saw the Cardinals end the season with, as Watt put it, a “massive flop.”
Murray didn’t think the Cardinals would put up much of a fight against the Rams.
«[We] prepare all week, all season to be where we are, and then the game was not competitive at all,” Murray said. able to play, and that’s really the most disappointing part.
“Losing is one thing, but when you don’t even make it competitive, it’s another thing. So disappointing.”