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With or without quarterback Kyler Murray, the Arizona Cardinals are a flawed squad.
Monday’s 38-10 assault by the San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City showed one team on the rise and the other going the wrong way. Murray’s eventual return from a hamstring injury is not going to save the season after a disappointing 4-7 record.
Kliff Kingsbury’s entire tenure as Cardinals head coach can be described as disappointing. Well, maybe it isn’t – if someone really 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 Arizona coach’s winning percentage is… wait for it… 48 percent (rounded up).
Combined with some of the league’s worst drafts 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 seems to be checked out and outclassed in most cases. A surprise win last week with Colt McCoy leading the way doesn’t change the fact that the Cardinals have been mostly bad this season. Besides, the Los Angeles Rams are one of the few teams that have been an even bigger disaster.
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The team’s four wins 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. Admittedly, Kingsbury inherited the league’s worst side, but no lasting improvement has been seen over the past four years. The opposite happened.
Regression began on October 28 Thursday night football meeting with the Green Bay Packers last year. From then until today, the Cardinals have an 8-14 record.
A look at the roster shows just how talentless Arizona really is. There seem to be four legitimate building blocks, starting with Murray. Wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Marquise Brown, as well as safety Budda Baker, are the other mainstays of the team.
Questions and jokes about Murray and his commitment to playing quarterback at the NFL level are moot as the Cardinals signed the 25-year-old signal caller to a five-year, $230.5 million contract extension this past offseason. Technically, that portion of his current deal has yet to begin. He’s the man for the near future, and he should be.
Whether Murray is a movie junkie or not, shouldn’t blind anyone to the fact that he’s a gifted natural athlete who has carried the onslaught on points throughout his career.
Explosive arm talent combined with great escape abilities and special mobility in the open field make him difficult to handle for enemy defenses. The 2019 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is an athlete of a different caliber than most who play this position, and it shows.
Is Murray perfect? Far from it.
But the franchise leaned on its natural gifts in a league where players with similar skills are more common than ever. The NFL is now a league where most of the damage is often outside the structure when a game goes into overtime.
The fact that Kingsbury didn’t get the most out of his hand-picked quarterback after becoming the No. 1 overall pick three years ago, mainly because he supposedly fit perfectly into the coach’s system says more about the play-caller than it does his protege.
Injuries, of course, played a role. Murray missed three games last year with an ankle injury. But the bigger problem seemed to be the discontent that grew between the quarterback and team brain confidence based on how the team finished last season.
Maybe Murray is “self-centered” and “immature,” like ESPN’s Chris Mortensen passed in February. The internal strife didn’t stop Bidwill from dishing out the aforementioned mega deal.
This made the choice obvious. If the Cardinals want to change something, it’s up to the staff, not who’s behind the center. To build well around Murray, Arizona needs to do better. Keim has done a sad job of that.
Keim became the Cardinals’ general manager in 2013. He has since drafted Jonathan Cooper, Deone Bucannon, DJ Humphries, Robert Nkemdiche, Haason Reddick, Josh Rosen, Murray, Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins in the first round. Yuck. This year’s top pick, Trey McBride, has made little to no impression.
The general manager’s batting average might not be so bad if this were Major League Baseball. In the NFL, a team can’t sniff that much during the opening frame and not see the lineup start to crumble.
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Right now, Hopkins is the only real threat in the passing game. Since returning from a six-game suspension, the five-time Pro Bowl roster has scored 45 receptions for 487 yards in five games.
Further help should come once Brown is fully designated to return from injured reserve after missing the last five games with a foot injury.
Those blocking Murray and his skill position players are also confused. Arizona has endured seven different offensive line combinations so far this year. The instability in the trenches was predictable based on the fact that Keim allowed an aging group this season without adding significant reinforcements.
Rodney Hudson, Justin Pugh and Kelvin Beachum Jr. are all 32 years or older this season. Two of the three are on injured reserve, as is another starting guard, Will Hernandez.
A poorly constructed attack setup stagnated any kind of development the coaching staff expected.
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On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals had no answers for the 49ers. San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looked as good as he did all season as he worked through his progress, even extending a few plays that turned into big wins. Christian McCaffrey and his running mates also averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
JJ Watt may be a big name, but he’s not the player he once was. To be fair, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has set an impossible standard. Instead, Baker is the tone setter of the group.
“Budda sort of demands that we all play at some level, probably more than some coaches,” Collins told The Athletic’s Doug Haller.
Something has to change in the coming weeks. Passionate pleas from Baker and associates only go so far. The Cardinals will not 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 seem to be 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 a lot more on the line as they vie for a division championship. Six or less wins is a good threshold to know it’s time.
Kingsbury’s approach has not worked. Someone else leading the front office can make a big difference. As the face of the franchise, it’s up to Murray to answer the call of duty.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.